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Out of the Ordinary

Back to Issue | December 2020

AI, Indian Art and the World

Do India’s ancient art and craft traditions naturally prepare it for a world where Artificial Intelligence is at the centre of affairs?

Today, Artificial Intelligence (AI) dominates the market to the extent where it influences the socio-cultural fabric of the world. This has led to a shift in the way we form and affiliate ourselves with social groups. There has recently been a lot of discussion about what aspects of human life AI can take over, and whether machines can do everything that humans can. Arguably, creativity is among the few characteristics of human beings that cannot be fully replicated by machines. In such a world then, what role can India with its ancient art and craft traditions play? Vivian Balakrishnan (Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore), American Philosopher John Searle, economist John Maynard Keynes, psychologist Abraham Maslow and poet and screenwriter Prasoon Joshi, all of whose opinions have been examined here, are some people who can inform the conversation around art and its importance in a highly mechanised world. 

Prasoon Joshi was once asked about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) could shape the future of advertising. He argued that as far as collating and accessing data was concerned, AI would naturally beat human beings. Artificial Intelligence can access data across the globe, and this capability is only likely to get better in the future. However, what it cannot do, is process and create emotional data. Take for instance, the experience of attending a cremation. One can feel the heat of the pyre and smell the burning flesh. That experience, and consequently, the emotions that result from it might lead to someone creating a work of art. AI then, is likely to be able to access that work of art, but it will never be able to access the sights and smells of the crematorium, much less create emotional data out of it. 

This emotional data can be processed by a human being in an infinite number of ways, and that can potentially lead to several works of art, all resulting from the emotions created by that one experience. Out of the many potential works of art, Artificial Intelligence can only access the one that ultimately sees the light of day. AI can access, sort and collate, but it cannot create. This is what Prasoon Joshi calls a human being’s ability to process “sensorial first-hand experience” as opposed to AI’s data driven, linear experience. This reservoir of emotional data that we carry as “our truth” is what fuels the creative impulse. One must then, naturally ask, “In this world where technology is progressing rapidly, is art among the few future-proof occupations we have?” Vivian Balakrishnan (the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore) feels that technology, healthcare and art are the three most future proof careers we have. 

Artificial Intelligence is the fulcrum of not just scientific, but also socio-cultural development today, especially now with the pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe. AI is expected to play a vital role in managing the pandemic, provided we can achieve greater global collaboration on the issue. It can help in epidemic modelling, triaging, making accurate prognoses and the like. In fact, India has taken a huge step in this direction with a cloud-based platform developed by Wide-Angle-Insights, the brainchild of eminent clinical researcher in new drugs and vaccines – Dr. Vasudeo Ginde. It handles processes like electronic patient consent, randomisation, monitoring, safety management and the like. This has the potential to considerably reduce the time it will take to carry out vaccine trials. Once AI takes centre stage in managing healthcare, we will be hurtling faster than ever, towards a world where most of the physical and mental labour will be conducted by machines. 

One must ask then; will art remain the only frontier for human beings in the future? Some will say that even that will be taken over by machines, but unlike human beings, machines can only compute, they cannot develop a consciousness. There is a thought experiment conducted by John Searle, an American philosopher, called the Chinese Room Argument, which Searle summarises thus, “Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output).” A computer can thus appear to understand Chinese, without having any real understanding of the language. What this means is that it can answer simple questions, but is unlikely to be able to conceptualise complex ideas in Chinese. This is the fundamental difference between the human brain and a computer chip. AI can generate and process data, while the human brain receives, perceives, processes and expresses ideas. After all, ideas are the foundation of spontaneous thought. 

What could this possibly mean for the years to come, for the world and for us? India has some of the oldest art and craft traditions in the world. Not only that, we have diverse traditions, each with its unique history and flavour. The most obvious implication of this is that the sheer quantity of artistic ideas generated within the subcontinent is vast. In addition to that, these ideas are informed by history that spans several millennia. This means that not only are we constantly generating art, but we also have an enormous body of artistic activity to look back to. 

It also naturally means that the variety of artistic ideas produced is humongous. The most important thing, however, is the fact that India has had a tradition of artistic engagement and creative discourse. India’s rich intangible cultural heritage has always played an important role ensuring that no country has cultural hegemony, and that global cultural diversity is maintained. In an AI driven world where art and creativity are the only attributes where humans cannot be overtaken by machines, India, with its tradition of artistic activity is already at the frontier. 

Another interesting argument that needs to be examined in this regard is made by the economist John Maynard Keynes. He argues that by 2030, the market economy will satisfy all of humanity’s material desires, creating an intellectual paradise, allowing people to focus on beauty and self-actualisation. This is evocative of The Hierarchy of Needs proposed by Abraham Maslow, with physiological needs like food, water and shelter, at the bottom and the need for self-actualisation and transcendence at the top. It is natural then, to draw a correlation between the place art holds within Indic philosophy and the need for self-actualisation and transcendence that Maslow mentions in his theory, which Keynes believes will occupy mankind in the future. My experience of having grown up in the world of Indian classical art has taught me that within Indic philosophy art is meant to be a collective experience that allows the artist and their audience to attain self-actualisation and transcendence. 

Naturally then, one wonders whether India’s socio-cultural fabric has always been prepared for the future that scientific progress is likely to precipitate. With its ancient art forms and craft traditions, India can be an example of a society that allows AI to progress and reduce human labour while also empowering people to pursue the need for self-actualisation and transcendence by fostering creative engagement. It is simply a matter of rediscovering our roots.

Prachi Hota

Prachi Hota is a young Odissi dancer, filmmaker, and writer, with a special interest in writing and making films about socio-cultural issues. She has twenty years of experience in dance and has previously received training in filmmaking from the London Film Academy and Prague Film School. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Filmmaking at the London Film School. Instagram: @tantu_vaaya

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