March 08, 2019

Kailash Manasarovar 2018 Slide Show

January 16, 2019

The Vedantin looks at Cloud Robotics

In 2006-2007, in the early years of the Web 2.0 that emerged phoenix like from the ashes of the dotcom bust of 2000, Michael Wesch, Professor of Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University produced a video called “The Machine is Us/ing Us”. Prior to the emergence of Web 2.0, the world wide web was primarily a read-only medium to publish news and information to a passive audience. Web 2.0, with its focus on user generated content and a personal network of trust, created a read-write platform that allowed individuals to feed information easily into the system or “The Machine”. In the process The Machine learnt stuff that it never knew before. Wikipedia, one of the first Web 2.0 platforms, became the biggest repository of information, if not knowledge. This in turn allowed it influence a whole generation of students, journalists and web user, and shape the way they view the world. For example, this author who has studied in a Catholic missionary school, had had a great regard for Francis Xavier. But this was completely reversed after he read the Wikipedia article about the murderous Inquisition that Xavier had unleashed on the Hindus of Goa. Obviously, no one at school had ever talked about such unsavoury matters.

image from

The thrust of the Wesch video was that every action that a person takes in the digital world is used as an input by “The digital Machine” to increase its own knowledge of both the physical world and recursively, about the digital world. Every “like” of a post on social media or a click on hyperlink on a web page or a mobile app is like a drop of information that individually and collectively adds to the pool of knowledge about what humans know and think. This in turn is used to shape our own world view by returning recommendations of what next to view, “like” and click again. Unless you are like Richard Stallman, an advocate of extreme privacy who hardly uses anything digital -- like Google search, cellphones or credit cards -- you have no escape from this tight embrace of The Machine. Fortunately, The Machine is not yet one monolithic device. It’s world of has been broken up into fragments -- Google, Baidu, Amazon, Alibaba, Facebook --  by high commercial walls. But in its tireless striving it certainly does stretch its arms into every nook and corner of human activity and through that, the human mind.

In parallel with the growth of the web, there has been the emergence of data science. This began as an extension of statistics and has evolved into machine learning. Then again there was classical, 1960s style artificial intelligence that, after lying dormant for nearly 30 years, suddenly woke up and  adopted the neural network structure of the brain as a new model of machine learning. This neural network model, often referred to as deep learning is the new age AI and it is racing forward with some truly stunning applications in the area of voice and image recognition, language translation, guidance and control of autonomous vehicles and in decision making as in loan disbursement and hiring of employees.

Data science has moved through three distinct stages of being descriptive -- reporting data, inferential --  drawing conclusions from data through the acceptance or rejection of hypotheses and finally predictive -- as in the new age AI. What has really accelerated the adoption and usage of this new AI has been the availability of data and hardware. The backpropagation algorithm that lies at the heart of all neural network based AI systems that are popular today was developed in the 1960s and 1970s but it has become useful only in the last decade. It is driven by the availability of (a) huge amounts of data, collectable and collected through the web by The Machine described in the Wesch video and (b) enormous yet inexpensive computing power that is available on rentable virtual machines from cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine and Microsoft Azure.

The key driver in this field is cloud computing. Instead of purchasing and installing physical hardware, companies rent virtual machines in the cloud to both store and process data. The simplest and most ubiquitous example of this is Gmail where both our mail and the mail server are located somewhere in the internet cloud that we can access with a browser. But this same model has been used for many mission-critical, corporate applications ranging from e-commerce through enterprise resource planning to supply chain and customer relationship management systems. Though there has been some resistance to cloud computing because of the insecurity of  placing sensitive company data on a vendor machine, the price performance is so advantageous that most new software services are all deployed in the cloud -- and that includes machine learning and AI applications.

Cloud service vendors have aggressively marketed their services by not only offering high end hardware -- as virtual machines -- at very low prices but also by offering incredibly powerful software applications. Complex machine learning software for, say, image recognition, language translation that are ordinarily very difficult to develop are now available and accessible almost as easily as email or social media. Cloud computing services are categorised into Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). The first category provides a general purpose computing platform with a virtual machine, an operating system, programming languages and database services where developers can build and deploy applications without purchasing any hardware. The second category is even simpler to use because the software -- like email as in the case of Gmail -- is already there. One needs to subscribe (or purchase) the service, obtain the access credentials, like userid and password, connect and start using the services right away. Nothing to build or deploy. It is already there waiting to be used.

In an earlier article in Swarajya ( March 2017), we had seen how machine learning and now, the new age AI, uses huge, terabyte size, sets of training data to create software models than can be used for predictive analytics. This is an expensive exercise that lies beyond the ability of individuals and most corporates. But with AI or machine learning available as SaaS at a fraction of the cost, new software application that use these services can be built easily. For example it would be possible to enhance a widely used accounting software by replacing the userid/password based login process with a face recognition based login process. Similarly, the enormous difficulty of building the software for a self driving car, or for a voice activated IVR telephony, can be drastically reduced by using AI-as-a-Service from a cloud services vendor. Obviously, all cloud services including SaaS assume the existence of rugged, reliable and high speed data connectivity between the service provider and the device on which the service is being used.

Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) can be seen as logical extension of this model but a closer examination may yield a far deeper, or intriguing, insight.

Cloud Robotics, a new service from Google is scheduled to go live in 2019 and allow people to build smart robots very easily. It is inevitable that other cloud service vendors will follow suit. While many of us view robots as humanoids -- with arms, legs, glowing eyes, a squeaky voice or a stiff gait -- the reality is generally different. Depending on the intended use, a robot could be a vehicle, a drone, an arm in an automated assembly line or a device that controls valves, switches and levers in an industrial environment. In fact, a robot is anything that can sense its environment and take steps to do whatever it takes to achieve its goals. This is precisely the definition of intelligence or more specifically artificial intelligence (AI). So a robot is an intelligent machine that can operate autonomously to meet its goals.

Traditional robots have this intelligence baked, or hard coded, into its “brain” -- the physical computer that senses and responds to the stimuli that it receives from its environment. This is no different from its immediate role model -- humans. Human beings, and even most animals, learn how to react and respond to external stimuli ranging from a physical attack to a gentle question and we estimate this intelligence by the quality of their response. In both cases, the knowledge of the external world as encoded in a model along with the ability to respond is stored locally -- either in the human brain or in the local computer. Cloud robotics replaces the local computer that controls a single robot with a shared computer -- located at the cloud services provider’s premises -- that controls  thousands of robots. Just as GMail servers store, serve and otherwise control the mailboxes for millions of users each sitting at home, the cloud robotics servers sitting in some unknown corner of the internet would be able to control millions of intelligent robots that are driving vehicles, flying drones, controlling devices and operating machines in farms, factories, mines and construction sites across the digitally connected physical world.

Circling back to the Wesch video, with which we began this article, these RaaS servers would not just be controlling machinery across the globe but would also be learning from the robots that it controls by using the robots to collect and build up its own pool of training data. This is an extension of the original Web 2.0 idea -- perhaps we could call it Web 3.0. Here The Machine has not only made a successful transition from the digital to the physical world but also does not need humans anymore to teach it. It can become a self sustaining, self learning physical device.

Privacy would be an immediate issue and like all other cloud services, cloud robotics would be protected with access control and data encryption. But then as we have seen in the past, convenience trumps privacy. We all know that Google can read our GMail but nevertheless, we still use Gmail simply because it is convenient and free! So would be the case with cloud robotics. We also know that the different RaaS vendors would try to isolate their own robots from interacting with the servers of other vendors or even from each other. But this could be a temporary reprieve. Collaboration among various vendors and pooling of data could happen either through mergers and acquisitions or because it is mandated by governments that are not concerned about privacy issues.

The need for privacy arises because each sentient human sees itself as a unique identity -- I, me and mine -- that is surely distinct from the collective crowd. My data becomes private because it needs to be protected, or shielded, from the collective crowd. But if we go back to the philosophical roots of the Indic sanatan dharma and explore the perspectives of Advaita Vedanta, we see that that this sense of “I” ness is erroneous. Each apparently unique individual is actually a part of a transcendent and collective consciousness referred to as the Brahman. The Brahman is the only reality and everything else is an error of perception. The world is Maya, an illusion that perpetuates this sense of separateness, and creates this distinction between the individual and the universal. The correct practice of Yoga can lead to the removal of this veil of illusion and initiates the process of realisation. That is when the Yogic adept sees the unbroken continuity between his own identity and that of the Brahman and experiences the ecstasy of enlightenment.

We know that many renowned Yogis have actually experienced this enlightenment. AI products have now gone well past image and voice recognition and are now known to have the sophistication necessary to create their own private, non-human languages and original strategies in multi-user, role playing games. What we need to know is what happens when robots start emulating yogis and eventually realise their  identity with the cloud robotics server of which they are a part!

this article was originally published in Swarajya

December 25, 2018

Social Credit : What China does today ...

Credit rating is a big business. Thanks to companies like CRISIL and  ICRA and the research they do into the finances of companies, bond investors get an independent view of a company’s financial status. Then they can take a call on whether they should invest or not. At a personal level, the CIBIL score is a relatively new product in India and its value is used as a benchmark by financial institutions to determine whether an individual qualifies for a personal loan and if so for what amount. In all cases, the financial credit score, whether personal or institutional, is the primary determinant for access to loans or financial credit and by extension, to goods and services that are available on credit. In India, these extensions may not be evident but in the US and other financially mature societies, the financial credit score is used to allow or deny telephone connections or even rental of residential apartments. The utility of the financial credit score is well understood and it is generally accepted as a useful tool to ensure safety and stability in a financial ecosystem.

