What Gaganyaan tells us about chat AI, and vice versa

Talk of chat AI* is everywhere, as I’m sure you know. Everyone would like to know where these apps are headed and what their long-term effects are likely to be. But it seems that it’s still too soon to tell what they will be, at least in sectors that have banked on human creativity. That’s why the topic was a centrepiece of the first day of the inaugural conference of the Science Journalists’ Association of India (SJAI) last month, but little came of it beyond using chat AI apps to automate tedious tasks like transcribing. One view, in the limited context of education, is that chat AI apps will be like the electronic calculator. According to Andrew Cohen, a professor of physics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as quoted (and rephrased) by Amrit BLS in an article for The Wire Science:

When calculators first became available, he said, many were concerned that it would discourage students from performing arithmetic and mathematical functions. In the long run, calculators would negatively impact cognitive and problem-solving skills, it was believed. While this prediction has partially come true, Cohen says the benefits of calculators far outweigh the drawbacks. With menial calculations out of the way, students had the opportunity to engage with more complex mathematical concepts.

Deutsche Welle had an article making a similar point in January 2023:

Daniel Lametti, a Canadian psycholinguist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said ChatGPT would do for academic texts what the calculator did for mathematics. Calculators changed how mathematics were taught. Before calculators, often all that mattered was the end result: the solution. But, when calculators came, it became important to show how you had solved the problem—your method. Some experts have suggested that a similar thing could happen with academic essays, where they are no longer only evaluated on what they say but also on how students edit and improve a text generated by an AI—their method.

This appeal to the supposedly higher virtue of the method, over arithmetic ability and the solutions to which it could or couldn’t lead, is reminiscent of a similar issue that played out earlier this year – and will likely raise its head again – vis-à-vis India’s human spaceflight programme. This programme, called ‘Gaganyaan’, is expected to have the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launch an astronaut onboard the first India-made rocket no earlier than 2025.

The rocket will be a modified version of the LVM-3 (previously called the GSLV Mk III); the modifications, including human-rating the vehicle, and their tests are currently underway. In October 2023, ISRO chairman S. Somanath said in an interview to The Hindu that the crew module on the vehicle, which will host the astronauts during their flight, “is under development. It is being tested. There is no capability in India to manufacture it. We have to get it from outside. That work is currently going on. We wanted a lot of technology to come from outside, from Russia, Europe, and America. But many did not come. We only got some items. That is going to take time. So we have to develop systems such as environmental control and life support systems.”

Somanath’s statement seemed to surprise many people who had believed that the human-rated LVM-3 would be indigenous in toto. This is like the Ship of Theseus problem: if you replace all the old planks of a wooden ship with new ones, is it still the same ship? Or: if you replace many or all the indigenous components of a rocket with ones of foreign provenance, is it still an India-made launch vehicle? The particular case of the UAE is also illustrative: the country neither has its own launch vehicle nor the means to build and launch one with components sourced from other countries. It lacks the same means for satellites as well. Can the UAE still be said to have its own space programme because of its ‘Hope’ probe to orbit and study Mars?

Cohen’s argument about chat AI apps being like the electronic calculator helps cut through the confusion here: the method, i.e. the way in which ISRO pieces the vehicle together to fit its needs, within its budget, engineering capabilities, and launch parameters, matters the more. To quote from an earlier post, “‘Gaganyaan’ is not a mission to improve India’s manufacturing capabilities. It is a mission to send Indians to space using an Indian launch vehicle. This refers to the recipe, rather than the ingredient.” For the same reason, the UAE can’t be said to have its own space programme either.

Focusing on the method, especially in a highly globalised world-economy, is a more sensible way to execute space programmes because the method – knowing how to execute it, i.e. – is the most valuable commodity. Its obtainment requires years of investment in education, skilling, and utilisation. I suspect this is also why there’s more value in selling launch-vehicle services rather than launch vehicles themselves. Similarly, the effects of the electronic calculator on science education speak to advantages that are virtually unknown-unknowns, and it seems reasonable to assume that chat AI will have similar consequences (with the caveat that the metaphor is imperfect: arithmetic isn’t comparable to language and large-language models can do what calculators can and more).

* I remain wary of the label ‘AI’ applied to “chat AI apps” because their intelligence – if there is one beyond sophisticated word-counting – is aesthetic, not epistemological, yet it’s also becoming harder to maintain the distinction in casual conversation. This is after setting aside the question of whether the term ‘AI’ itself makes sense.