FF daily #430: Policymaking meets the real world

July 22, 2021: Kaushik Basu on the Aadhaar project; Sundeep Waslekar deciphers the big shifts in geopolitics; A cloud over Olympics 2021; The most useless day

Founding Fuel

[By Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Good morning,

Kaushik Basu’s new book Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington DC has some excellent anecdotes that give a glimpse of his seven years in the world of policymaking—and also brushes with the real world. Here’s one from February 2014, when he arrived in Bangalore for the Infosys Prize ceremony. 

“I took the British Airways flight, Washington to London and London to Bangalore, landing in Bangalore at 4 am the day before yesterday. The first person I ran into at the airport was Amartya Sen. A smart young man from the hotel where we would stay, ITC Gardenia, rushed up to us with a broad grin of familiarity, turned first to Sen and said, ‘Kaushik Basu?’ and, before he could answer, turned to me, showed greater respect and said, ‘Amartya Sen?’ He had clearly tripped up on his Google research. Before I could say, ‘Yes,’ Sen said, ‘Could have been, but no.’”

Earlier in the book, he talks about his meeting with Nandan Nilekani in January 2010, which shines a light on what he thought about the Aadhaar project in the early days.

“It was a proper working lunch today with Nandan Nilekani at the Taj Chambers, mainly to discuss his unique biometric identification system. I think it is a transformative scheme that can help vault India ahead. Of course, much will depend on how much use it is put to. Nandan and others often emphasized that it is basically a technology to make sure that ‘you are you’. This is an inadequate way of explaining this. The right approach would be to describe this with a little bit of set theory. There are zillions of transactions and activities taking place in India—people buying goods, cutting deals, boarding trains, joining clubs. The unique identification system is a way of associating each individual with a subset of this universal set of transactions. In other words, the person who withdrew money from a bank in Chennai and the person who bought a train ticket in Delhi are the same person. This has meaning and can be contested, whereas ‘you are you’ is tautological. If transaction or activity is defined in such a way that each of them is performed by one person, then the unique identification system helps create a partition of the set of all recorded transactions and activities in India. Biometric identification is basically a platform for partitioning all the activities occurring in a country. The richness of the information will of course have its risks but all technological advances come with their own risks. We simply have to develop safeguards against them and try to get the benefits, which in this case can be very large, I believe.”

In this issue,

  • Sundeep Waslekar deciphers the second quarter of 2021
  • A cloud over Olympics 2021
  • The most useless day

Sundeep Waslekar deciphers the second quarter of 2021

In April, we brought to you a conversation with Waslekar, president of Strategic Foresight Group, shining a light on the important developments across the world in the first quarter of 2021 and what they mean for India and the world.

In the second edition of the podcast, we delve into the big shifts in geopolitics during the second quarter of 2021. 

You can listen to the 50-minute conversation and/or read a sharp summary of the key ideas. 

Here’s a sampler of the summary.

Significance of the EU’s AI regulatory framework 

When Europe took a big step on data privacy with GDPR, the US did not really play catch-up. Europe took the lead and the rest of the world followed Europe. What will be significant now?

  • AI is emerging at the core of a new technological horizon. An open debate has started, in the Western democracies at least, on what could happen with AI. 
  • AI could help address climate change, pandemics, and other problems facing humanity. And AI could also be misused to create lethal autonomous weapons, new kinds of military technologies, and social control of citizens. China is already using AI for social control, to grade citizens for social profiling. 
  • The EU regulatory framework categorises the use of AI in different boxes. Some things are simply not allowed—for example, grading citizens even for credit rating; some uses will be subjected to a high degree of control; and some will be encouraged. 
  • This is the first clear and definitive regulation of AI.

Dig deeper

A cloud over Olympics 2021

Citizens of Japan feel deeply conflicted about the Olympics. Should the event begin tomorrow or ought it be cancelled is a question citizens and key stakeholders continue to debate. The divide between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the one hand and those who are invested in the event and citizens on the other hand couldn’t get deeper than this. Hosting the Olympics had started with the best of intent—showcase to the world that Japan has rebounded after the devastating tsunami of 2011 and that in spite of the rise of China, it is still a force to be reckoned with.  

But in the aftermath of the pandemic, most surveys show that popular opinion is veering towards this being a superspreader event and must be called off. Prime Minister Suga isn’t willing to budge. Key sponsors and citizens feel otherwise. A report on CNBC captures how deep the divide is. 

“Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, an official partner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, called for the Summer Games to be cancelled in an editorial on Wednesday, citing risks to public safety and strains on the medical system from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Poll after poll has shown the majority of the public is opposed to holding the Games this summer, concerned about tens of thousands of athletes and officials descending on a country that has mostly remained closed to foreigners since last year and where vaccinations have proceeded slowly.

“Doctors’ associations have protested holding the Games, investors have talked up the benefits of shelving them, and maverick businessmen such as Masayoshi Son have called for canceling the games.

“That Asahi, one of Japan’s most prestigious newspapers, broke ranks with other partners is likely to intensify focus on the viability of the Games.”

Dig deeper

The most useless day

(Via WhatsApp)

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