China has taken this concept and is planning to extend it to the social domain. By defining a metric called social credit and determining it’s numeric value for each citizen, it seeks to create a new tool that will ensure a safe and stable social and political system. Or will it create a high tech, low life, cyberpunk dystopia? This article explores this idea and speculates on how it may or may not be used in other countries, including India.

The financial credit score for an individual is calculated, or built up, with information about the individual that is available with the participants in the financial ecosystem and which they are willing to share without compromising the privacy of the individual. Generally, assets like income stream, home value, bank balance are private but information on liabilities like loans -- secured, as in car and home loans and unsecured, as in personal or credit card -- that are sanctioned along with a history of utilisation and repayment are available with credit rating agencies. The key determinant in this case is behaviour. While ability to repay a loan is certainly important, what is perhaps more important is the willingness to repay. This behavioural trait is measured and quantified by keeping track of actions that can be used as a proxy for the corresponding behavioural traits. For example, if a person has taken loans in the past, there is a behavioural pattern -- of repayment, or lack thereof -- that can be used as a proxy. Not having taken a loan means that there is no observable behavioural pattern to go with.

In 2014, the Chinese government operating through the State Council defined the architecture of a new national social credit system. Designed as an extension of the well known financial credit system, it will begin as any normal credit scoring system that will assess the creditworthiness of businesses operating in China but then it will go far beyond recording just financial behaviour. Though it is not very clear how non-financial behaviour will actually be recorded, there are pointers that some very sophisticated tools from the world of data science and artificial intelligence will be used to collect, collate and interpret digital data that may exist with one or more government agencies and private companies.

“Big Data” techniques are already used by search engines like Google, Baidu, social media firms like Twitter, Weibo, and eCommerce sites like Amazon, Alibaba to gather vast amount of data on what people search for, talk about and purchase. In western societies, concerns about privacy and legislation limit the amount of that can be collected or the way that this can be used by government agencies. In China, where national security and the need to maintain social order overrides any concerns about privacy, this kind of data will be readily -- if not compulsorily -- available. Hence the Chinese government will have a fairly detailed view, not just into the buying patterns of its citizens, but also into what they are thinking and talking about. This obviously means that any kind of behaviour that threatens national security or social order -- an euphemism for anti-government behaviour -- will be detected with relative ease.

But even this is not enough. Anyone who has been to China would have noticed the large number of CCTV cameras that are deployed not just in public and private buildings but also on roads. Using facial recognition and vehicle number plate reading technology it is very much possible to track the actual physical movement of individuals and the vehicles registered in their name across any part of the country. All it needs is to collect the digital imagery from thousands of cameras and run them through a centralized system, neither of which is difficult with the technology that is readily available today.

Some of the data that is gathered and the use to which it is put is sometimes funny, though occasionally useful. For example, time spent on online gaming ( and perhaps on pornography, though this is not stated as such) is tracked and if it is excessive then the social credit score gets reduced. People on matrimonial or dating sites are encouraged to display their social credit score, along with their other characteristics, as this is expected to ensure social compatibility of partners! Similarly hospitals are being encouraged to ask patients for their social credit score and offer preferential services to those whose scores are high.

The financial credit score, like CIBIL, determines  access to loans. So a bad financial credit score means that one cannot get loans or the interest charged on loans is high. China’s social credit score mechanism takes this to the next level by placing similar restrictions on access to other services. Some of these restrictions could seem logical, as in denying access to the best schools and colleges to children of parents who have low social credit. What is more troublesome is the restriction on travel implemented by creating a no-fly no-train ( or no-travel)  list of people who are not allowed to purchase train or airline tickets for themselves. This means that in one shot, people whom the government deem to be troublemakers are now physically restrained from leaving their residential neighbourhood and participate in any troublesome activity. Forget about guns and bombs, the person cannot even travel to the capital and meet with fellow activists there. This is like a house arrest, or in this case, a neighbourhood arrest.

This no-travel scenario is not from a hypothetical cyberpunk novel. The system has become operational from March 2018 when and by May 2018 the process of denial of air and train tickets has been implemented. It is reported that nearly 10 million people were not allowed to buy airline or high-speed train tickets. The reason for denial of tickets is not very clear and it seems that at the moment,  most of the people on the no-travel list are debtors with bad history of repayment. But as is evident, it would be very easy to extend the same no-travel list to include people with low social credit as well.

One challenge with the current Chinese system is that unlike financial credit, the basis of determining social credit is not clearly known. The definition of good and bad behaviour is still ill-defined and there is no clear explanation about which all entities are contributing data. Nor is there any mechanism to question the validity of a social credit score or appeal against a low score.

Is such pervasive surveillance possible? Certainly yes.  We -- not just China but every country -- have the technology to make it happen. A combination of data science and artificial intelligence along with free and open source tools to use them is readily available to anyone who wants to do so.

