Posted: Mon, October 29, 2012 | By: Special Guest
by Miriam Ji Sun
After I recently moved to India, I was asked to write another blog-article for IEET, this time about the question of India’s role in accelerating change and the technological “Singularity.”
India is definitely the most diverse country I have ever visited, in its numerous ethnic groups, languages, cultural influences, and religious traditions that have shaped the world’s oldest continuous civilization. With around 1.5 billion people, India has the second largest population in the world and is the largest democracy in the world. India also has many geopolitical uncertainties and societal challenges, and it is certainly difficult to manage. It’s a nation of superlatives, contrasts, and Western prejudices that quickly define the country as either “mystical” or “underdeveloped.” I cannot tell readers what it is like in the countryside, but in the urban middle class, in a big city like Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai) it is not very different from cities like Tokyo or even Europe. Of course one sees poor people and beggars, but one also finds them in the Netherlands and Brussels – and there you might not expect them at all. Back to contrasts: several things are either still virtually non-existent in places of India or are among the world’s best, like hospitals, medical centers or the Kolkata Metro.
While Europe is falling, Asia is rising – and India is among the rising nations, alongside with China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. It is predicted that in regard to GDP in PPP, India will have reached the world’s third position in 2020 overtaking Japan, Germany, the UK and France, and being only surpassed by China and the USA. According to a study by PwC, India, China and Brazil are expected to overtake the West by 2050 with India being at rank 2 in regard to GDP with China still expected to be in first place.
Nonetheless, right now I am a bit afraid that I would miss the ‘Singularity’ here in India if it happened soon. But this may be due just to the fact that I have not yet built up networks on a local basis. Truth is, even many European academics do not know anything about ideas and concepts frequently discussed within h+/S^ communities, not to mention the average German bus-driver and vegetable vendor, or the Mumbai rickshaw and tea wallahs for that matter. I believe the situation will be different when I get in contact with India’s top-class physicians, researchers, innovators, IT specialists and visionaries. I might find that they are even more open to high-tech and futurist ideas than their European counterparts, who are being kept in check by the omnipresent precautionary principle.
Having recently attended a lecture by Aubrey de Grey about SENS and life extension technologies at the TechFest in Mumbai , I was positively surprised about the generally good perception and technical questions being raised by the mainly student audience and the absence of ethical criticism I was so used to from Europe.
Since India has an overly young population with 50% of its population around the age of 25 and 65% below the age of 35, topics like aging and radical increases in life expectancy may be viewed quite differently here. However, at 66.8 years, the average life expectancy here is comparatively low, with income and the standard of living very much impacting everyone’s health and longevity.
This puts issues like healthy life extension into another dimension in India, where topics concerning retirement age and pensions are still only for the growing middle and upper classes. On the other hand, work and income are here much more tied to ones health, which means that a long and healthy life may be much more associated with income and wealth than with depleting retirement funds, as it is the case in Europe and the US.
As the economic statistics and projections show, India is definitely emerging. However, what I appreciate most, are the Indian DIY-skills. Many things here may look a bit makeshift and improvised at first glance, but they work – and that’s all that counts. I think that Europeans, especially, seem to have lost the spirit of just trying things out. “You have an idea? Just figure out if it works!” may be an Indian thought, while in precautionary-principle-governed Europe (especially Germany), everything needs to be designed in a fool- and error-proof manner, according to rules and regulations, and “immunized” against all eventualities before it is even build – leading to the result that no-one dares to design it in the first place. I fear that Europeans may loose their capability of thinking for and taking care of themselves due to being accustomed to an overly protected, regulated and safeguarded environment.
In Mumbai road traffic, for example - which is quite ‘chaotic’ or rather, ‘self-organizing’ - I, as a German national (who lived in Western European countries and Japan before), was expecting to witness far more accidents. However, all people tend to watch out for themselves (pedestrians do not want to get hit by a car and car drivers do not want to hit pedestrians – that would really mean bad karma) and the accident rate is, therefore, far lower than intuitively expected. (This reminds me of Sweden when they switched from left-hand drive to right-hand drive traffic in 1967; accident rates at first dropped measurably until they returned to a normal high after some months, which was likely due to the fact that people simply were more cautious because of the change. There have also been reports of people in Europe and the USA driving into a lake by blindly following the commands of their GPS devices. But not in India, which teaches a separate message: technology is good, but you should not become so dependent on it that you lose your own ability to think and create. This of course makes the idea of a “nanny-super-AI” even more uncomfortable.
