Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sri Lanka : we need to talk


Mention Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sri Lanka and the retort is that the country needs it. Because natural intelligence dried up long ago. Then we are back to cricket. There are variations of the “lack of intelligence” insult. All desecrating the achievements and intelligence of countless ignored heroes.

Yet AI is neither a joke nor science fiction. Like gunpowder and the internet, it’s global use will impact Sri Lanka. Whether Sri Lankans use it or not is irrelevant.

A short example: the export garment industry’s vulnerability to AI automation. This post about robotics cloths manufacture is an indicator of what is to come.

It goes beyond destroying Sri Lanka’s low wage manufacturing advantage. Consider the wider social, political and historical consequences of that specific change. All it takes is for a robot warehouse in a major customer region to bang out underwear at a cost lower than far away Sri Lanka.

So it helps to have intelligent discussion about AI’s impact on a third world Kleptocracy like Sri Lanka. Here’s a condensed view of what I have read/heard over the last year.

Discussions about Artificial Intelligence (AI) come in two types.

  • Us (Humans) vs Them (AI)
  • AI/Human merger

Both have writings with ominous titles. They dance around a familiar range of conclusions: omens of humanity’s dire fate.

The Humans vs AI types come off as practical. Their eyes are on the fog’s edge of the near future. Concerned with stuff like job losses due to automation and policies to deal with it. Universal income of some sort is their mantra. There’s an aversion to speculate what’s in the fog of the future. The consensus is that best we humans can hope for is being pet Labradors to benevolent AI deities.

The AI/Human merger crowd claim that humans will evolve into something else. Thus it’s not a matter of us vs them. But a vision of “we are them”. The initial transition sees humans becoming managers of AI. Yet the flow is towards closer brain/AI integration.

The obvious hurdle is one of hardware platform. We humans are wet hardware – drippy atom based organisms. AIs are electrons swirling inside (silicon for now) processors of machines. Plugging these two together is a challenge. What the result of such a “merge” will be is hard to say. An evolutionary step in some direction is possible. These days it is visualised in recycled Cyberpunk images. The usual human heads sprouting wires, USB ports or mechanical looking implants. Somewhere in the mix is Elon Musk.

Both “schools of thought” take the superiority of AI over humans as axiomatic. They assume the inevitable end of humans as the planet’s dominant species. The only points of difference are what deals we can reach with AI. At least while we still have a chance to make deals with the awakening gods.

Yet there is NO point of reference in Sri Lankan culture for a public discussion of AI. What is discussed occurs in language of start ups, meet ups, associations,
hackathons, social media, and “EYE TEE” events.

Informed discussion needs to start in busses. On trishaws. In factories. At the latrine trenches. Even among the paddy fields off the main roads where no iPhone has even gone. It’s an idea that sounds too far fetch for science fiction. Or even fantasy.

AI is too abstract in the grind of daily survival. The un air conditioned masses of a Kleptocracy that can’t sort out its rubbish collection have other priorities. Still, ask your trishaw dude how he feels about AI. Start somewhere.

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