Is such pervasive surveillance permissible? This is where the issues become murky and questions become difficult to answer. If you subscribe to the Western ideals of liberalism, individualism and social contract articulated by philosophers like Locke and Rousseau, then such surveillance and the subsequent restrictions are unacceptable. But if you were to subscribe to the philosophy of Confucius who believed that disorder and chaos is the biggest hindrance to peace, prosperity and happiness and that the average person does not have ability to make important decisions, then the surveillance and restrictions suddenly make a lot of sense. In China, obviously, they believe more in Confucius than in Rousseau and hence there is little known objection to this new concept of social credit. But then what happens behind the Bamboo Curtain is something that is difficult for us to know.

Where does India figure in all this?

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, India is a country of inertia and momentum. Nothing changes easily and if anyone tries to change anything, there is always a tremendous opposition. Plus we have politicians who will oppose anything that is proposed by the government. We have three ways to tag, and track, individuals, namely, the Voter Card issued by the Election Commission, the PAN  issued by the Income Tax department and finally Aadhar from UIDAI. The Voter Card number is of little use in tracking anything beyond the polling booth because it is neither standardised nor is there a central searchable repository. The PAN is somewhat more useful because its disclosure is now mandatory in all high value monetary transactions and so it is possible to link large movements of money to specific individuals. Recently, the income tax department has mooted a proposal in which regular tax-payers, that is those with the correct tax related behaviour, would be eligible for special privileges at toll roads, airports and government offices. In a sense, this is like the reported usage of social credit in Chinese hospitals.  Aadhar -- as a unique identity -- could have been used to track a person’s behaviour across different types of platforms and processes but the Supreme Court has ruled that it can only be used for its original purpose, namely, to track disbursal of government subsidies to specific targets. Hence it appears that such pervasive surveillance may seem to be difficult in India. However with the rapid advancement of technology that can connect individuals to their actions as recorded in their digital footprint,  the possibility of perpetual and pervasive surveillance will never go away -- even if we were restrict or eliminate Aadhar. In the digital world, you can run -- or click --  but you can never ever hide!

What China is overtly doing today with their social credit mechanism is something that, in a sense, is already being done covertly by companies and governments in many other countries. Going forward, such surveillance may become as common and as acceptable as body searches at airports and car searches at hotels that we have agreed to submit to in the interests of personal safety. A powerful convergence of commercial and political interests will ensure that privacy will eventually become a myth and any attempt to push back against the use of surveillance technology and the consequent the loss of privacy will be as futile as trying to hold back the tide on the seashore. The best that we can hope for is that this loss of privacy does not lead to an automatic degradation in the quality of personal and social life.

This kind of a dystopian future is frequently envisaged cyberpunk scenarios. The NeonDystopia website describes “Cyberpunk [as] both a culture and a genre. Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future.  On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice.  In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.”

Human society today is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Technology, economics and politics has created a powerful vortex that makes it very difficult to steer a course away from this cyberpunk dystopia without abandoning technology and regressing into primitive medievalism. While scientists, both physical and social, grapple with these issues, the anodyne perhaps could lie, not in Rousseau or Confucius, but in the Non-Dual Advaita of Sankara that sees a primordial unity across all sentience. Perhaps this utopian scenario would blur the borders between individual identities and lead to the irrelevance of the idea of privacy.

this article first appeared in Swarajya

October 30, 2018

Corporate Management Practices in Public Sector Institutes

The policy of the Government to identify and support Institutes of Eminence has generated controversy because of the inclusion of the green field Jio Institute in a group that includes the IITs. Whether the inclusion of Jio is correct or not may be debated elsewhere but let us first ask whether the IITs themselves -- and similar public sector Institutes like the IIMs, IISc, IISER and others -- deserve the “eminent” tag. Within India of course, their stature and allure is beyond question but one wonders if in the land of the blind the a one-eyed man has become the king!

copyright free image from

University rankings can of course be subjective and one may argue that our institutes serve a social purpose. However that is a fig-leaf that cannot hide the grim reality that shows up in the Times Higher Education Ranking of Engineering Schools, where IIT Bombay at rank 350+ is the highest ranked Indian school. Another, reasonably well-regarded, QS World Universities Rankings, is a little less embarrassing for India because we open our account there with IIT Delhi at 172. Let us admit that irrespective of  how much we quibble and wave our hands, our Institutes of Eminence are nowhere the top of the global pecking order.

Which is not only unfortunate but very strange as well. People from India, whether graduates from these IITs or not, are found in significant numbers in almost every school that has a rank higher than the Indian schools. This means that it is not the quality of people that is at fault but something else.

An obvious cause could be lack of money. Most top ranking schools have access to funds that are far higher than what is available to IITs, but again this is a red-herring that is often used to divert attention from deeper issues. Money is not really an issue because of two reasons. First, the primary use of money, is and should be payment to faculty and in India faculty pay is calibrated with the local economy. So faculty does not need a dollar denominated salary just as no corporate manager in India expects anything like what their equivalents get in wealthier economies. The second need for money is in laboratories and equipment. This is true for only certain areas like, say physics, astronomy or quantum computing. But today, a vast range of research in say, computer science or biotechnology can be done with investments that are almost within the affordability of individual “hackers” and certainly within the budget of most Indian universities. So lack of money is a really bad excuse for our poor rankings.

