Rakhi Dalal observes The Machine is Learning by Tanuj Solanki, which poses the question of human redundancy as AI/ML make headway in the techno savvy Capitalist world. (Published by MacMillan, 2020)
Tanuj Solanki’s first book Neon Noon was shortlisted for Tata Literature Live! First Book Award. For his second book Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, he was awarded the Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar in 2019. The Machine is Learning is Solanki’s third book.
In the third chapter of the novel, the narrator recalls the famous game of Go, between Lee Sedol and Google Deepmind AI’s AlphaGo, where in the five match series AlphaGo had defeated Sedol, one of the best Go players of all time, by 4-1. He remembers how the IT buzzwords, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) were began to be used aggressively by IT sellers and how Lee Sedol’s loss was employed by the so called thought leaders to create hype by declaring the advent of a final Industrial Revolution where machines would become so smart that they would replace humans.
Saransh, the narrator as well as the protagonist, is an MBA from an elite B school and works with a Strategic Projects Group for a leading Insurance Company in India. In the days succeeding the famous game, he finds himself in charge of a project which includes development of a ML system for the company that would leave 552 employees of the company redundant. However, since the system requires site specific information, he has to collect the information from the very people the system is going to replace. He begins by interviewing those people but what ensues isn’t what he had started the project in mind with.
This novel is the story of a well-paid, big B- school educated millennial in corporate, a conflicted twenty something from a small town middle class family whose childhood was Malgudi-type idyll. A guy who wouldn’t mind paying extra tip to his driver since he can cover it at company’s expense but would go on to help create a system that can render hundreds of people jobless. He can only be as ethical as his aspirations allow him to be. The image of Alan Kurdi (the drowned Syrian child), which keeps recurring throughout the novel, haunts him. In a sense it seems like the moral compass around which he validates his ethicality.
When he meets Jyoti, an ex-journalist, who questions the righteousness of the company’s decision to create such a system, he begins to ponder. Not that he was ever unscrupulous or self-centered. As his relationship with Jyoti deepens, he is overcome with a sense of uneasiness. At a point, in a fit of anger over his colleague Mitesh or perhaps to prove himself before Jyoti, he does something which changes the course of the entire system he had been working on, even spearheading, for so long.
In Saransh, Jyoti, Mitesh and Unnikrishnan (Saransh’s boss), the author has created very realistic characters. Saransh represents the anxious millennial, who while being very much a part of the capitalist world, is troubled by the ethical and existential questions which everyday life and happenings around the world pose. He reads Arendt and is distressed by evil in the world but can’t really go beyond the limits his middle-class-aspiring life draws for him. He belongs to Muzaffarnagar, as do most of Tanuj’s key characters. However, they can be from any small town in India. In other words they are ordinary people who, despite their anxieties, continue living their chosen way of life they have worked hard to achieve.
Saransh represents the anxious millennial, who while being very much a part of the capitalist world, is troubled by the ethical and existential questions which everyday life and happenings around the world pose.
Jyoti’s character, in the beginning, appears to be morally upright, one who condemns the Government, is perhaps well read and is vocal about the class discrimination widespread in Indian society. But towards the end, her character morphs into all-rhetoric-no-action kind who at the slightest discomfort would turn to the very world she abhors. Mitesh is an over ambitious successful manager for whom people are just statistics. A right leaning, family-loving guy who aspires for a bigger house, bigger car and luxurious housing society, even if that means depriving a few hundred of their jobs to increase the company’s profits.
Unnikrishnan’s character is the lesser explored but yet an important one in this novel. He is a corporate honcho, a highly successful man whose job also includes grooming potential managers into the very system he has been a part of. A man who can quote Marx while being fully aware of the suffering his company’s plan to adopt the ML system might cause. The conversation he has with Saransh towards the end is perhaps the most telling picture of what is vulgar in Capitalism.
This is a critical and relevant novel because here the author not only brings work life to the forefront, which is rarely attempted in fiction, but also focuses on the vulnerability which sometimes afflicts ordinary working people. There are neither heroes or villains here, only regular people whose sensibilities are defined by their paychecks.
Tanuj is an important writer as he doesn’t merely capture the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, the concerns of tinder generation, as put by Jerry Pinto, but also for the reason that he writes about common people, about those whose conventional lives are rarely thrown off the path. And even when that happens, the characters do return to the system for they know there is no getting away from it. On an impulse Saransh takes an audacious step, only to retract and go back to the life built upon his corporate experience and success.
Tanuj is an important writer as he doesn’t merely capture the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century, the concerns of tinder generation, as put by Jerry Pinto, but also for the reason that he writes about common people, about those whose conventional lives are rarely thrown off the path.
The most striking thing about this novel however, is the author’s ability to make the technical jargon related to Insurance/ ML systems interesting to the reader. An insider in the field of insurance, his knowledge clearly shows in the way he writes about the processes using work lingo. His remarkably keen eye portrays the work environment and ethos of the industry very well.
With AI /ML already a reality, it is but a matter of time when the machines conquer workplaces, though there are differing viewpoints on how it might affect working humans. In the novel, Saransh’s step does help in slowing down the process. Does this make the novel hopeful in a world where machines may sooner or later take over? Possibly so.
As Tanuj writes:
“I think of the one game – The fourth in the five-match series-in which Lee Sedol beat the AI, Alphago. Somebody should talk about the beauty of that.”
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.