Today, we feature a review of Futures of Artificial Intelligence: Perspectives from India and the US, published by Oxford Univ Press in India with a US edition forthcoming, written by AI & Faith Founding Expert and research fellow Robert Geraci and reviewed by Padma Kuppa and Suril Patel.
Padma Kuppa is the State Representative for Michigan’s 41st House District serving her second term, and a former automotive and IT professional for over two decades. A mother, an engineer from NIT Warangal, a civic and interfaith leader for years, she has written for Patheos.com (under the byline Seeking Shanti) and currently has a monthly Oped at American Kahani. She is the first Hindu and first Asian American immigrant in the Michigan legislature, and served on the board of the Hindu American Foundation. Kuppa is a cofounder of the Troy-area Interfaith Group, and is the protagonist in the Harvard University Pluralism Project case study “Trouble in Troy.”
Suril Patel is a founding Executive Board Member of the Hindu Community Relations Council of MI, engaging specifically in areas of interfaith dialogue, political outreach, and advocacy on matters of social justice and DEI. Patel is a double graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, in Computer Science and Computer Engineering, prior to pursuing advanced studies at Stanford University alongside beginning his career in the Tech industry. Though educated entirely in America, Patel is trilingual: English, Gujarati, and Hindi, as well as a student of Spoken Sanskrit. Patel enjoys a connection to the broader Indian culture by performance of classical music (tabla in the Hindustani tradition), folk dance and community volunteerism.
“This book examines how two religious cultures perceive the end of the world as threatened or promised by the complex scientific networks of artificial intelligence (AI).”
In his foreword, Geraci waxes eloquent about all the support he received in writing his book, but I was hard-pressed to find practicing Hindus he consulted, based on the names he provided. As an outsider to academia, I have found that many American academic institutions are at best neutral if not demeaning and hostile towards Hindus and Hindu practices. They may place them on a lower scale than Abrahamic traditions, and see them – these people and their philosophies – through a Western lens. But I plowed on. The topic Geraci covered had much to interest me as an Indian-trained engineer educated in India with professional and interfaith experience rooted in America, and currently as a policy maker in Michigan’s state legislature. My love of science fiction and dedication to developing intercultural understanding made me glad I did.
Each section or chapter has its own introduction and conclusion, but the book’s introduction is titled “A Beginning to the End.” It starts with the sentence: “For at least 2000 years, religious practitioners have been announcing the imminent end of the world.” Climate change and technological advances make it appear that we are possibly at the end of the human race. Prof. Geraci examines if this is, instead, the beginning of a wondrous New World. He considers this through the perspectives of two nations – the US and India – and through five fascinating chapters. These sections, each with their own introduction and conclusion, range from “Waiting for the End of the World,” which wades through history and India’s struggle for independence all the way to (Re)Designing the Future.
In each section, the author examines how we might use cultural resources to create a better future, while uncovering some of the cultural realities to understand how people use AI technology. He also asserts that AI, with its potential for good, might also pose risks, and argues that we must pay attention to the value systems intertwined with our religious perspectives.
While some may believe that science and technology are distinct from culture, this book serves as a poignant reminder that we need and in some cases have, an ethical framework for the development of AI – and that sometimes the frameworks are rooted in radically different cultures with divergent expectations. For example, transhumanism movements advocate for human evolution and transcendence over biological limits through the use of science and technology, but individual perspectives determine how scientists, policy makers and the public utilize technological progress.
Chapter 2, The Iron Horsemen and the end of times, (subtitled ‘a futurist blend of religion, technology and cosmic transformation’), discusses the dreams of the resurrection, perfection and immortality. These terms are difficult, awkward and oppressive for a Hindu, as this language and framework are reminiscent of Christian colonizers and missionaries to India. But the author’s humility – such as awareness of his limits due to his limited language skills in India – and his hat tip to science fiction and pop science, continued to draw me in. Engaging with his scholarship allows me, as a reader, to gain insight on a topic that tantalizes and transforms my understanding of AI, especially what is happening in India at the social and political level.
Immersed as I am with social and political struggles in my Great Lakes state (Michigan), it was eye-opening to read about what has been happening since I designed a robot arm for my senior design project back in 1984 at NITWarangal. I learned about NITI Aayog, ‘National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence,’ ‘AIforAll,’ and ‘Technology Vision 2035.’ I came away with the belief that India is poised to make a global contribution to AI. I also came away with the hope that we can build AI that is both cosmopolitan and global, forging an approach that adopts ideas from both the US and India.
Why can’t we merge ancient tradition with contemporary science and technology to create political freedom? The book examines questions of social control, public and private use of AI, Apocalyptic A, the impact of practical policy making, and the connections between religion and science based on historical and cultural context. The vision presented in the final chapter is that we can use AI globally to advance the human condition globally, through collaboration. This Star Trek/Star Wars fan anticipates that fiction might soon become reality, but this will require intentionality.
Transitioning from the goal of sublimation of one’s ego to a future of sublimating one’s self, perhaps preoccupies some Hindu minds, or that of some Hindu futurists, as we approach the trajectory of AI. Prof. Robert Geraci’s book begins by conjuring a plethora of concepts to ponder. As a computer scientist myself, I not only studied AI with fascination, but I now find myself trying to deliver on its increasing demand. Having read and conducted discussions on Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, I have debated on societal constructs and trajectories as we step to the future. Future Shock served as a topic series, in my Hindu studies, specifically as part of a youth group. While technology public policy is something I tangentially opine on in American professional life, certainly I never anticipated a scholarly book to cross the seemingly siloed chasms of Vedic thinking, transhumanism, religious apocalypticism, Indian government policy, Western governments’ policy, AI technologies and societies, and fields in between.