Outside academia, the situation in the corporate sector is not so pathetic. While we certainly do not have a Google, Tesla or Arm (that makes chips for most of the smartphones on the planet)  as yet, our corporates like TCS, Tata Steel, HUL, ITC, Airtel, HDFC are quite comparable to global companies that are in the same line of business. Not perhaps in absolute revenue but certainly in the kind of work they do -- excluding R&D of course -- and with the efficiency with which they operate. Which is why many of them can compete and win in global markets against global brands.

Management Structures & Systems

This means that the weakness is in the management process. Family owned Lala-ji companies cannot compete in the global market even though they may have the cheapest labour or raw materials. What we need is a professional management structures and processes and this is what is sorely missing in our Indian institutes that, despite protestations to the contrary, are lala-ji operations led by a Director and his favourite Deans. Even if we leave aside the process of appointment of a Director, which is nowhere as objective as it should be, the fact that he operates with all authority and little accountability -- except at an aggregate financial level -- means that management processes are absent. The institutes are run in an ad-hoc manner, but being a government agency, this ad-hocism is tied up in the longest and messiest red-tape of sarkari bureaucracy. So the real problem is the poor state of the underlying management and administrative mechanism. Given the rigid, anachronistic and inefficient processes under which they operate,  it is no wonder that these institutes have no chance of competing with world class institutions in other countries.

But instead of simply criticizing the administration, let us see which areas need improvement and how we could about rectifying it -

1. Human resources : We take it for granted that competent people will leave lucrative corporate careers and join public sector institutes at government salaries but in reality this never happens. As a result we have a majority of employees -- both faculty and staff -- who are there as a necessity and not out of choice! This is tragic because we would want the best people to be here. Obviously salaries cannot be hiked across the board. Instead we must have a well designed HR mechanism that seeks out competent people, induces them to join our institutes, help them manage both their careers and their personal life ( especially spouse employment in remote locations)  and ensure that they are well looked after in terms of accommodation and other perks. In parallel there must be an annual performance appraisal that rewards good work and punishes the laggards. In short we need an active HR function and a corporate style Compensation and Benefits policy that is significantly different from the take-it-or-leave-it, one-size-fits-all salary structure that is doled out by the latest Pay Commission.

2. Financial Accounting : Most public sector institutes have very weak financial management systems and there is no clarity on where the money is being spent. There is clearly no shortage of money and while there may not be blatant theft, a lot of money is diverted to unnecessary uses like civil construction that benefits contractors, not students or faculty. The large granularity at which expenses are tracked results in a lack of transparency in the usage of funds. A simple enforcement of the generally accepted accounting principles that mandate a highly granular set of cost codes and charge accounts followed by a thorough statutory audit would easily unearth vast amounts of ill-spent money that can be diverted for useful activities.

3. Procurement : While tracking money is difficult, spending money is even more so. Being government organisations, these institutes have to follow the rigid L1 tender process and there is the perpetual fear of investigations by the CAG, the CBI and the Vigilance Commission. This does not deter unscrupulous deals -- any vendor is ready to provide the three mandatory quotations -- but it introduces an intolerable delay and difficulty in any genuine procurement process. For example, attempts to buy low value products and services over the web using credit cards and then seeking reimbursements are blocked by the three quotation rule. A simplified procure-to-pay cycle that will reduce costs and yet ensure compliance with appropriate approval procedures will introduce a great deal of flexibility and efficiency in the system.

4. Asset Management : Public sector institutes sit on vast assets but most of these are ill managed. Civil and electrical infrastructure is maintained poorly as there is no clear cut demarcation of authority or accountability. Equipment is bought and not used because of lack of training or compatibility. Non functioning equipment is not repaired or cannot be repaired because of procedural issues. Junk piles up in dusty store rooms but cannot be disposed easily because of outdated audit mechanisms. A smart and modern asset management policy will ensure that the public funds are used much more effectively.

5. Enterprise Information Architecture & Culture : It is indeed a paradox that even though these institutes are supposed to be thought leaders in technology their own usage of the same is woefully low. Other than email systems, none of the collaborative tools and practices that are used in corporates are available here. Email is for broadcast of information, not for interactive discussion. Peons still carry paper documents, through proper channel, to people across the floor and get acknowledgements of receipt in “peon books”. Tele  and video conferences are unthinkable, social media is a private matter for individuals and mail based approvals -- for even mundane matters -- are not acceptable.

Technology, or its cost, is not the bottleneck. People are simply not willing to experiment with new ways to manage accounts, handle procurement, manage assets and adopt best practices from the corporate world. This leads us back to the first point, the HR issue,  because there is no incentive to improve anything nor is there any disincentive for staying with the status quo. As long as you are in the good books of the Director and as long as the Director is in the good books of the current bureaucrats at the HRD Ministry everyone can keep milking the mammaries of the state.

