Discover more from Vasant Dhar's Brave New World
Is AI Making Us Stupid?
How Phone Addiction is Destroying the Fine Arts
My Recent Podcast
My most recent guest on Brave New World was Amit Varma, who is the producer of my Brave New World podcast. Amit is a veteran podcaster, who hosts “The Seen and the Unseen,” which is a leading podcast in India, with 334 episodes to date. Amit is also a writer, teacher, and former professional poker player. We talked about “The Creator Economy,” a term Amit uses to describe a world where people express themselves unfettered from traditional gatekeepers, channels, and formats.
Amit is certainly unfettered. His podcasts get deep and personal, and typically run for five to eight hours! Clearly, he has learned how to tap into peoples’ attention in an era of attention deficit. We forget that in this world of Tiktok, games, and social media, people also crave depth and originality.
And what a brave new world it is. I was introduced to Amit in late 2020 when I was planning to launch Brave New World. I knew right away that I wanted him to produce the show. I’ve been speaking in public for my entire career, but podcasting is a whole new art, and I couldn’t have found a better guide to set me on my own journey. What is truly remarkable about the new world is how deep friendships can develop virtually. I’ve been seeing Amit’s friendly face every week, sometimes sleep-deprived after a long show. So, when we finally met face to face in Bombay a few weeks ago, I felt like I was meeting an old friend. It’s the first such experience for me, but it made me wonder how many deep friendships have blossomed in the brave new post-COVID world, where distance has become a lot less relevant than it used to be.
So, tune into my conversation with Amit, a virtual friend who has become a real pal.
Is Tech Addiction Destroying the Fine Arts?
June is family month for me. I returned last week from my annual family pilgrimage to Kashmir, and I’m writing this from Sweden where I’m spending midsummer with family, complete with dancing around a decorated maypole. What a wonderful contrast to the pundit chanting Sanskrit verses in Kashmir a few weeks ago. It’s great to be here on midsummer, which is a national holiday and the temperature soars to 20 degrees Celsius. Summer is the favorite week in Sweden. Lol.
Coming back to Kashmir, it produces some amazing fine arts that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Whenever I’m there, I meet up with some of my favorite master craftsmen to see their latest handwork. Kashmir has produced the most intricately embroidered shawls, and exquisite paper mâché and walnut objects. Years ago, I bought a shawl that took an artisan several years of full-time effort. It’s too precious to wear, so it now hangs in a frame. This kind of work requires long hours of focus. A master craftsman friend of mine describes it as “being one with God, where time and the outside world cease to exist.”
But the art is dying, and it is visible. I can’t find the quality that existed a few years ago.
What I learned this time is how the iPhone has destroyed the fine arts in Kashmir. While one might argue that the economics don’t encourage the arts, the real culprit is tech addiction, which reminds me of my conversations with Adam Alter and Anna Lembke on how technology fosters dopamine addiction. In the words of one master craftsman, “if you’re going to check your phone for social media posts or TikTok every 30 minutes, you have no chance of getting into the headspace required for learning the art.” So, while Amit Varma might hold your attention for eight hours when you travel, exercise, or just listen, Kashmiri artists are suffering from a severe case of attention deficit disorder. This is sad for the fine arts.
Is AI Making Us Stupid?
When I got back home from my travels, my swimming pool had turned an ugly green. So, I shocked it with a large dose of chemicals, let it settle for a couple of days, and took a sample of water to the local pool specialist shop for analysis.
They put the water into a machine. The pH was high, indicating excess alkalinity. The machine also spat out an analysis with a two part recommendation. It first suggested increasing alkalinity, and then reducing it using another chemical. That seemed odd to me. Why not just lower the pH with an acid, instead of first increasing it?
The human operator gave me all kinds of explanations, none of which made any sense, like “its been raining a lot lately,” or “your alkalinity is obviously too low.”
It turned out that the machine’s recommendation was actually right, but no one in the shop could explain why. It required some knowledge of chemistry, and in particular, “reaction kinetics.”
The incident highlighted a larger problem, one that has been central to my research, about the role of machines and humans in the world of AI. The data suggest that humans who don’t up their thinking skills are at risk of making occasional catastrophic decisions or being eliminated outright. Imagine a physician a few years hence, where the AI’s decision making is complex or nuanced. Will the physician’s diagnostic skills atrophy because of the AI, and what value will be lost? Arguably, the pool shop didn’t really need the humans. Will doctors, teachers, and other professionals go the same way? Frankly, I’m already feeling the heat from GPT, which has changed the way I teach, requiring me to bring more heft and color to the discussion that goes beyond the readings. I need to up my game or let GPT do the heavy lifting.
Optimists about the future of work point to how previous technologies created new jobs even as they eliminated old ones. There’s some truth to that. And one might well argue that the increased productivity that AI creates will enable us to do orders of magnitude more work than we can today. Imagine a hundred GPT clones of yourself that summarize volumes of documents or websites in the blink of an eye. Or GPT the artist, that can help create previously unimaginable quality art work quickly. Will such productivity enhancements make us smarter or think less? And if AI does the heavy lifting for everyone, has it made us all smarter? Or do we ultimately end up becoming tools of the machine whose inner workings we don’t understand?
It reminds me of this joke about the cockpit of the future, which will have a man and a dog. The dog’s job is to bite the man if he tries to do anything.