Discover more from Vasant Dhar's Brave New World
I Just Turned 50: What Have I Learned?
India’s Internet Strategy: Digital Public Infrastructure
My Latest Podcast: Protocols and Interoperability
Brave New World just turned 50! It is hard to believe that I just posted the 50th episode, which featured Pramod Varma, chief architect of Aadhar, the largest biometric identity platform in the world with over 1.3 billion users. Yes, billion, not million.
Pramod thinks about systems at scale , as does his boss, Nandan Nilekani, who was the visionary behind Aadhar, and an early guest on the podcast.
What becomes very clear in talking to Pramod is that while we accept the Internet as is, it could have been and can be different. Indeed, different parts of the world have made unique choices in this respect. America is largely a free for all where almost anything goes, whereas China’s Internet is highly centralized and state controlled.
India chose a middle ground, starting with the creation of a real-time verifiable identity in a country where over 600 million people were unbanked and without a formal identity. A major consideration in creating identity was to foster inclusion and curb the waste, corruption, and lack of accountability in the disbursement of government funds and subsidies to individuals. India created Aadhar to do one simple thing: verify whether you are who you claim to be. Aadhar is now used tens of billions of times a day.
The success of Aadhar has had some serendipitous side effects. It gave Indian lawmakers and regulators the confidence that such systems could actually work at scale. More generally, it was a successful example of a public-private partnership to create “digital public infrastructure.” In principle, it was not unlike such partnerships in the US during the 19th century to create its physical infrastructure, like the railroad and postal systems, which I discussed with James Robinson, co-author with Daren Acemoglu, of two very interesting books called Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor.
The team that pioneered Aadhar has gone on to create infrastructure in a number of areas including payments, healthcare, and transportation. The goal is for applications in these areas to be “interoperable.” By interoperable think about your phone – it doesn’t matter what kind of phone you have, it operates across networks seamlessly around the world. Why can’t this be the case for all the important areas of our lives? If you want to travel from New York to Key West, for example, why can’t a single system operate across providers of flights, railways, buses, and ferries? That’s India’s vision of the Internet – a network where applications interoperate in commonly used services in our lives. That’s the way the Internet should work, isn’t it? Is India getting something right, after all?
So, check out my conversation with Pramod. It gets dense in parts, but stay with it!
I Just Turned 50
It’s hard to believe that I’ve done 50 podcasts of Brave New World. Where did the time go? But more importantly, what have I learned from my conversations with scholars, university and business leaders, politicians, and activists?
For starters, I have new respect for news anchors who are able to create an insightful conversation with their guests based on 60 seconds of preparation during commercial breaks! They pore over notes, oblivious to the world around them, and spring into action when they hear “live!” What makes them so good? And can we all become that good? I think we can.
Fundamentally, it requires developing one’s listening skills, but even more importantly, the ability to listen, think, and plan simultaneously, in order to ask the right questions in real-time. I prepare a lot for my conversations and always have a plan. But as Mike Tyson famously said, the plan goes out of the window when you get punched in the face. That’s what it’s like to be an interlocutor. You’re talking to people who know more about the subject than you do, and you have no idea where they might go. It is so much harder than teaching, presenting, or being a guest, which are not easy either.
It’s a skill worth developing regardless of how old you are. Imagine having an on-demand human coach that develops your ability to listen to an opponent or an expert, and ask the right kinds of follow-up questions or rebuttals.
In my last newsletter, I mused about AI that can coach us with our facial expressions. I would wager that in the not too distant future, AI machines will be able to help us become better listeners or debaters as well. In fact, they’re showing early signs of such a capability already. I’ve had several conversations with chatbots such as GPT3, some of which have bordered on debates. In one such exchange, I pointed to an inconsistency in its reasoning, but instead of rolling over, it disarmed me by invoking one my favorite Bog Lebowski lines, “The Dude Abides,” and for good measure, “well, nobody is perfect.”
AI coach or no AI coach, it’s good to be able to listen, think, and plan in real-time. I’m working on it.
My 50 conversations – across education, health, AI, neuroscience, digital platforms, social media, crypto, economics – have made me more mindful about what might lie ahead of us. Do technological advances pose risks to freedom, equality, dignity, and value of the human individual? The answer seems to be yes, so it’s important for us to be cognizant about how we will address the risks.
The life sciences – our natural world, and Artificial Intelligence – our synthetic digital world, are coming together in ways that would have been considered science fiction until recently. Genomics suggests that despite our biology, we are digital machines with a four-digit instead of binary alphabet that, coupled with AI, gives us the capacity to “design life” like never before. This will pose serious risks for society along with some moral and ethical dilemmas.
My exchanges remind me of a 1958 conversation between Aldous Huxley and the Mike Wallace at the height of the cold war, on the threats to freedom and democracy in a world wired with “new devices and forms of communication.”
Wallace: “politics is not in itself evil, television is not in itself evil, atomic energy is not, and yet you fear that it will be used in an evil way. Why is it that the right people will not use them, but the wrong people will use these various devices, and for the wrong motives?”
Huxley: These are all instruments for obtaining power, and the passion for power is one of the most moving passions that exist in man. Democracies are based on the proposition that power is very dangerous and it is important to not let any one man or small group have too much power for too long. After all, what are the British and American constitutions, except devices for limiting power. All these new devices are extremely efficient instruments for the imposition of power by a very small group, of a larger message.
The “devices” now – social media, genomics, AI – are very different from those Huxley discusses, such as advertising and mass communication, but the risks around individual freedom and democracy are as relevant if not more so than they were 60+ years ago. We need to know them and think about them together, which is what my podcast aims to do.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, Huxley cautions, in order to not caught by surprise by our advancing technology. It’s a warning that seems especially prescient at the moment.