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Use AI but With Self-Restraint: UN’s Ramu Damodaran

Portrait of Ramu Damodaran

Key Takeaways

  • As an Indian Foreign Service member, Ramu Damodaran has straddled the world, representing India with distinction in Moscow and New York. 

  • Damodaran led the United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative to solve human problems through a multidisciplinary approach.  

  • Borrowing from history, he compares generative AI to the invention of the Atomic bomb, calling it a creation to be used with a certain degree of 'self-restraint.'

Ramu Damodaran grew up in a household inoculated from cultural shocks. Moscow was not his only home. He spent the first ten years of his childhood wandering from Sri Lanka’s Colombo to Prague, Berlin, and Beijing. He would then return to India and visit his parents on vacations to Sweden and Rome. Before Damodaran knew it, he was a global citizen who chose to follow in his father’s footsteps, carving out a career in diplomacy.

As a member of the Indian Foreign Service, he reached new heights of success, working for the United Nations (UN) in New York, serving terms at the Indian embassy in Moscow, and then continuing to work in New Delhi. In 1994, he transitioned to a permanent role in the U.S., working for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations for a decade, witnessing rapid expansion and growing missions.

The most rewarding experience was his work with the Department of Global Communications, where he devised and led the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI). This initiative engages higher learning institutions in protecting human rights, improving access to education, and increasing sustainability.

Life in the Soviet Union

The Cold War saw the ‘Iron Curtain’ cast a divide between the ‘Free World’ and the Eastern Bloc. The West has long been led to believe the culture in the Soviet Union was non-accepting and intolerant. However, Ramu’s experience there quashes these notions.

Within the limitations of its political systems, the Soviet Union created for its citizens ample opportunities for recreation and leisure. There were literary translations of both American and British works. It was not uncommon to find works by Charles Dickens, or even a translation of 'Somerset,' waiting to be cherished by readers there.

“I found Russian friends who were far more knowledgeable about Hindi films than I was because they saw all of them dubbed in Russian. They knew the plotlines and songs." – Ramu Damodaran


A Diet for Consuming Information

We might not be at war today, but modern-day technology has us fighting battles of information overload, half-truths, and falsehoods.

“I just wish that people would pause and take a breath before pressing forward or reposting something they receive on social media,” says Ramu when asked about disseminating information.

He says fiction that, tries to make a point while masquerading as fact, is an imminent danger people need to be wary of. He believes in exercising self-restraint, just as humans would while indulging in unhealthy foods that harm them. Damodaran, nonetheless, does not fail to recognize the beauty of the information society. Gripping a person’s attention all through the craft of communication, the sheer power of writing is a quality he envies.

Artificial Intelligence: Novel Experience or Threat? 

Comparing advancements in generative AI to the invention of the atomic bomb, Ramu takes a long, winding look at modern history to drive home the point of self-restraint against this new make-or-break technology the world is grappling with.

“Just as the imperative of the atomic energy age was self-restrained on the part of those nations or governments who had nuclear power, it’s imperative to have self-restraint by those who can wield the power of artificial intelligence.” – Ramu Damodaran

Artificial intelligence and its impact are not solely the responsibility of nation-states but have also extended to individuals, corporations, and entrepreneurs. Damodaran affirms his belief in an international mechanism and a social contract that will help unite every possible player in the realm. He says it is criminal to deny people some of the clear benefits of AI in public health and the exploration of the mind.

On The U.N. Academic Impact 

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, only a few disciplines being taught at universities were linked to the UN and its objectives: international relations, law, and political studies. However, the UNAI believes that “every subject can have a UN imprint," including hard sciences like Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

Since 2004, the UNAI has united a diverse network of students, scientists, researchers, and think tanks.

With over 1,600 member institutions in more than 150 countries, the initiative has touched the lives of 25 million people involved in education and research. As part of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI), there is no cost or fee for universities to join the UNAI.

Their work is vital to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and serving as incubators of new solutions to global challenges. The sole responsibility of each member institution is to actively demonstrate support for UN principles—intercultural dialogue, education for all, and global citizenship.

Changing the World, Travel, and Leisure

Damodaran narrates his fulfilling experience in Italy’s Assisi, staying in a convent there run by a vivacious group of nuns. “I just want to wander through that lovely country [Italy] and almost pretend that I'm in the 16th century, but not deny myself 21st-century comfort," he says.

What would you do if given a magical 24 hours to change the world? Ramu says he would curtail 'political and military recklessness.’ “The idea that I am not the world. The world is not me. There are others. And I do not need to inhibit, limit, demean, diminish, or in any way deny myself by being cognizant of the fact,” he says.


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