March 25, 2013

The Red Ravines of Gangani

Gangani is an unusually picturesque place on the banks of the Shilabati River, near Garhbeta, West Midnapur, West Bengal. Here erosion by water has created strange earth and rock formations on the banks of the river and the red colour of the soil gives the place an eerie look. The following slide show will help explain what we are talking about.

Some people refer to this place as the Grand Canyon of Bengal but of course in terms of size, the place is miniscule compared to the original in the US. This is what the place looks like in Wikimapia

March 14, 2013

The Inevitability of Universal Online Education

Students today are trapped in a strange dilemma precipitated by disturbing trends. One hand we have the devaluation of the college degree as more and more employers are demanding college degrees for jobs that essentially call for high schools ( see New York Times ) and on the other we have colleges rising exponentially and leading to a second debt crisis. ( See Time ) This may be a new phenomenon affecting the United States but has been a well known problem in the dismal economic scenario in poorer parts of the world. In India we have had the tragedy of graduate and even post graduate students fighting over janitorial opportunities in the arid job market while thousands of students never have the wherewithal to continue their studies beyond high school ( Class XII) or even middle school (Class X) In the gloom that is gathering over the global economy it is the student and the education system that is finding itself trapped in a cul-de-sac that seems to be leading nowhere in general and despair in particular !

image taken from

Yet, it is only education and learning that could provide a safe, guaranteed, environment-friendly and sustainable way for the world to dig itself out of the hole that it has found itself in. But to use it effectively we must be open to throwing away many of the myths and misconceptions that cloud our judgment and inhibit us from crafting a bold new architecture on which the world of the future can or should be based. An architecture that is based on distance learning and online education.

The biggest myth about online education is that it can never be as effective as face to face classroom training. This has been repeated ad nauseum and has acquired a ring of Gobbelsian authenticity. The fact is that very often face to face classroom education, when delivered by incompetent and under prepared faculty, is no better than no education at all even though students are presented with a degree or diploma for simply sitting through the course and writing an exam. On the other hand, self motivated acquisition of knowledge from websites and Youtube videos have equipped many people with the skills that are necessary in their daily work -- even though there is no universally accepted certification in the end. The bottom line is that it is futile to compare online and class room education. Instead the comparison should be between effective and ineffective pedagogy, between good and bad teachers -- irrespective of the medium or the technology used to transfer data, information, knowledge and wisdom from the teacher to the taught.

The Massively Open Online Courseware ( MOOC ) movement is a step in this direction. In fact big name universities on either side of the Atlantic have come together to create two major consortia -- Edx created by MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley in the US and FutureLearn consisting of 12 British Universities namely  Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds,  Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick, along with UK distance-learning organization The Open University (OU)  -- have been formed to develop the concept. And then of course there isCoursera a commercial entity  and Udacity created by Google employees who have all stepped into the game. While the jury could be out on the effectiveness and eventual viability of these enterprises, it might make sense  to see what is it that a traditional university has that distance learning must meet, match and exceed to be taken seriously. To understand that let us ask ..

What is a University ? At its most fundamental level a university has three critical characteristics, namely

  1. People : Lots of people, both students and teachers
  2. Space : A shared space that all these people can access simultaneously
  3. Interaction : An environment that encourages vigorous and rich interaction amongst all these people

Now let us look around us and see if these three conditions are being met anywhere in the digital world and the first place that we look at is

Social Media : Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Google+, Instagram ... what is common to all these platforms ?

  1. People : Again we have lots of people, though not necessarily teachers and students, though they are not excluded.
  2. Space : Obviously these platforms are accessible to, and are indeed accessed by, all the people who participate
  3. Interaction : There is no dearth of interaction and in fact interactions are the lifeblood of any social media platform.

What is even nicer is that these interactions can be very, very "rich" interactions, not just in terms of media -- that is images, audio, video -- but in terms of questions, answers, clarifications, comments, appreciation, criticism and even evaluation in terms of likes, shares and votes on each and every interaction. In fact I believe that social media interaction is far more richer in terms of diversity and depth than what could ever be possible in the physical world.

So the success of a distance learning program in emulating and surpassing a traditional university lies in its ability to map the university model on the social media model that has become so wildly popular.

In this context, it would be nice to keep in mind that when Apple had first introduced the Newton, a personal digital assistant, way back in the dim, dark “middle ages”, it was not accepted. But the iPad, which is essentially a similar device, was an instant success because ubiquity of the web and proliferation of the cellphone network through which the web could be accessed inexpensively created an environment where the iPad (and other tablet computers) could thrive.

Similarly, distance learning and the concept of open universities as established by institutions offering correspondence courses may not have been very popular but the same when delivered through the medium of a “Web 2.0” or social media platform could be far more effective and popular and pose a credible alternative to the established brick-and-mortar classroom that have become so impossible expensive and unaffordable for large parts of the global population.

One key area that distance learning falters on and yet, one that is of crucial importance to students is a credible evaluation mechanism that employers can depend upon and on the basis of which they can offer job placements. In fact, the popularity of most universities rest, not on what they teach or how, but how many of the graduating batch is placed and at what salaries. In fact, irreverent commentators have compared universities to job placement agencies but from the student’s perspectives that is great significance.

So the real challenge in distance learning is to put together a periodic examination process that attaches a credible grade or marks to each student that the employer can use to sort and sift the good, the bad and the ugly ! This can easily be arranged if we adopt a hybrid model where teaching is online but evaluation done in a  physical classroom under the supervision of strict invigilators in a number of distributed locations that need not be anywhere near the teacher who taught the course. This is hardly a big challenge since we are quite used to conducting examinations like the GRE, GMAT, CBSE, JEE on a nationwide or even global basis through certified and credible franchisees.

