OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

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“Relatability”

The context

So recently we shared two creative options for a campaign. I wish we hadn’t. But we did.

Imagine the product is a soap targeted to housewives. The product is better because it smells of pleasant cuttle fish, instead of the generic smell of sardines that all the competitor soaps have. (For the sake of argument, imagine a world where being clean, has so far, always meant smelling of sardines. So in this world, people do not take a bath if they have to engage in social functions.)

So the first film was a humorous take on a working woman’s dilemma of using that soap before going to the clothes retail outlet where she works. She hasn’t taken a bath in a long time and really is in pains to do so. But then the sardine smell will scare away the customers. But then she gets to know about the new cuttle fish soap and the world is alright again. (please read these scripts with a huge dollop and then a pinch of salt. I am exaggerating for benefit of no one but my kicks. Oh yes, and to not let out the brand or the category.)

The other film was a generic category film – housewives working at home scratching their backs and in need of a bath. They go get a bath with the new soap. Mother-in-law approves of the bathed daughter-in-law who surprisingly doesn’t smell as bad. End of story.

When we narrated the two scripts – clients laughed at the right time for the first film. The second film elicited familiar nods – ticked all the check boxes.

The first was potentially memorable – simple, apt yet disruptive setting; clear role of brand and need incidence. More importantly, there was a strong emotional payoff – removal of a real social anxiety. Strategically it was very sound. The client however, was concerned that in their culture, women don’t work at retail garment shops. And they don’t wear saris as much here.

And that brings us to the order of the day.

Suspension of Disbelief and Relatability

In Barjatiya films, we relate to the mansion owning, ferrari driving ‘good boy’ who follows “Indian traditions” and agonizes over minor cultural infractions. We relate to Prem, Rahul and all the other misunderstood millionaires, even though we have never stepped into mansions and ferraris. We don’t own billion dollar businesses. Yet, we not only relate to their heartaches, but we wish we could have the problems they are having.

If you could choose the problems you have to face in life, which one would you chose?

  1. Your biggest concerns are eviction, loss of livelihood, hunger, respect etc when you are poor, frail and low on self confidence.
  2. Your biggest concern is earning a ‘yes’ from the girl you love when she can see already that you are wealthy, stable, handsome and from a royal lineage.

Obviously, you will choose no.2. People who watch movies, want the problems that the hero in the film is having. When watching the film, they are playing the role of the hero in their minds. For once, life doesn’t seem as hopeless. For once, they would win a battle. For once, they will get what they want.

Here, relatability is not a problem. People, from their innermost core of being, want to relate to the heroes. There is a ‘suspension of disbelief’ because people want to believe in the story, want to live vicariously the rich life that is forever out of reach for them in real life.

So the question is, if humans have the capacity to entertain a sufficiently large gap in reality with their ‘suspension of disbelief’, what kinds of instances will break that suspension, which ones will succeed in maintaining the mirage?

The Decision

With the first script, was the setting really alien? It was not. Women do work in shops here, this is no Saudi Arabia. If you stroll through a market here, you can see at-least 30% of the shops being run by women. Secondly, though most women wear skirts, the traditional dress is the sari here too. Even if they don’t (for the sake of argument), any person (man or woman) can relate to peculiarities of choosing a shirt/ skirt/ pant/ saree to buy. The dilemmas and role of fashion is almost universal. The fabric, form and designs may differ, but the drive to appear desirable is universal.

Secondly, reality does not inspire actions – utopia (what reality can be) does.

People want to relate to people they think they can be, not people who are like themselves. That is why ads will always depict lifestyles one or two steps removed from that of the real TG. That is why, the first film also could have worked better – because for women who often work on fields and in hard labour, work in air-conditioned showrooms is aspirational. The younger ones do leave villages to work happily in fashion showrooms, don’t they?

Instead, the second script was chosen eventually by the client – because they felt it was more relatable. Death by committee. Committee goes with the safest choice -the MIL and DIL interaction, done to death by a million categories in almost all countries. The easiest way to get lost in clutter.

The way to break the clutter is to stay true to the emotional need but change the context enough to be new yet within the limits of the suspension of disbelief. But not many clients can suspend their disbelief in power of human emotions, their empathy. They resort to hackneyed concepts of “SEC” divisions and other catch phrases that mean absolutely nothing to save themselves from taking a decision to change.

Fight for your tomorrow

A generation working against its own interest

It’s been 7 years since I entered the world of advertising. It’s been longer than that with the attempt to understand world and power – by reading Chomsky, Ambedkar, Amartya Sen and so on. As you can imagine (if you have read these people that is), there was a certain heaviness of heart with which I worked in my early years in advertising. How to reconcile with the utopia of a non-consumerist worldview where humanity is undivided and equal, with the reality of consumerist culture that not only perpetuates but glorifies inequality? Working in advertising meant perpetuating this reality, against  the utopia that I must work for. I am working against my interest!

And I see around and see so many people doing the same. They can’t articulate it, but they know it deep down. That unease, that momentary recklessness.. We all feel that discomfort but we can’t name it. Here’s you name for it – its the pain of severing ties with the world that nurtures you – your family, your community, your ecology. It’s the pain of severance for an imposed injunction to enjoy. We are working against our future to make our present a little more comfortable.

How did the ‘powers that be’ convinced us to live and work against our own interest?