Mergers and Acquisitions ?

The final need is for these institutes to scale up but thanks to Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-conceived decision to “gift” an IIT “for” Assam, we have opened the floodgates to regionalism. This has caused massive fragmentation of scarce resources -- both money and people.  By opening IITs to pander to regional sentiments we ignore the fundamental mandate of IITs to source both students and faculty at a national level. Institutes are built by accumulating talented people and not making grand buildings that only benefit contractors.  To put it simplistically, twenty professors with a thousand students in one institute is far better than to have two professors at ten institutes with a hundred students each. Even though the teacher-student ratio in both situations is 1:50, in the first case, each student gets access to all twenty specialist professors but in the second case, each students get access to only two professors who teach ten subjects each. Obviously, quality will suffer. Plus twenty professors networking with each other can achieve far better research results than two lonely professors at each location. This is the fatal flaw in our IIT system. Instead of allowing them to scale to the level of the global organisations like MIT or Oxford, our academic “world has been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”. 

Since the multitude of IITs (or IIMs) cannot be shutdown we need to explore the equivalent of a Merger-and-Acquisition mechanism used in the corporate sector. Many, if not all of the new IITs, can be merged with the nearest of the “Original Five” and this will cause an immediate scale up. With collaborative technology and some travel, faculty and facilities can be readily  shared across multiple locations as in multi-location corporates. Only administrative staff would be rendered redundant and many of our Directors, and their Deans, will have go back to teaching and research jobs, which what they were supposed to be doing anyway. The program on data analytics conducted jointly by IIT-KGP, IIM-C and ISI could be a template for a more comprehensive and formal merger of, say, the IITs at Kharagpur, Bhubaneswar, Dhanbad, Patna and Guwahati into the first mega IIT. Even NIT Durgapur can be thrown into this mix.

There is a wealth of talent that is available in India but unfortunately, it is managed very poorly. That is why this talent seeks opportunities outside India or just withers away. Adoption of modern management processes will radically change the way our institutes operate and allow them to compete with global universities on equal terms.
originally published in Swarajya

September 28, 2018

Cypher 2018 - Thought Controlled Devices

This year my talk at the Cypher 2018 event was on Thought controlled devices that I had also written about in Swarajya as well as in an earlier post in this blog. Here is the full presentation:

In earlier editions of Cypher I had spoken about

  1. How to  use R + Hadoop to solve big data problems in Retail. - Cypher 2015.
  2. The How and why of Cryptocurrency - Cypher 2016
  3. Practical demonstration of Quantum Computing - Cypher 2017

September 12, 2018

The Ghost and the Machine

The Ghost in the Machine is a 1967 book by the noted Hungarian born author, Arthur Koestler, about the mind-body problem that seeks to relate the intangible mind with a physical body. Half a century later, the rapid rise of artificial intelligence and the proliferation of autonomous robots, including cars, has intensified our focus in this area. Today, we seek technology that will help to connect the intangibility of knowledge, intent, desire with the physicality of a corresponding action seamlessly.
A cursory glance at the technology landscape shows us multiple strands of enquiry. First there is vanilla artificial intelligence (AI) that is focussed on digital phenomena like image, hand-writing and voice recognition, language translation and strategy games like chess and GO. Extending this is vanilla robotics that allow us operate complicated machine tools in a range of applications ranging from heavy manufacturing to delicate surgical procedures. Both these strands tend to come together to create autonomous devices like self driving cars and data-driven decisions processes. These can, or are being designed to sense a rapidly changing environment and react in a manner that helps achieve goals initially set by human programmers and, then increasingly and somewhat disconcertingly, by these non-human devices “themselves”.

This last narrative of autonomous robots taking on an increasing role in the affairs of human society and replacing humans -- not just in low end physical work but in complex management and administrative decisions -- is causing increasing angst in the general population. From initial fears of large scale unemployment to subtle disempowerment and marginalisation of humans, popular culture is rife with fears of our robotic overlords taking over the planet. Shining a ray of hope into this otherwise dystopian darkness are two other somewhat similar streams of technology that are becoming increasingly stronger. First is bio-hacking that seeks to augment human abilities. This goes beyond the mere application of mechanical devices, like levers and pulleys to raise heavy weights or servo motors and power steering that allow humans to control big machines. Bio-hackers enhance our biological organs to allow, say, human being to sense ultra violet rays, embed RFID chips under the skin to activate doors and in extreme cases, use transcranial electrical shocks to alter the ability of the brain to respond to emergencies. What looks like the end-game in this body-enhancement process is the fourth and final strand of technology that hooks into the human brain to determine what its intentions are. Then it goes about executing or implementing these intentions using the non-human technology of far more powerful machines. Thus the ghost of an intention or desire, “residing” or originating in the brain is liberated from the restrictions imposed by the physical limitations of a biological body and is allowed to directly control and use the immense computational and electro-mechanical power of a physical machine to achieve its goals. This tight integration of the ghost and the machine, where the latter is controlled by the former through thought alone is what will possibly allow carbon based human intelligence to hold its own against the pure silicon-based artificial intelligence that threatens to swamp it. The technology of controlling machines with thought is what we explore in this article.

