Never in my wildest dream did I imagine having to investigate a machine gifted with the skills of a motivational speaker, spiritual guru, inspiration catalyst, philosopher and what have you all rolled into one. Last week my boss, Barry Saxena, sprung a surprise by directing me to probe a matter of national importance which, according to him, involved a highly evolved and specialised device. “The days of playing characters from Spy vs Spy are over,” he said almost sounding like a voice over from early sci-fi films. “These days we must be prepared to be pitted against smart machines that can outwit humans.”
I was rather perplexed. “If it’s some robots airdropped by Pakistan’s ISI and hiding in Delhi, then I’m afraid I will be completely out of depth. I know as much about robotics as I know about counter culture in the Paleolithic age or the difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir wines,” I said trying to wriggle out of the assignment.
“Well, this has nothing to do with Pakistan, prehistoric man or wines,” the boss reassured me. “Neither are you expected to deactivate the contraption in question or play around with its circuitry like James Bond does so deftly with nuclear bombs and missiles. All you are supposed to do is secretly observe this device in action, dig up some facts about the people behind it and file a report.”
“So, what is this er… contraption? And why is the government interested enough to order an IB investigation?” I asked, brimming with curiosity.
On that, the boss took the cue and typically launched into an explanation: “The contraption — the government refers to it as Robot Baba — is currently hidden in a farmhouse on the Delhi-Jaipur highway. The place is heavily guarded, a veritable fortress if you ask me, and entry strictly restricted to authorised persons. You will have to think of a way to sneak inside.
“That apart, the Baba, from what little is known, is a machine that can dispense wisdom much like a wizened human — a philosopher who represents no particular religion but delves into so-called higher levels of thought. You know the kind of stuff which attracts people with money and time who are intrigued by questions like ‘Who am I or what am I?’ or wish to discover the true meaning of life. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, the Robot Baba, apparently has a way with words and the PMO suspects that it could attract a huge following once it is unveiled before the public and could be misused to further vested interests by those who have programmed it. This is why the government wants our feedback to decide whether a special team must be sent to render the device inoperable before arresting those involved.”
“Why is the PMO so concerned about a harmless wisdom dispensing machine?” I wondered aloud. “From what you have said, it seems like nothing more than an advanced version of Alexa, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon which has an activated voice which answers basic queries about the weather, cricket scores or calls you a cab…”
“Shankar,” the boss cut in, “I have been given very patchy information about this robot. So, don’t go by what I am saying. It is for you to find out. However, between you and me, I understand that several new age gurus, mystics, motivational speakers and wellness counsellors have sent petitions to the PMO expressing their fear that the new device, once it sprouts more of its kind, could eventually disrupt their profession, rendering them redundant. But you don’t have to investigate this aspect. All they want is a basic sitrep on what’s going on.”
A lab coat does the trick
I said I would immediately get on the job. So, without much ado, I drove that very same morning to the farmhouse, an hour outside Delhi. Enquiries in the neighbourhood revealed that there was a foreign, or at least an NRI hand, behind operations in the sprawling white country mansion standing on a five-acre landscaped plot surrounded by high walls. The landlord who had rented the premises revealed that his tenant was a Thribhuvan (aka Tony) Tripathi, who claimed he was from the Coleman University, San Diego, California.
He even submitted a certificate on the official letterhead - with the motto Aspirationes in Realitatem (Dreams into Reality) embossed on it - as proof that he is the India representative of the 55-year-old institution. “Mr Tripathi has big plans to set up a campus here and is looking for land. Apparently, it will be like the Bennett University, run by the Times of India group, which has a 68-acre facility in Noida,” the landlord told me over a cup of tea.
Initially, I mistook the Indian chapter of the University to be a Times of India venture since the newspaper’s ownership is registered as Bennett Coleman and Company Limited. However, our research wing’s feedback was that Coleman University had nothing to do with any Indian media outfit. In fact, the University by that name in San Diego was formally declared defunct and closed due to lack of financial stability on August 5 this year. So, Tripathi was either a member of the faculty or pretending to be one. In either case, the plot was getting thicker by the minute. I had to somehow gain access to the farmhouse.