As Prof. Geraci proceeds onward from his introduction that prefaces thoughts and statements from a diverse array of global minds, both current and historical, a myriad of perspectives is unveiled. The challenge to the reader is perhaps tracking the arguments as they often land orthogonal to the previous, which is to be expected in any comparative work of such diverse and occasionally divergent philosophy tenants. Indeed, among Hindu scripture (though not all those who identify as Hindu observe this belief), is a concept of Dasha Avatar. Dasha Avatar suggests a 10th reincarnation of Vishnu (again not all translate it as such, and we’ll ignore symbolism and nuances here), named Kalki. Kalki in some interpretive texts is said to the work of re-uplifting dharma, and in some is expected to reset the Yuga cycle (as Prof. Geraci describes). As an important disclaimer, I must re-iterate behind the word Hindu itself, is perhaps an infinite number of philosophical conclusions on even simple matters (leave alone AI), as is the nature of its design, a construct that is often missed entirely in some Western scholarship and of limited further by associated linguistics and semantics. The idea that ‘Kalki is AI’, as Prof. Geraci observed in his Q&A session which touched on North India sadhus, and echoed by a café owner in South India, showcases the importance of the discussion that is perhaps the thesis of Geraci’s book.
A very large portion of the technology industry is Hindu. ‘Duty’ is a key pillar of the foundational framework of Hinduism or the Hindu way of life. I view it as my duty to deliver at work, and it is a vow to earn money earnestly and honestly. But passing on dharmic values and Vedic thought, is also (in my view) my duty, as a father. Is there going to be an increasing conflict as industry marches forward for Hindus like me? Or are Hindus adapting, in a modernistic fashion as in the example above? Geraci presents a few perspectives on this. The transhuman goal of uploading the mind and an immortal consciousness does sound like a conflict with the cycle of rebirth and aspiration of moksha, as some of Geraci’s academic contributors claim. Yet a desire for duty, global leadership, adaptation, modernity, or simply fan fascination of sci-fi movies, might quickly trounce past that potential conflict for the millions of techies (and institutional leaders) that routinely observe practices under the Hindu umbrella. Remarkably, Geraci even notes popular Indian cinema sci-fi films, such as Enthiran, to which I can only applaud his efforts for a comprehensive, wide-reaching approach, considerate of pop culture influences, as well as current AI initiatives happening at top Indian universities.
My personal guess is that of the latter prevailing. Atharva Veda, one of our scriptures dating back thousands of years, details medical practices, including surgery. The idea of dissection of a dead human body to learn anatomy, was once regarded as “necromancy” in the west, even into the 2nd millennia. Arguably, cutting into a living human, could be seen as Hinsa, or a form of violence. Nonetheless, Hindu rishis (scholars, philosophers, thought leaders, sages) embraced it. Geraci notes a few examples where Hindus have strived to develop methodologies to extend life, in ancient times. The aspiration for an immortal nectar, or seeking immortality, forms the basis of several prominent ancient stories within our religious texts.
With that I don’t personally anticipate a looming theological conflict in this area. In addition, Hinduism in general is not that of ironclad theological mandates, and I am also very skeptical of a future where mind uploads happen or are even desired. Where I do see some potential conflicts are the cultural side. As Geraci shares information on policy platforms in Japan, my mind is drawn to my own upbringing and the idea of discipline. Technology has made much in the world both easier and more accessible. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many Hindu temples did stream services over the Internet. However, the prominent assertion is that there is going in person, the atmosphere, the piety, the scents, the immersive experience, etc. Focus, concentration, and further transcendental meditation, all promote a steadfast discipline that would resist replacement or even certain types of augmentation, by technology. We could see a situation where AI is created by Hindus, but the same Hindus, not adopting it themselves, and opting for the traditional practice.
The lens of governments is certainly an entire beast. A ‘ministry of culture’ could step in, as Geraci notes, or further we could see regulations born from implications to the workforce, health & safety, environmental concerns, etc. Ultimately, there needs to be an inclusive conversation, it cannot be done in a colonial manner, or where perhaps the West dictates a manifesto to the rest of the world. Similarly, the conversation cannot be purely academic or economically motivated, and it must grant leaders of all faiths and value systems, a seat at the table — a key takeaway of Geraci’s book, he systematically justified. While some may suggest practitioners of faiths need not consume what they find offensive, the transformative and irreversible changes of AI impose ethical obligations, and Geraci engagingly nests further discussions worthy of larger public awareness. It is important to recognize that the notion of “progress” and what constitutes it, is itself hotly contested in the global community. Accordingly, we can only anticipate advances of AI to be green-lighted or red-lighted, in endless hues, as we traverse the pillars of societies in India alone, and even more so across humanity.
Note about the author: Robert M Geraci is a professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in New York City. His research is supported by the US National Science Foundation, the AAR and others. He is a Fulbright-Nehru award recipient, and Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion, as well as an AI & Faith Founding Expert and research fellow.