Controlling devices and machinery with thoughts, or rather the mind, is really not new. The concept has moved from mythology, through science fiction and has been actually realised and implemented in wheelchairs for paraplegic patients. These are unfortunate people who are paralysed from their neck downwards and there is really no cure for this condition. But in the last ten years, engineers have acquired the expertise to use electroencephalography (EEG) techniques to sense electrical signals in the brain and use this information to guide wheelchairs as per their desires and requirements. This simple google search will show the range and diversity of products, including some do-it-yourself products for amateurs, that are readily available or can be constructed.

But to be effective, the EEG has to be unpleasantly intrusive. Initially, implants had to be inserted through holes drilled into the cranium and connected to neurons. With time and technology, this has been simplified to the point where special purpose caps with metallic probes worn tightly on the head could also be used to serve the same purpose. In fact some of these caps are also being used as input devices for video games and can be used to control the game. Nevertheless, the unwieldy nature of the interface makes it rather difficult to  use unless one was really, really desperate to use the technology as in the case of an unfortunate paraplegic. This is where the whole new technology of electromyography (EMG) has made a significant breakthrough.

The key idea behind this amazing new technique is that while the brain and the nervous system may be the origin of all our thoughts and desires, the information about the same is communicated to the external world -- and devices -- through motor control. When we speak, throat muscles move. When we type letters on a keyboard, move a pencil on paper or operate a switch, the muscles of our hands move. When we are happy or sad the muscles of our face change to reflect a smile or a frown. So the information on the intent or the desire that is lies deep inside the brain and could only be accessed with EEG implants is now accessible far more easily by something as simple as a wristband!

CTRL-Kit is one such device. Designed by a neuroscience company CTRL-Lab that is led by former Microsoft engineer Thomas Reardon, CTRL-Kit looks like a heavy bracelet with spikes that is often worn by gangsters and their henchmen. But instead of hurting an enemy, the spikes in this bracelet press into the wearer’s skin and can pick up the electrical voltage in the motor muscles of the hand. Two simple demonstrations show the immense potential of this technology. In the first, a person starts typing on a normal keyboard and the letters appear on the screen. Then the keyboard is removed and the person is basically drumming the table with the intention to type and the letters continue to appear on the screen. Finally, even the motion of the fingers is stopped and the mere desire or intention to type a letter is picked up from the minute twitch in the muscle and reflected as a letter on the screen. In the second demo, the movement of a person’s hand is sensed and shown as a corresponding “virtual” hand on the screen. Obviously, the virtual hand on the screen can be replaced with a physical, mechanical robotic hand if necessary. Making the virtual hand replicate the movement of the human hand is not difficult. One can move a finger or make a fist and the virtual hand will do the same. The magic happens when the human does not actually move the finger but only desires or wishes to. That is when the software takes over and by, not just detecting, but interpreting the pattern of electrical voltage on the motor muscles of the wrist, it makes the virtual hand move a finger even though the human hand did not move it.

From motion to words. AlterEgo is a earphone and headset combination developed by Arnav Kapur at the MIT Media Lab that focuses on the muscles around the face and the jaw. When a person speaks, a normal microphone is designed to pick up  the physical vibrations or movements of the air or the bones but AlterEgo is different. Instead of sensing movement, it senses the voltage level in the muscles that cause movement and as a result it can pick out words that the user is silently articulating or “saying in his head”.  Even when a person is simply reading text the muscles around the head and the face have quick, imperceptible movements that “sound” out the words that he actually “hears” in his head. This process is known as sub-vocalisation and is the key with which AlterEgo unlocks what is going in and out of the brain when one is trying to speak.

Both CTRL-Kit and AlterEgo are a part of an ever expanding family of wearable devices that picks up signals emanating from the brain, either through traditional EEG or the more user friendly EMG technique and interpret them to decode what the wearer desires or intends to do or say. But this interpretation and decoding process still uses the good “old fashioned” AI techniques like artificial neural networks. Scanning through a blizzard of neurosignals, whether from EEG or EMG, and interpreting it as a specific word or movement is really no different from the kind of AI research that goes into autonomous vehicle control or face recognition and this is perhaps going to be the biggest application of AI techniques in the years ahead.

Popular perception posits AI -- and robots that it controls -- as competitors to humans and native intelligence but going forward it is more likely than not that the two will cooperate to achieve tasks that each one has difficulty in doing on its own. Structurally, or qualitatively, it is no different from a crane operator lifting a 100 tonne load or a pilot flying an aircraft at the speed of sound, but operationally there will be a far higher degree of integration between man and machine. In effect, this means that man will now be able to evolve into a superman - with enhanced physical and mental powers.