Back to technological acceleration and the “Singularity” in India. If no considerable changes happen in societal development, a considerable proportion of Indian people are very likely to miss the rapid and accelerating socio-technological changes that may happen elsewhere in the world. This is especially true for rural areas, which account for 72% of the total population in India, as well as for overly religious and superstitious households. But the same may also apply for some areas in Europe and the US.
Nonetheless, transhumanist ideas like human enhancement or life extension seem to be better reconcilable with Hinduism and Buddhism (which both originated in India) than with Christianity as it is contemporarily interpreted by many in the West. And if transhumanists feel inclined towards some form of religion or spirituality it is mostly towards practices originating from the sub-continent, like yoga, meditation or the Jain-idea of Ahimsa (non-harm or non-violence), which seems to be close to Abolitionism. A future cyborg, trans/posthuman or AGI would possibly just be integrated into the pantheon of innumerable Hindu gods and goddesses, among Shiva the renewer and destroyer – even of death according to some interpretations of the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra devoted to Shiva – the elephant-headed Ganesha, the 8-armed Durga, Buddha (regarded as the 9th avatar of Vishnu by some Hindus) and even a motorbike being worshipped as a deity in a temple.
India could be an important player in making accelerating change and the “singularity” (singularities) happen. I think one major contributing factor could be the DIY and “try it out” attitude that I have already mentioned before. While Europe will be discussing safety regulations and precautionary principles, India may start developing innovations and producing technologies crucial to accelerating change at affordable prices, especially in biotech, pharmaceuticals, computer technology and prosthetics.
Indian-made technologies and innovations might develop and progress in an evolutionary way (trial, error, experiments, changes, integration, improvements), whereas Chinese technologies possibly tend to be more pre-designed, planned, organized and static - which reflects this country’s socio-political structure - and Europeans may become too afraid to experiment in the first place. India could bring emerging technologies to the mass market and let them evolve in a unique way. India could also be one of the places often depicted in “cyberpunk” fiction with makeshift and black-market cybernetic implants, prosthetics, human enhancement technologies, robots, DIY-AIs, life extension medication, synthetic biotech components and self-created HET-4-armed deities with a real Third Eye – maybe transhumanists could start sporting their own form of tilakas (anyone interested in exploring this in a SciFi novel?)
By 2025 India may overtake China in population. India is a country with a huge share of young people and rising life expectancy in relation to improvements in living standards. Education is also considered to be increasingly important in India since a good education is related to better income and a better quality of life and an increasing number of high-quality education facilities are being set up throughout India . Those who do have the opportunity to receive a good education In India tend to be really well educated, and many of the educated Indians I have met so far, know more about global politics, Europe and the US than European and US people know about Asia. As a reaction to the fierce economic, scientific and political competition with China, the Indian science minister announced plans to double the country’s R&D investments by 2017. India’s investments in science, research and development are regarded as crucial elements of the country’s rapid economic and societal development. Plus, with Indian Space Vision 2025, India is all set to conquer space.
Imagine what a ripple of progress and higher education (possibly HET) as well as high R&D investments could do to this country? But we need not forget that current pressing issues like water shortage, pollution and the considerable gap between rich and poor and educated and non-educated, as well as security threats, are challenging India. Security concerns are high in Mumbai, where people have to pass a metal detector and body-check when even entering a shopping mall – people here are more concerned about what you may bring into the mall than about what you may take out. I also wonder how concepts like physical immortality may fit in with the Hindu belief in re-incarnation and the prospect of a better next life, as well as the Hindu tradition of cremation in contrast to cryonics. In regard to logistics and administration, India presently looks like a bad choice for cryonicists.
India could play an important role in developing and building technologies crucial to accelerating change – ranging from space technologies to biotech, medical engineering and life-extension pharmaceuticals. But if the general conditions do not change quickly, only a small fraction of the Indian society will be able to benefit from these developments – and many of them will not even know that they are happening. However, this does not apply to only India, but to many places in the world, incl. the “West”.
India might be a good relocation choice for anyone who wishes to escape European precaution; for anyone who appreciates hands-on experience, experimentation, fast development, and working together with a highly-educated local population, which can be more enthusiastic about change and real emerging technologies. Maybe the first post-human will be revered as a multi-armed and multi-eyed, colour-changing, super-strong and immortal Hindu god(dess) - maybe it will be Kalkin, who will usher in a new age.