Speculative Fiction Books

Beware of the behemoth: Review of Tanuj Solanki’s ‘The Machine is Learning’

Ever since AlphaGo, a computer programme, defeated a human at a game of pure intuition, the excitement around artificial intelligence (AI) has grown, only to be offset by a corresponding sense of foreboding — the more relevant voices have worried that AI is still rather on the dumb side and that it might be dangerous if it were to rule our lives, that it can’t differentiate between a shopping cart and a mobile bassinet unless told specifically. So, when you pick up a book titled The Machine Is Learning by an author who writes cautionary tales about society and its ails, you hope it might elucidate the intrinsic pitfalls of burgeoning AI. Good and bad news: Tanuj Solanki’s novel cautions us against AI by making a villain of it.

Remorseless engine

But not in the way you’d think — it doesn’t envisage killer robots who do the bidding of a megalomaniac. Rather, the villain is a faceless institution — we get a glimpse into AI’s technical dynamics in the context of a life insurance firm that acquires and uses big data to nourish the corporate that we all unquestioningly serve. It’s an Orwellian behemoth, indomitable because it has “countless options”, and against whom you can fight for only as long as you are deluding yourself.

The book also fuses the logistical and developmental issues around AI with a bunch of highly engaging questions on moral philosophy and private ethics. In the end, this is both satisfying and disappointing, because while it roils with

Beware of the behemoth: Review of Tanuj Solanki’s ‘The Machine is Learning’

internal struggle, it also boils the whole thing down to a simple whose-side-are-you-on type proposition where sentimentality wins the argument by training its guns on the usual suspect, the remorseless engine of Capitalism, with AI as its main henchman.

Tanuj Solanki fleshes out a character from the veritable world he built with Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, that compendium of interconnected short stories about kids from a claustrophobic town. In Diwali, Saransh Malik was a throwaway fake name blurted out in the face of physical danger. In TMIL, Saransh Malik is brought to life, serving as a crucible for the interplay between ambition and accountability. As the book progresses, we watch his character ripen through interaction with the two polarities that mould his outlook and spur his actions.

Noir-ish bleakness

Each character in this novel is an organic manifestation of a worldview and constantly at risk of being reduced to a caricature as such. But in Solanki’s skilled hands, they retain their internal consistency while performing their archetypical roles. It is a treat to read existential questions masquerading as informal banter between two people who met on Tinder.

Solanki’s impressive novel works so well because ultimately it is about people. The smarter machines get, the more they are bound to eat into domains held or handled by humans. The supposed efficiencies that technology breeds can obviate human labour — companies, prime movers of the economy, grow by streamlining themselves and eliminating redundant costs, and human labour seems the obvious deadweight. And that’s the big dilemmatic issue the book anchors itself on.

The story has a noir-ish bleakness built up by the narrator’s unvarnished stream of consciousness, which can be as sharp and cynical as it can be bluntly matter of fact. The book’s real effort lies in ferrying the protagonist, a dedicated cog in the machine, from a situation where his intelligence is being employed in the service of the machine to one where his self-reflexivity allows him to become conscious of the effect of his individual actions and break the chain. His actions threaten to disrupt his career, and jeopardise the very machine he has been helping build. But at least he is free, once again, to think.

The Machine is Learning; Tanuj Solanki, Macmillan, ₹499

mihir.b@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:32:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/beware-of-the-behemoth-review-of-tanuj-solankis-the-machine-is-learning/article32684786.ece

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