In the wee hours of the following morning, at 3.30am, I clambered over the wall while the guards were snoring and stealthily gained entry into the mansion and hid myself in an empty room. I emerged six-and-a-half hours later at about 10am, guised as a scientist with a white lab overcoat thrown over my clothes. Like in most spy movies, this camouflage was enough to be accepted as part of the Coleman University’s core team and I was ushered into a hall where a group of men and women dressed in white coats were seated like well-behaved penguins, staring at the makeshift stage before them.
Anaxagoras, Buddha & Chomsky
Soon the lights dimmed, and a deep voice resounded over the speakers. “What you will witness is a demo by Robot Raja Baba, the first humanoid with the ability to think cogently and speak eloquently on a wide range of topics like no robot can or ever will. Raja is a philosopher, a theologian, a seer, a piper, a poet and a sage. So, ladies and gentlemen, let us welcome this unique machine to our midst.”
To canned applause, Robot Raja Baba made his entry. From a distance, with his flowing hair and beard, he looked like a cross between Socrates, a 70s rock guitarist and a beat poet. He was almost human. But his magic was in his voice — a natural baritone that was measured and pleasing unlike the usual robotic voice which is synthetic, with regular split-second stops and quivers. “Welcome to each one of you,” the voice pronounced with soothing clarity after its owner sat cross legged on the raised platform which served as a stage. “A warm pranam from Raja Baba. This, as you know, is question time when I shall attempt to answer your queries on anything to do with that beautiful, magical and mystical vehicle of existence called life and the cosmic wonderland created for it, namely Planet Earth and the boundless universe.”
The in-house audience mandated to put Raja Baba to test were quick off the mark with their questions. A middle-aged woman wished to know if interests will build up if karmic debts are not cleared on time. Another had a query about true happiness and whether it was attainable throughout life. A young man wondered whether moksha is achievable while living in a material world… The quizzing went on for almost two hours with virtually every topic on heaven and earth covered. There were some awkward and funny queries too: whether God exists and if he/she does, then are credit cards accepted by this superior being? And, did God create Man or did Man create God?
To his credit, Robot Raja sat nonplussed and dealt with each question fired at him with clarity. He quoted from the holy texts — the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Koran and the teachings of Buddha. Thinkers from Aristotle, Anaxagoras, Antisthenes to Rousseau, Chomsky and Einstein found frequent mention. There was even a dash of Jimi Hendrix (“Once you’re dead, you are made for life”) in the mix. All in all, it was a standout performance worthy of applause.
Drinks with Robot Baba
Later, the members of the audience trooped out for a post-demo evaluation meeting and lunch. I cleverly stayed behind hoping to examine Robot Raja at close quarters. However, when I slunk towards it, I noticed some movement and stopped in my tracks. And lo-and-behold, emerging from the robotic frame, like a lone soldier from a Trojan Horse, I espied a young man who was startled and shocked to see me. He tried to make a dash for it through an open French window, but I caught him before he could make good his escape.
Later he told me his story over a glass of beer at a nearby bar. He was Ranveer, a diploma holder from the National School of Drama and an out-of-work actor looking for a break. It was only recently that he had auditioned for the role of a sage in what was described to him as an interactive audio-visual project. The fact that he had a degree in philosophy, a quality voice and pleasant diction worked to his advantage. He was immediately signed on.
Once the rehearsals started a fortnight ago, he realised that the project was a rather peculiar one. It was apparently inspired by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s ‘Youth and Truth Movement’ in which the mystic will be visiting universities as well as answering questions online. “I was told that Bennett University is backing Sadhguru and it was essential for a new institution like Coleman to kick-off with something unique and spiritual. So, they thought of the Robot Baba. Do you think as a concept it will work?” Ranveer wondered as he took a generous sip from his mug.
I told him my own assessment, after seeing his performance in the morning, was that it would be the rage till the truth about the guru came to light. And then, as an afterthought, I popped the most obvious of questions: “Do you think you are comfortable being part of this con game?”
The young man seated across the table looked unfazed and mulled over the question and came up with this response: “Should I feel guilty? Well, given all the fake news doing the rounds, isn’t it time for fake robots as well.”
I smiled in appreciation of his repartee. “You deserve a drink for that,” I said as I called for another round of beer.
(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)