Z is for Zeroth Law

The Zeroth Law of Robotics, as defined by Asimov, states:
‘A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.’

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Our society is, with increasing pace, headed towards the AI Singularity and the creation of robots that match the dreams of the classic Sci-Fi writers.

Whether it’s drones unmanned aerial vehicles or football-playing humanoids or canine-shaped military attack bots, robots are set to become a ubiqitous part of our lives in the next few decades.  So far, the impact is negligible on the vast portion of humankind, but the rapid pace of eager development and the growing inter-connectedness of technology means that very soon, we will all begin to use them in some capacity.  And eventually, depend on them.

I’ve been re-reading classic robot Sci-Fi – particularly Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein – and I cannot but marvel at how prophetic their vision of such changes in society were.

And I can only hope that, in the end, our world(s) will be more in line with those futures rather than ones where we’re Terminated.

….and then I question why I hope our robot rulers are kind to us, when we haven’t been so with ourselves.  After all, their thoughts and actions are likely to be based and guided by the study of human history, and human history is merely one long series of messy, brutal conflicts.  I wonder if the robots will simply look around, think for a bit, and then continue what seems to have been humankind’s mission (wiping each other out) in a more efficient manner.

…. those underground bunkers are going to have to be really heavily re-inforced.


(The Outsider’s Guide to Dillistan) Yowling and yelling

After a delayed start, Summer has engulfed Dillistan.  The 40C barrier was broken yesterday, and it will continue to rise until it most likely peaks at around 47C.

Of course, once this happens, the whole place goes totally woo-woo.

…well, it’s always totally woo-woo, it just gets a bit more so.

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Contrary to expectations, the summer air in Dillistan is full of a raucous cacophony.

The day is full of Dillistanis insisting on stepping out without protection despite the heat, which means they promptly end up getting their brains scrambled (even more).  And when a Dillistani’s brain gets scrambled (even more), they resort to their basic state-of-being – showing everybody else how badass they are.  Of course, unless they’re really truly badass, nobody really gets into a physical fight (because even a crazy Dillistani worries about whether the other person might actually pull out a knife) but instead make do with verbal violence.

Which is why all day long, every hour or so, you can expect to be witness to duels of the abey-teri-maa-ki and aa-na-abey-tu-idha-aa-na varieties.

Do not intervene under any condition – the ghelsappas will consider you yet another opponent and drag you into the ruckus as well.  Particularly if you are trying to placate them or are asking them to tone it down.  Because tu kaun hota hain beech main bolne wala.

Eventually, however, the sun sets and the air cools down marginally and the Dillistanis head home.

Which is when the stray dogs, which have been lounging peacefully in the shade all day long, wake up.  And since they mimic what humans do, and since the heat has been insidiously stewing their brains as they slept, they launch into a barking-howling-snarling symphony that lasts till the sun comes up.

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After a few days of this incessant yelling-by-day and yowling-by-night, accompanied by the heat, a high percentage of newcomers to Dillistan have to be rescued from their locked bedrooms, where they sit catatonically, slowly tearing things into strips.

The rest of them join in the fights, as they have been converted into a Dillistani.

Either way, you cannot escape.  You have been warned.

(The Outsider’s Guide to Dillistan) Xenophobia

Like every nation, Dillistan does not like foreigners.

Some sociologists and historians will try and convince you that this is because centuries of invasions have instilled an instinctive wariness and mistrust amongst the native populace.  Plausible.  But bollocks.

The real reason Dillistanis are so xenophobic is because they have to live in Dillistan, and thus resent anybody who doesn’t.

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A Dillistani has a keenly-tuned radar for detecting foreigners.

The timidity with which somebody requests a service provider to, y’know, provide the service instead of talking on his phone for 44 minutes; the naive way in which commuters expect autowallahs to start the meter; and of course, the use of the word ‘Boss’ instead of ‘bhaayyya’ – all of these instantly help the Dillistani identify the outsiders.  And it is then incumbent upon a true Dillistani to torment these border-crossers and make their stay truly unforgettable.

A Dillistani will buttonhole outsiders with insistent demands about their exact sub-sub-sub-category of religion, caste, and clan.  You can try and tell them that eight generations of your family have lived in one of the major metros, but they will not rest till you trace your roots back to some village.  At which point they will sneer at you for having such dehati roots, unlike their own.

Dillistanis will deliberately confuse you by using different names for food items.  Thus pumpkins will become ‘sitaphal’, even though all over India that’s the name for custard apples.  Dillistanis have a highly sophisticated and complex scoring system to see how quickly they can make a person frustrated, and they’re all in on the action.  The betting scene is bigger than a World Cup final,but of course you won’t even know it exists.

