Chapter OneThe Golden Elephant
Story translated by Blake Stone-Banks
It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to imitate somebody else’s perfectly.
—Bhagavad Gita (भगवद्गीता, Song of God or Hindu Scripture) chapter 3, verse 35
Note from Kai-Fu: The opening story takes readers to Mumbai, where we meet a family who has signed up for a deep-learning-enabled insurance program. This dynamic insurance program engages with the insured in the form of a series of apps intended to better their lives. The family’s teenage daughter, however, finds that the AI program’s persuasive nudges complicate her search for love. “The Golden Elephant” introduces the basics of AI and deep learning, offering a sense of its main strengths and weaknesses. In particular, the story illustrates how AI can single-mindedly try to optimize certain goals, but sometimes create detrimental externalities. The story also suggests the risks when one company possesses so much data from its users. In my commentary at the end of the chapter, I will explore these issues, offering a brief history of AI and why it excites many but has become a source of distrust for others.
On the screen, the three-story statue of Ganesh swayed in the surf of Chowpatty Beach as though synced to the sitar soundtrack. With each wave, the towering idol descended lower until it was engulfed by the Arabian Sea. In the salty brine, the statue dissolved into gold and burgundy foam, washing onto Chowpatty Beach, where the colors clung like blessings to the legions of believers who had gathered for the Visarjan immersion ritual celebrating the end of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival.
In her family’s Mumbai apartment, Nayana watched as her grandparents clapped their hands and sang along to the TV. Her younger brother, Rohan, took a mouthful of cassava chips and a deep swig from his diet cola. Though he was only eight, Rohan was under doctor’s orders to strictly control his fat and sugar intake. As he wagged his head in excitement, crumbs sprayed from his mouth and flew across the floor. In the kitchen, Papa Sanjay and Mama Riya banged on pots and crooned like they were in a Bollywood film.
Nayana tried to shut them all out of her mind. The tenth-grader was instead focusing all her energy on her smartstream, where she had downloaded FateLeaf. The new app was all Nayana’s classmates could seem to talk about lately. It was said to possess the answer to almost any question, thanks to the prescience of India’s greatest fortune tellers.
The app—its branding and ad campaign made clear—was inspired by the Hindu sage Agastya, who was said to have engraved the past, present, and future lives of all people in Sanskrit onto palm leaves, so-called Nadi leaves, thousands of years ago.
According to the legend, simply by providing one’s thumbprints and birthdate to a Nadi leaf fortune teller, a person could have their life story foretold from the corresponding leaf. The problem was that many leaves had been lost to meddling colonialists, war, and time. In 2025, a tech company tracked down and scanned all the known Nadi leaves still in circulation. The company used AI to perform deep learning, auto-translation, and analysis of the remaining leaves. The result was the creation of virtual Nadi leaves, stored in the cloud—one for each of the 8.7 billion people on Earth.
Nayana was not dwelling on the ancient history of the Nadi leaves. She had a more pressing matter on her mind. Users of the FateLeaf app could seek to uncover the wisdom of their Nadi leaf by posing various questions. While her family watched the Ganesh Visarjan celebration on TV, Nayana nervously typed out a question within the app: “Does Sahej like me?” Before she clicked “Send,” a notification popped up indicating that an answer to her question would cost two hundred rupees. Nayana clicked “Submit.”
Nayana had liked Sahej from the moment his stream first connected in their virtual classroom. Her new classmate didn’t use any filter or AR background. Behind Sahej, hanging on the wall, Nayana could see rows of colorful masks, which, she learned, Sahej had carved and painted himself. On the first day of the new term, the teacher had asked Sahej about the masks, and the new student shyly gave a show-and-tell, explaining how the masks combined Indian gods and spirits with the powers of superheroes.
Now, in an invitation-only room on her ShareChat, some of Nayana’s classmates were gossiping about Sahej. From the way his room was furnished to the fact that his surname was hidden from public view in school records, these girls were certain Sahej was among the “vulnerable group” that the government mandated make up at least 15 percent of their student body. At private schools across India, such children were practically guaranteed spots and their tuition, books, and uniforms were covered by scholarships. “Fifteen percent” and “vulnerable group” were euphemisms for the Dalits.
From documentaries she had watched online, Nayana knew about India’s old caste system, which was deeply embedded in Hindu religious and cultural beliefs. A person’s caste had once determined one’s profession, education, spouse—their whole life. At the bottom rung of this system were the Dalits, or, as they were sometimes referred to with derision, “untouchables.” For generations, members of this community were forced to do the dirtiest jobs: cleaning sewers, handling the corpses of dead animals, and tanning leather.
The constitution of India, ratified in 1950, outlawed discrimination based on caste. But for years following independence, Dalit areas for drinking, dining, residing, and even burial were kept separate from those of groups considered higher in the system. Members of the higher castes might even refuse to be in the same room as the Dalits, even if they were classmates or colleagues.
In the 2010s, the Indian government sought to correct these injustices by establishing a 15-percent quota for Dalit representation in government positions and in schools. The well-intentioned policy had sparked controversy and even violence. Higher-caste parents complained that such admissions weren’t based on academic performance. They argued that their children were paying the price for previous generations’ sins and that India was just trading one form of inequality for another.
Despite these pockets of backlash, the government’s efforts seemed to be working. The 200 million descendants of Dalits were integrating into mainstream society. It had become more difficult to recognize their past identity at a glance.
The girls in Nayana’s ShareChat couldn’t stop talking about the new boy in school, Sahej, debating his background—but also whether they would consider going out with him.
You shallow snobs, Nayana silently huffed.
For her part, Nayana saw in Sahej a kindred artistic spirit. Inspired by Bharti Kher, Nayana dreamed of becoming a performance artist, and she often had to explain that this was nothing like being a superficial pop entertainer. She believed great artists had to be brutally honest about their innermost feelings and should never accept the perspectives of others. If she liked Sahej, then she liked Sahej—no matter his family background, where he lived, or even his Tamil-accented Hindi.
The question Nayana had posed to the FateLeaf app seemed to take forever to process. Finally, a notification popped up on Nayana’s smartstream accompanied by a palm leaf icon: “What a pity! Due to insufficient data provided, FateLeaf cannot currently answer your query.”
The clink of Nayana’s refund vibrated from her smartstream.
“Insufficient data!” Nayana silently cursed at the app.
Annoyed, she finally raised her head from her screen to notice her mother, Riya, putting the finishing touches on dinner. Something was off. In addition to a number of Indian holiday delights, Nayana saw several super-expensive dishes from a Chinese delivery place on the table. Such treats were rare for her penny-pinching father. But there was something even more unusual: Riya was wearing her favorite pure silk Parsi-style sari. She had her hair up and was wearing a complete set of jewelry. Even Nayana’s grandparents seemed different—happier than usual—and for once, her fat brother, Rohan, wasn’t pestering her with all kinds of stupid questions.
The Ganesh Chaturthi festival couldn’t explain all this.
“So, is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?” Nayana said as she stared at the spread on the table.
“What do you mean, what’s going on?” Riya shot back.
“Am I the only one who thinks all this is a bit out of the ordinary?”
Nayana’s parents glanced at each other for a second then burst out laughing.
Copyright © 2021 by Kai-Fu Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.