Are Man and Machine locked in eternal conflict? And are all the conspiracy theories that pervade sci-fi books and numerous Hollywood movies mere validation of an inescapable truth: that humans need to worry about being overwhelmed by machines that could suck privacy and joy out of their lives?


SwissCognitiveTwo hugely contrasting worldviews about the digital revolution, inspired by an interconnected world of machines, algorithms and cloud-based technologies, were posited at the start of the 17th edition of Infocom 2018, an ABP initiative, at ITC Sonar on Thursday.

Steven van Belleghem, author and digital evangelist-entrepreneur from Belgium, kicked off the proceedings with a rah-rah presentation to buttress the theme for the event — When Digital Becomes Human — and soon had a roomful of participants all gung-ho about the digital revolution that will soon overtake their lives by letting machines do the boring, repetitive chores while they can simply concentrate on being what they are good at: just being human.

Belleghem’s presentation began with a video of a vacuum-cleaning robot disciplining his children at home. After breakfast, as Steven switches on the robot, it makes a “tutu” sound. When his children look askance, he tells them they have precisely 30 seconds to clear up. And that sends them scrambling to pick up their toys.

“The robot has more authority over our children than us,” says Belleghem candidly. Steven’s household has two humans and a robot raising two children, an ideal example of the combined strength of digital and human.

But that is just the sort of happy domestic scene that Bengal’s IT and finance minister Amit Mitra has very deep misgivings about.

Just when anyone with even a smidgen of digital technology knowledge has started to become ecstatic about the mind-boggling opportunities that artificial intelligence (AI) can throw up, Mitra decided to play challenger — and he cloaked his argument with the academic-speak of an economist.

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“To me as a student of economics and econometrics, I see pattern recognition. Our mind is not able to cognate such a large volume of patterns. So, one of the interesting things about AI is pattern recognition. From pattern recognition you go to the next step… big data patterns. But where I have a problem is modelling based on data; I am sorry, I don’t agree with it. You can’t ingest data and produce a model,” the minister said.

Mitra believes that the zealots who are plugging the virtues of AI are going about it the wrong way round.

“We in the world of economics first create a theoretical framework, which then leads to a hypothesis. We don’t prove a hypothesis, we try to falsify (it). Now, we are hearing that by churning data, you can produce a model. I would like to challenge that. It’s the reverse of what the positivistic process is about. Can you produce a model out of patterns? You can draw conclusions from patterns, begin to see certain patterns, but hypothesis-building is a different game altogether,” said Mitra who earned his doctorate in economics from Duke University in the US.[…]

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