Dillistanis will also mock anybody who can afford to but doesn’t buy a bike or car because they’re concerned about sustainability and public transport.  The same applies to people who prefer not to have domestic help all day long but instead call them in for just a couple of hours every alternate day, or worse, wash their own dishes.  As for actually transporting and setting up your own furniture … well, you’d better have a will made up.

And of course, the ultimate way Dillistanis get their own back at foreigners is by ensuring that every eatery offers only potatoes and paneer in the non-meat section.

Work-life balance

I used to have a job that involved me doing something I was passionate about.  My boss knew this, and used it to manipulate me into working longer and longer hours.  Calls at night, meetings on Sundays, discussions at picnics.  It never ended.

And then, I was fortunate enough to move to a country where most professions (apart from the high-pressure ones such as investment banking and PR and journalists) packed their bags and headed off after nine or ten hours of work.  6pm and offices used to be empty.  Lunch breaks actually saw people head out to parks to sit and read.  And weekends really did mean two whole days.

It was … illuminating.  And liberating.  The range of options that opened up, the flexibility available for running errands and doing chores, the amount of leisure time possible … after a year of that, I vowed to fight my damndest to never again end up in a job which took that away from me.

Coming back to India has been even more illuminating.  It was bad enough when the country was simply a developing nation, with too many people fighting for too few good jobs.  Now, with the economy booming and growth in so many new sectors (recent hiccups to the contrary), there’s even more pressure for people to deliver more – to retain the good jobs they find, to make full use of first-mover advantage, to capitalise on the massive growth potential.

And so Friend A works till a 12-hour shift and commutes for 3 hours.  This is why Friend B is replying to emails on Blackberry at 1am during a birthday party.  This is why Friend C meets clients who are willing to travel to his residence at 5.45am.  And this is why Friend D has forgotten how to have an uninterrupted physical conversation without checking their tablet or PC or answering a call.

And everybody has health issues.  Blood pressures and sugar counts and cholesterol levels are high.  Spines are being distorted and are breaking down in complaint.  Physical activity is at a minimum, and stamina and fitness is non-existent.  Books lie unread.  Films remain unwatched.  New music is unheard of.  Friends increasingly become Whatsapp buddies.  Picnics and hikes and vacations are non-existent or rushed through.

And it’s not as if the monetary compensation is always worth it, either.

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It’s hard to say no to bosses.  There’s the fear of being labelled as difficult, or not a team player, or being upstaged by some brown-nosing colleague.

It’s hard to say no to more revenue growth for your business.  There’s the fear that some rival may swoop in for the contract, that employees will take advantage of your good-natured leniency, that things will not get done just right if you are not overseeing it.

And so everybody is pushing themselves harder and harder for longer and longer – and most crucially, accepting that this is a decades-long scenario.

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More people need to learn to push back more.

To say, there’s never going to be no work and what I’ve done is more than enough.  To say, would you rather I sit around till after dinner and secretly chat on Facebook or do all my work and leave at a humane hour.  To say, I have a life and it’s not filled with work and stop giving me that disappointed look because we’re not changing the world we’re bloody writing slogans to help sell more soaps.  To say, what’s the point of earning all this if I’m going to spending it all later on to deal with all the health issues I’m accumulating now.  To say, I want to stop being so tired all the time.  To say, I would like to enjoy myself out of office so that I actually start looking forward to enjoying myself in office.  To say, don’t tell me baking a cake and sitting down to eat it while reading a new book is not as important as the team off-site, because tomorrow there may be a tsunami or an earthquake or my car’s engine may short-circuit and then what would my life have been so just fuck off ok.  To say, there’s a reason it’s called a work-life balance.

And then to do those things.

Because work will always be there.  But friends and family won’t.

Virtually friends

It used to require real effort to stay in touch with friends before the Internet.  Phone calls required you to talk (or at least, respond); meeting up requiredyou to be present; letters and postcards required finding a paper and a pen and a flat surface and scribbling.

And there was a limit to those interactions. You could only talk so long till your voice gave way or your phone bills took off into outer space, you could only (properly) interact with so many people when meeting them, you could only write so much before your fingers cramped and begged for mercy.

And those limits in turn limited the number of people you could interact with on a regular, and meaningful, basis.

But now, now it’s so easy to keep in touch.  Click a couple of buttons and update everybody on your life and follow somebody’s life.  Discuss new hairstyles, coo over babies, oooh over skiing video, keep tabs on each other’s movements and opinions, never miss out on the major life-events.  It’s all so easy, so quick.  And you think you’re in touch, you’re involved, you’re connected.