We rationalise it in the interest of certainty of today’s livelihood. We rationalise it in the face of apparent overwhelming global consensus – ‘YOLO’, spend your way to happiness; “only today matters, for tomorrow may never come”. This philosophy  is convenient for the global capitalist power. Since this philosophy has no conception for tomorrow.

It is the commercialized version of ‘American dream’. It is ‘Id’s dream, imposed on the ‘superego’. It is an empty dream of excess. It is a childish dream of narcissistic joys, now! It has no conception of a realistic tomorrow – of where we are going and where we should be going. That is what the capitalist ‘system‘ (not particular people, but particular interests of power webs) wants us to believe. “Fuck the planet, fuck your family, fuck your community, fuck everyone else. enjoy NOW. for those empty pursuits fund our ego massages.”

The globalised world  creates a sense of an opportunity, an opportunity to escape from the mess one creates. Global mobility is your passport to the dream of remorseless enjoyment… of an eternal escape to ‘better places’ with impunity. Hence the profusion of travel pics on facebook. It creates a distance between one’s acts and its effect. Oops! I did it again. and i hope it will be taken care of by the time I come back. Or not. We have nostalgia in its place anyways. which is even better. it is like reality, but better.

How did I get here?

By not fighting against the flow. You just go with the flow – school, college, MBA, corporate ladder, increments, cars, loans etc. and if you have no clear conception of an alternative, you just go with the flow. The media and education system doesn’t exactly prepare us to ask the right questions, to work together in formulating and working towards a utopia. You just do what is seemingly working for others.

So what now?

Like every good plan, mine looks ahead with a sound (i hope) appreciation of reality of today; a realistic vision of utopia you want to work towards while earning honestly in service of the future. This blog and this one is an attempt to articulate that utopia, to plant / support that meme of the utopia we need. I plan to do more in ways of content and engagements in service of a tomorrow built with cognizance of reality seen from a compassionate perspective.

The second part is about survival today. I hope to do that by honestly helping businesses grow through my skills in strategic choice making, in the present tense. There is a time to fight the system and a time to work with the system. Earn within the system to fight the system, essentially.

Reading PK

1. Anger is Comedy

Bill Hicks, George Carlin.. most comedy is  disguised tension.
Raju Hirani’s brilliance is in channelling that anger seamlessly into a narrative that flows from seemingly light-hearted comedy (even when it is subversive) to empathetic realisation. In act-one of his films, you laugh. In act-two you can’t help but cry with mirth/ empathy. This is why his Munnabhai films are classics. Your reactions are not voluntary. the jokes do make you laugh, and the denouement does make you cry. With PK, Hirani got the first part very well – subversive comedy that gets laughs and nods. The second part however, seemed to lack in empathy. Anger as comedy worked, anger realised was ‘lull’.

2. To think or to feel?

Maybe it was the wooden performance by Aamir Khan who is supposed to be an alien. Maybe, it was the paternalistic tone of the film that tries to teach people a little too hard. But mostly, it was the lack of clarity in script. Who were we supposed to root for? alien PK, botox lips or the god?
This film is different from other films of his because this film aimed to make us think instead of making us feel. now the business of making people think of something is a different game altogether. The narrative needs to be tighter. The climax should come with a forceful surprise or impact to crowd-out any other thoughts. Or, the logic of the movie’s universe needs to be quickly established and then you need to be smart with that logic’s ramifications. But it wasn’t that kind of movie

3. Lazy writing/ single metaphor pony

His movies are in service of his world-view. Munnabhai 1 wanted a world where hospital care was empathetic instead of being apathetic and clinical. Munnabhai 2 wanted a world where the elders had dignified identity. PK wanted a world where false godmen don’t exist.
While Munnabhai movies proposed these worldviews with stories of intimate relationships, PK proposed its worldview in the form of a bland TV debate.And there have been just too many movies with denouements like those. eg. Nayak, Ungli and so on. The template is thus – a social concern goes viral, the virality justifies emotions/ acts, and then climax on the News channel program with the bad guy losing out the battle of entertaining glazed eye balls.
Hirani is no doubt a genius story teller. And that makes me wonder why did he use this lazy template for his film. Couldn’t he explore better ways to build the climax – perhaps PK holds the godman’s hands (alien jaadu ki jhappi), perhaps the godmen’s characters are given more depth instead of caricatures. (Good idea for a film here – exploring the making a godmen). Instead of being a reporter, what if Anoushka was a bhakt/ sadhvi of the guru whose illusions are cleared by PK? This way her liberation would have been more poignant, instead of the weak ass climax of her Belgium based relationship. (again a concern of upper middle class person) Perhaps this has to do with class of audience. Did the makers consciously chose an upper middle class godman and climax (media endorsed world view)?
Anyways, this movie is not for the under class. Apparently, the makers are arm twisting cineplex owners and single screen theatre owners to raise the ticket price so that they could quickly ascend to the ‘100 crore’ club. In effect pricing the lower middle class out of the theatres.

4. Toxic obsession about 100 crore clubs/ a movie for upper classes

This dumb tweet is apparently trending today.

“Aamir Khan: Actor’s new film, ‘PK,’ surpasses Rs 50 crore but fails to set record on opening weekend.”

It is not about the story, nor about the issue it raises. It is about how much it has earned. People do not watch movies these days. They watch the making of fantastic billionaires.
This trending topic proves that the movie has been ineffective in raising the issues it was supposed to be raising. No one is questioning godmen after this. no one is calling ‘wrong number’ on fakesters. They are simply watching the makers add another fortune to their name.

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Originally published at Reading PK.