India has already missed the bus on traditional AI. Unlike Google, Facebook, Amazon or even Alibaba and Baidu, there is no Indian company that has the volume and variety of data with which it can create the kind of AI models that shock-and-awe us with their incredible sophistication. Flipkart might have succeeded but like in most Indian businesses, their owners were more interested in selling out to Walmart and enjoy their hard won cash. Now it is almost impossible, in the winner-takes-all scenario of the internet, for any new startup that is based on social data will be able to scale up to achieve anything significant. Man-machine interactions on the other hand offer a very significant but niche area where Indian entrepreneurship can still get a toe-hold by leveraging the knowledge that is latent and currently languishing in our public institutions like IITs and AIIMSs. Like TeamIndus, that made a valiant, but eventually unsuccessful, private effort to plant the tri-colour on the Moon, we need a private initiative to focus on and crack this technology. This may be the only way that India can, not just hop on to, but actually get to drive the next big technology bus.

The Ghost trapped in the biological Machine must be liberated so that the Ghost and the digital Machine, the carbon intelligence and the silicon intelligence can work together. This is how we will walk  towards a new future at the next level of the ladder of human evolution.

July 15, 2018

Kailash Manas Sarowar Summer 2018

Kailash and Manas Sarowar are words or rather destinations that send shivers of excitement through many who have grown up in an Indic environment. As the centre of the metaphysical universe and the abode of that innate quality of Goodness, that we identify with and as Shiv, it is the ultimate place of pilgrimage for anyone who lives and believes in the Sanatan Dharma of this land. But before one sets out for Kailash one must understand that this is no comfortable vacation of the kind that you enjoy in hill stations like Darjeeling, Almora or Simla. It is also not an adventure trek -- there are far more interesting and logistically friendly trekking opportunities in, say, Himachal, Ladakh or Garhwal. Kailash and Manas Sarowar is no vacation, no trek, but a place where you surrender your heart and soul at the altar of the Divine.

There are many ways to reach Manasarowar but the most popular route is through Nepal from Kathmandu. On this route, there is no need to either walk or take a pony and one can reach Manasarowar by bus. It is three days by bus from Kathmandu although there is another option of flying to Lhasa and then take a three day bus journey to Manas Sarowar. These three days on the bus allows one to acclimatize to the high altitude, and low oxygen, of the Tibet plateau so that breathing problems are minimised, though never completely eliminated. The other option of taking a helicopter flight, though shorter and more expensive, can lead to severe acclimatization issues and breathing problems. After a day spent on the shores of Manasarowar, one needs to go to Darchen, at the foot of Mount Kailash, again by bus, and then perform the three day circumambulation or parikrama of the mountain. This is a very tough trek and most pilgrims perform a symbolic parikrama around the Yamadwar -- a small passageway with a big bell -- that is starting point of the formal parikrama. Ponies are available for the parikrama but the high altitude, going up to 18,000 feet, causes intense physical distress and many pilgrims need medical evacuation from the parikrama.

In addition to the physical difficulties of reaching Manas Sarowar and Kailash there are quite a few operational challenges as well. Personal visas to enter Tibet are not issued to individuals. Pilgrims must must form groups of the same nationality and then apply for a group visa through one of the many tour operators in India or Nepal. However one needs to remembers, that despite claims to the contrary, these Indian and Nepalese tour companies can only offer services upto the Tibet border. Once  inside Tibet, one is in the hands of the local Chinese guide over whom the tour operators have little control. Hence it is quite possible that in remote regions like Saga, Manasarowar and Darchen, four to six people may have to share rooms that were promised on a twin-sharing basis and there is no scope for any argument there. Food also become a challenge because in many places Indian style food is simply not available and unless one is comfortable with pork or yak meat, one would have to have live on boiled cabbage, boiled mushrooms and rice,  which can be really awful. One would be better of carrying biscuits, dry fruits, chocolates and fruit juices, especially for lunch during the long, eight to ten hour drives bus drives through the desolate, “lunar” landscape.

The final problem is toilets -- that simply do not exist outside hotels in big cities like Lhasa or Shigatse. Most public toilets, including the ones at Manas Sarowar and Kailash are just rooms or enclosed spaces, often with no roof, with just a row of  holes in the ground through which  you drop your load. There is neither water nor toilet paper unless you carry it yourself and there is no way to flush away the sewage that simply accumulates! And of course there is no privacy -- everyone is in the same room, squatting side by side, though men and women have, thankfully, different rooms.

Given the Government of India’s focus on Swachchha Bharat, there is a good scope for our Ministry of External Affairs to explore the possibility of  extending this concept to Swachchha Manas and Swachchha Kailash. Thousands of Indian pilgrims will be benefited if one or two Dharamshalas can be built by the Indian government, even if these just provide a basic dormitory accommodation and proper Sulabh Sauchalay type toilets.

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