But as I send out yet another quick congratulation, I realise that for the most part, this is what most of my interactions have come down to – quick bursts of short messages that seek the path of least effort.  I realise that I’ve become so used to receiving nearly all the information about my friends via status updates that I haven’t spoken to them or written to them at length in aeons.  I realise that just because I ‘see’ them regularly on some social network, I’ve forgotten the fact that it’s been years since we actually met in person – even while living in the same city.  And worse, have not made the effort to do so, simply because it’s so much easier just to IM them.

Which is why I keep finding myself startled to learn that they’re getting married, that they’ve moved to another country, that they’ve stopped eating mangoes.   And it’s only when I learn of such events from mutual friends that I am again reminded that not everybody lives their lives out publicly.

And I realise it’s time to depend less on announcements and begin to communicate more often.

Underground bunkers

Look at the world around you.  No, not the people, the world.

The temperature is rising, the ice is melting, the rains are getting more unpredictable, the air is getting more clogged, the storms are getting more fierce.

Ok fine, look at the people too.  More disputes are being escalated into conflicts over rivers and dams, over girls being allowed to be educated, over imaginary borders, and over that ol’ faithful – religion.

And on top of it all, the AI Singularity is fast approaching, thanks to people increasingly – and voluntarily – feeding the computers and robots with more data about us, so that they can get more intelligent.  I hope there’s a Susan Calvin out there.

What with all this, tell me that personal secure, food-stocked, water-supplied, renewable-energy-fuelled, waste-recycling, low-tech-dependent bunkers aren’t going to become ever more popular.  Heck, maybe even the cities will start going underground.

I should start a business.

Once I figure out how to grow food in such an environment, that is.  After all, there’s only so much one can do with mushrooms.

And once I figure out a proper barter system, of course.  Because really, paper money is only going to be useful for fires and … ahem … physical cleansing.

And once I accumulate enough easily-storable, diverse entertainment.  Because boredom kills.

(The Outsider’s Guide to Dillistan) Traffic

Before emigrating to Dillistan, you may have read many paeans to the Metro – how it has radically improved the life of commuters in the city, how more people should use it more to help de-congest the roads, how it is a greener and cleaner option.

Ignore all that.  A true Dillistani only uses a personal vehicle, the selection of which should follow one simple rule –

Meri gaadi badi toh main sahi.

The bigger your vehicle, the more you can weave through lanes without indicating, the more you can honk-force others out of your way, the more you can ignore red lights.  And of course, the lesser chance of somebody dinging your vehicle, because who knows how influential you must be if you can afford that big beast.

A Dillistani’s choice of vehicles, in declining order of tu-kya-ukhaad-lega-ness, are:

  • A government car.  Security guard + beacon + escort vehicle. Seriously, who’s going to mess with you?
  • A truck.  Preferably filled with sand or bricks.  This will make people think you’re part of the builder mafia, and since there’s nobody more powerful than them, you’ll get a wide berth.  Oh, and because they have kick-ass horns.
  • A bus.  Pack it with your friends and hangers-on and pretend you’re on public duty, but really just go where you want.  Nobody will raise a protest, because that’s how the regular ones function anyway. .
  • A tractor.  Everybody will think you’re a farmer.  And since all the ‘farmland’ belongs to the super-elite, or those from Gurgaon, nobody will dare even look in your direction.
  • An imported luxury saloon.  Because anybody’s who rich enough to pay those kind of prices and that level of import duty is obviously rich enough to have a few cops, judges, and politicians on their speed dial.
  • An imported 4×4.  As above.  Plus the big wheels obviously mean you’re bad-ass. .
  • An imported convertible.  As above.  Plus, it means you can race down and threaten anybody else.
  • A local 4×4.  Still with the huge wheels.
  • A local luxury sedan.  You may not be able to make life for somebody completely miserable, but you can still inflict enough grief.
  • A mini-van.  You’re full of schoolchildren, who are desperate for any excuse to call you names and chant slogans and generally embarass the heck out of you.
  • A family car.  Extra space means you know enough people who you can call up to come along with hockey sticks.
  • A powerbike/cruiser.  Because you can put on a bandana and pretend to be a Hell’s Angel.
  • A compact car.  Keep some water and lots of cloth handy, because you’re going to get perennially shat upon.
  • An auto-rickshaw.  Everybody hates you, and will use you for target practice.
  • A standard bike.  Everybody will hate how you zip in and out of the gridlock, and will use you for target practice.
  • A cycle.  Hahahahahahahahahahaha…. sorry sorry … ahahahahahahahaha.

If you’re walking, of course, you don’t count at all – because you must be poor or mad.