India is Leaping into the Future

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot

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India is Leaping into the Future
I have never been in such a remote place. It is a river valley deep in the foothills of the Himalayas. After a hair-raising, the longest 20 minutes ever ride out of Mandi, we arrived at a place that looks like the lair of a James Bond villain. White, sleek, super modern buildings. Where am I? There is so much to write about, so much going on here. India is leaping into the future. While they still have a huge, crumbling past anchoring them to their history, their ambition is evident in the young people.
Dear Neighbors, I was asked to teach a media literacy class at IIT Mandi in India. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are a group of autonomous, prestigious engineering and technology-oriented institutes of higher education established and declared as Institutes of National Importance by the Parliament of India. The IITs were created to train scientists and engineers with the aim of developing a skilled workforce to support the economic and social development of India after independence in 1947. So, George and I are here, deep in a very remote Himalayan foothill river valley. Hold onto your hats, my friends. This is not your grandmother’s India. After a hair-raising journey on a road that makes Tuna Canyon look like a boulevard, we looked down at our destination and gasped. This place looks like one of the sleek, futuristic lairs of a James Bond villain. It is beautiful. IIT Mandi is a science and technology-oriented college working on the cusps of bio- and every other kind of engineering. Lots of post-doctoral work being done here. We eat with engineers, architects, and scientists working on the cutting edge of science and technology. We are surrounded by brilliance. This trip is so eye-opening. India is exploding into the future. Since George was here 21 years ago, there are new roads and sanitation, fewer beggars, and a tremendous feeling of confidence and energy as India moves into a world leadership position. There are 1.4 billion people here. According to Wikipedia, “Unlike many western nations and China, India is brimming with young people. In the words of Indian Scholar Rejaul Karim Laskar, ‘when greying population will be seen inhibiting economic growth of major countries, India will be brimming with youthful energy.’ Regionally, South Asia is supposed to maintain the youngest demographic profile after Africa and the Middle East, with the window extending up to the 2070s.” Believe me, it’s true. What I really respond to the most here is the optimism of the youth. The young people I am meeting are proud and confident of their futures. They don’t want the world telling them what to do. They want to be Indians! And women are really moving up fast. I have come across powerful women film producers, university and regional education administrators, army majors, politicians, engineers and more. Yes, there is still terrible poverty here, but it’s 1.4 billion people we are talking about bringing onto the world stage, and it will take time. My goodness, so much has improved already! India is very crumbly. There is rubble everywhere. I have seen many brick-making kilns in the countryside, smokestacks in wheat fields. Straw is used to help create the bricks. The bricks are not hard because the fires aren’t hot enough for that. I think that is why things crumble so much. Slowly, the rubble will be replaced When you see something like IIT Mandi, you are in awe of what is coming. We came through Chandigargh, a city impeccably planned by the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier. It is picturesquely located at the foothills of the Himalayas and known as one of the world’s best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture. It’s beautiful and very modern. The G20 summit was just held there. By a beautiful lake there were posts with all the countries that attended displayed. I could feel how discounted the United States was. That is very palpable here, though many young Indians still dream of coming to the USA to live and work. There is, however, a beginning trickle of young professionals moving back, lured by the promise of such a bright future here in their motherland. Prime Minister Modi set out a threefold vision for India: 1) Transform the life of citizens through digital governance, 2) Expand the digital economy, 3) Make India a producer of technology, rather than a consumer. All around Delhi and Jaipur, the big tech companies—Google, Microsoft, Samsung—display their banners on new, sleek office buildings. FutureSkills Prime, India’s Technology Skilling Hub, is a joint initiative by Nasscom & MeitY and the Government of India to enable digital skilling at scale. It aims to make India the Digital Talent Nation by democratizing learning. With Nasscom Certifications endorsing their technology skills, learners can open doorways to digital career opportunities. This heavily government-supported program is being offered to all socio-economic levels. As a result, the middle class is growing like crazy. A lot of people are still in poverty, but a lot are coming out, with opportunities never offered before across class levels. At this moment, India has a middle class of over 500 million people, far more than the population of the entire United States. Can you still see “Old India?” Oh, yes. But it’s nothing like it was 20 years ago. India is going up. It has vast solar farms and is the largest food producer in the world. The projects people are working on here at IIT Mandi are top-tier, cutting-edge science. It’s crazy. I saw lots of people out in the wheat fields, cutting the wheat with scythes, and that night, a theatrical production in Agra with intelligent lights and digital sound boards. (Of course in the middle of the show, the lights blew and for ten minutes we heard a lot of bumping and yelling in the dark, but the system came back on and the show went on! India!) I want this for our young people! It’s exciting to be alive here in India. During COVID, the government here did not print money. Instead, it provided food and necessities for people, using its digital governance programs. It was hard, as it was in the U.S., but, because the government did not print money, India has rebounded like a rocket launched into the future. The Modi government has made it difficult for government officials to take bribes by instituting a policy of making all transactions online, putting the country on a digital platform that makes all transactions accountable. Entrepreneurship is highly encouraged. Indians travel and study overseas learning top technologies then bringing this knowledge home. English unites the country because there are over 400 regional languages from Tamil to Bengali to Hindi, etc. God is unabashedly everywhere. People here do not want sex taught to their children; they want science, history, literature, etc. Someone told me, if anyone talked about sex to a child, they would be lynched. Arranged marriages still happen, and I have met many people who have had very successful experiences. Young people marry more for mutual attraction these days. It is common for people to live multi-generationally. Elders have a very respected place in the hearts of the young. India has a long way to go, but its future looks very promising. It’s so fun being here, surrounded by this energy. I want this optimism and energy for our children!!! Vamos a ver! Fyi, Unrelated Last week, tech leaders including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak signed an open letter published by the Future of Life Institute calling for a six-month moratorium on all training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4. TLDR: The letter argues that the race to develop ever-larger, more capable AI models may result in unpredictable, uncontrollable consequences: a flood of online misinformation, the decimation of millions of jobs, and even “the loss of control of our civilization.” For a full breakdown of the letter, including critical reactions (there are many!), check out: Elon Musk, Wozniak, Others Push Labs to ‘Pause’ Training of AI Systems by journalist Michael Kan. For an insider’s take through the dual lenses of science and the law, read: Last week, tech leaders including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak signed an open letter published by the Future of Life Institute calling for a six-month moratorium on all training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.
Paula Labrot

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