Atul Jalan, forever on the lookout for the next exciting idea and the next exciting thing to do, is an entrepreneur who is always on the move.
A childhood interest in technology transformed into a lasting love-life-technology intersections-through which he now explores how the technology man built is transforming him and the institutions he has created. What interests him the most about this merging of biology with technology is the fact that there is no end to it.
There is always something new, something exciting, something surprising around the corner. When not peeking at how technology impacts life next door, Jalan likes to travel-preferably on the bicycle he’s built himself with the aid of a few tech tools he is testing.
A science storyteller and futurist, Jalan is the founder-CEO of a pioneering AI venture, Manthan, by day. It is his fourth successful venture as an entrepreneur, and there is no knowing where he might take us next.
TBE: Tell us about your book Where Will Man Take Us, can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
Atul Jalan: Over the past few years, I have been watching this with great interest – the accelerating merger of our biology with emerging technologies. AI, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, quantum physics and such have been changing us and in the days to come, will change us, irrevocably.
To an extent that we will cease to remain the species we are; we will evolve into a new and I dare say, better species. We will soon cease to be a bio-organism and emerge as a techno-organism, a combination of biology and technology. Homo sapiens literally means wise man. I believe we will soon have to invent a term for a wiser, smarter, longer living species.
These changes in us, will also impact the society we live in. And this is already happening. How? You will have to read the book to find out. For this is what Where Will Man Take Us? deals with.
So what can I tell you about the book that is not in the blurb? When we talk about the future, I see only two responses to it. Somewhere I see dread, somewhere I see sci-fi. Someone immediately wants to discuss Prof Stephen Hawking’s views (what I call the Kafka Reaction), someone wants to know what the next path-breaking invention will be (what I call the Jetsons Reaction).
When I peer at the future, what I see is a man who is infinitely superior, in every which way, to every man who has gone before him. We are not able to see the future clearly because we believe that our existence is the reason for the planet (and some think the universe exists for us).
When people say Save The Planet, what they mean is Save Humans. For the planet will exist long, long after we are gone. If we are able to see ourselves as just one of the many million species on the planet, we become ready to see ourselves as a transitional species. Just one of the many species that developed and changed in the planet’s long history.
Whatever happens to us, is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. To me, this is the most positive approach to life. This, you won’t find in the book.
TBE: How did you get the idea of this book?
Atul Jalan: I didn’t have to look far. This change is happening all around us. And, it is accelerating. The change that we see in the next 20 years, will probably be greater than all the change we have seen in the last 60. I will be 20 years older in 2039. But I dare say that my life won’t be anything like what it is today.
Sometimes it is very tough for us to see the change that we ourselves are part of. But I have been keeping a rather objective eye on myself and what I go through. And of course, what folks around me go through.
Also, am a techno-preneur. I see what folks in the technology space are working on, every day. Some of the ideas I see make me wonder what species these are being thought for. That, was inspiration enough.
TBE: Why did you choose to write on this subject?
Atul Jalan: There are enough and more scholarly tomes on each of the topics that the book touches on.
There is some real geniuses out there on each of these subjects. But most of them are talking to similar geniuses.
So when two geniuses are discussing quantum physics, to use a gaming analogy, they start at Level 6 – Levels 1-5 is not for them to be bothered about. I have figured, often, that I am at Level 1 and struggling.
So I decided to write this for folks like me.
That besides, I haven’t come across instances where one book looks at all the immediate ways in which we will be touched. Those that concentrate on AI, concentrate on AI. Those that concentrate on the Filter Bubble, stay there. Where can the average Joe or Jagannath pick up a book that looks at all of these?
This is about us, this is about our future. All of us needs to know about this. Hence, I decided to write this and while writing it, keep it as accessible and approachable as possible.
TBE: What was your writing process for this book? What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Atul Jalan: Since this is my first time, there was much that I figured as I went along. So I honestly can’t say I followed a process as my process kept changing. I started off by building a structure and a table of contents and then kept filling in my stories as and when I could.
As for writing, I didn’t follow a process either. I tried to emulate several literary giants by trying to devote a certain time of the day and setting myself a number of words to complete every day. Which is when I figured that I am no literary giant. So when I was in the mood, I sat down and wrote. And when I felt I was done, I stopped. If that’s a process, that’s my process.
As for literary pilgrimages, if you read the book, you’ll realise that it has been a rather long journey.
You’ll find Goscinny and Uderzo here, you’ll find Wittgenstein, you’ll find Vedic writing, you’ll find Russel, you’ll find Richard Dawkins, you’ll find Hegel, you’ll find the Bible, you’ll find George Church, you’ll also find George Carlin. So I didn’t go on a pilgrimage for this particular book. But I have been on a happy pilgrimage all along.
TBE: How did you research on the subject?
Atul Jalan: There is enough and more data on each of these subjects out there. So reading up on each of these subjects is not a task. But what was more relevant, I believe, was newspapers. That’s where the change is most visible. I mean, there are enough and more people writing about echo chambers.
But what I find more relevant is the reality I see on FB and in WhatsApp groups. There are enough and more people writing about the impact of technology and social media on forming opinions.
And especially on the phenomena of misinformation and fake news. But when I followed the last couple of American elections and the last elections in India, I realised the difference between theory and reality. And how the latter is scarier – what is not popularly called the weaponsation of data.
So yes, the research is all around us.
TBE: How long did it take you to write this book?
Atul Jalan: This book has been on my mind for the past 4 years. And started actively working on it over the past 3. But like I said before, I have not followed a process. It was more of putting down my thoughts as and when they came.
During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? The nature of the beast. When you are writing about the changes we are going through, it is not a topic one can put a full stop to. For the simple reason that change keep happening. And there is no end to each topic.
You can keep adding, editing, deleting, endlessly.
Just when you say that the chapter on the Filter Bubble is complete, along comes a new study or a fine new example in the papers. Just when you put a line under your summation on the Philosophy of AI, along comes a new perspective.
So finally, I gave myself a cut-off date and decided that anything that comes after will not be incorporated. Looking at it and weeping was allowed, but no additions.
TBE: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Atul Jalan: I think I understand the challenges better now. In many ways, I also know myself better. So this has been a journey of self-discovery for me as well. For the next book, I have some plans that I intend to put in place. But then, you know how plans are.
TBE: What is the significance of the title?
Atul Jalan: Again, when I talk about the future and man in the future, I see a tendency for people to look at technology as separate from us. As an alien entity. So it is almost like the Europeans in the early Middle Ages visualised the Huns. So here come AI and Quantum Physics to change our peaceful lives.
Like a bionic Cthulhu.
It takes a little effort to see that we are the cause for change. It is we who have invented these technologies. Our history has always followed this pattern. We invent stories. Then we create the technology that we invented in the stories. And then this technology that we have invented, reinvents us.
Look at how the car reinvented us, how electricity reinvented us, how google reinvents us.
So it is we who are responsible, we who are leading the change. Which is why I titled it Where Will Man Take Us? and not Where Will AI Take Us?
TBE: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
Atul Jalan: A lot of joy. Better days lie ahead. It will be different. It will be disruptive. And it will be transformational. But it is the next world. I am reminded of the famous Tang poem On The Stork Tower by Wang Zhihuan.
The sun beyond the mountain glows;
The Yellow River seaward flows.
You can enjoy a grander sight,
By climbing to a greater height.
TBE: When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
Atul Jalan: I think man is a born storyteller. Sometimes I think it is this desperate desire to relate that led us to language and then, everything that followed. From the stories we invented to where it has brought us today.
Imagine a Neanderthal Og, who has just seen a mammoth slip and fall. Or has just seen a mammoth fart joke. Imagine not having the language to explain that to the folks back in the cave. If I were Og, I would have died of the sheer lack of language and therefore my inability to relate and raise a good laugh.
So yes, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone, is a writer.
TBE: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Atul Jalan: I have a million things to do and a billion things that interest me. I really hope that Singularity and Immortality are with us soon. Because there is so much I still need to do.
When I am not writing, I am Founder-CEO of Manthan, my fourth entrepreneurial venture. My day job is to catalyze Manthan’s inventions and innovations in analytics for consumer industries worldwide.
Over the last few years, Manthan has established itself as one of the few Indian technology companies with an analytics product portfolio that has some significant questions and answers for international consumer industries. But that doesn’t make me a unidimensional analytics mutant.
If whoever is reading this ever calls me up feel free to talk about anything – aero-modelling, astronomy, quantum physics, Richard Feynman, 3D printing, quadcopters, whatever.
I love movies and theatre and don’t miss an opportunity to lose myself in fantasy. I also love travel and you can see more of that in the Travelogue section at atuljalan.com Skiing is one activity I really enjoy and my son and I make it a point to go skiing at least twice a year.
TBE: Do you believe in writer’s block? Have you ever experienced it? How long does it usually last? Any tips you would like to share to overcome it?
Atul Jalan: Since the process I follow is that of sitting down and writing when I feel like it, I think I cannot hold forth on blocks.
TBE: In your opinion, what is the most important thing about a book?
Atul Jalan: Readers.
TBE: What does your family think of your writing?
Atul Jalan: They love it as long as I do not talk about it.
TBE: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
Atul Jalan: That the monsters you worry about are not the real ones. You worry about finishing, publishing, promotion, whether it will do well or not, what the reactions will be. You worry about everything under the sun. Except the writing.
TBE: Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?
Atul Jalan: As I have mentioned earlier, I fall in the second category.
TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
Atul Jalan: That’s my greatest hope. That it will.