The last thing that we need is a placement service that will allow employers to reach out to qualified students and evaluate them in an objective manner. Job portals like Monster and Naukri can be plugged in with the online university and interviews can be conducted on Skype or Google Hangout to any level of detail.

All the pieces are in place. We just need someone to tie all this together and create a solution to problem of delivering credible college degrees to motivated individuals in an inexpensive manner.

This article originally appeared in a technology blog published from San Jose, California, USA.

March 13, 2013

Rapyuta, Wikipedia and the Road to the Universal Consciousness

Followers of the Sanatan Dharma, or "Hindus", in general and those who believe in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, as propounded by Sankaracharya, see the world as illusion ("Maya") that hides an underlying unity of universal consciousness or Brahman.

This concept has been explored in greater detail in The Road to pSingularity but one of the key ideas is that there exists a central consciousness and all individual sentient entities ( or people) are a part of this central consciousness. The linkage between the central ("Brahman") and the individual ("Atman") is something that gets lost because of the illusion of "Maya" and only the true adept, after significant effort, realises the existence of the link and in doing so, succeeds in uniting his individual Atman with the universal Brahman through the process of Yoga or union.

This post is not about trying to establish the authenticity of this point of view. Instead we explore how technology is moving to replicate this concept of the Brahman, the universal consciousness.

A centralised pool of knowledge, or at least information, from which multiple agents can draw inferences is not a very new concept. A traditional library or encyclopaedia fits the model reasonably well and of course this idea has been taken to high degree of sophistication by Wikipedia. In fact the Wikipedia model has the added advantage that multiple people can, not only pull information, but can place information for others to benefit from in the spirit of Web 2.0. In an earlier post , Google DoPe and the Doors of Perception, I have explored how Wikipedia could be used as back end repository of information if we can come out with a reasonably sophisticated front-end client software that can draw inferences ("wisdom", "knowledge") from raw data ("information") that is stored there.

image adapted from a movie poster found at
As a continuation of this line of thought and as a practical implementation of this idea we now have Raputya, a central, "cloud" based server connected to and accessible from the Internet, that can be used as a repository of artificial intelligence by robots distributed all across the world.

Artificial intelligence is a difficult topic that the world has been trying to grapple with since the early 1960s. Some people have tried to create intelligence through very complex algorithms while others have preferred to rely on massive amounts of data. Irrespective of the approach, what each robot needs is easy access to complex computing facility that will help it (a) understand stimuli from the environment and (b) respond in a manner that best meets the requirements of the robot in question. It does not matter if the robot is welding a piece of machinery or answering a question typed from a keyboard -- the core functionality is restricted to sensing inputs and responding appropriately.  This is like any computer program except that when we try to demonstrate AI, the range of inputs is extremely large and more importantly unpredictable and so standard rule-based, or algorithmic, approaches are unable to meet even the simplest requirements of AI without creating huge machines.

Since it is difficult for each robot to have this individually, Raputya places this on a shared server that any robot can access -- not really different from accessing Wikipedia with browser as opposed to having hundreds of data files on each personal desktop. It is also not so different from using a mainframe computer from a "dumb" terminal where the terminal uses or acquires the "smartness" or intelligence of the program running on the central mainframe.

So what is so new about Raputya that it merits a post for its own ?

Technically nothing, but conceptually, the key difference is that each robot can share the data, or "experience", of all other robots and possibly learn from others. Most contemporary approaches to artificial intelligence include the concept of machine learning where the computer program learns how to connect a stimulus to a response based on observations of past behaviour and noting which of the responses were correct or appropriate. In the case of isolated robots, each robot must learn from scratch and there is a limit on the amount of learning that a robot can do before it can become intelligently operational. Through a clever mechanism of sharing data across multiple robots, Raputya overcomes this limitation and allows each robot to access, learn from and utilise the data that has been accumulated by other robots.

In fact, the similarity with Wikipedia is very high. In Wikipedia, each individual can access the information that has been acquired, uploaded and possibly validated by others in the classic Web 2.0 style. Raputya could be identical except that the information is used for a slightly different purpose -- in this case to demonstrate intelligent behaviour.

Native human intelligence depends on people learning about a huge number of facts about themselves and the world around them. Forget complex things like mathematics and music, even a child acquires a prodigious amount of information before he or she can balance a set of wooden blocks on top of each other or carries on a simple conversation with someone else. In the course of his lifetime, and particularly during the formative years, he picks up a lot of data that he processes into information, knowledge and wisdom that he uses to handle daily chores. When computer's try to mimic this using artificial intelligence we get chess playing robots like Deep Blue ( that can beat human GMs) or Watson ( that can beat humans in quiz or Jeopardy ) or industrial robots that can recognise parts of automobiles and weld them together with uncanny precision. But the trouble is that each is specialised in one activity. Deep Blue will lose Jeopardy and Watson is useless in a automobile assembly line ! That is because the logic and data ( or "intelligence") is both local and specific to one system and cannot be accessed by the other.

This is where Raputya, with its purported ability to share data, and the logic to process it, could play a very significant part. The World Wide Web is far more powerful than any individual computer system precisely because it allows access to a shared pool of information and Raputya, if it lives up to its promise, could become a similar tool -- except that instead of merely sharing ( and hence multiplying the value of ) information, it will allow the sharing ( and multiplying the efficiency of ) "intelligence". Obviously, this assumes that we have a common representation of the data that can be uniformly accessed by other systems but this may not be too difficult with standards like XML.

If you are with me on this so far, take a deep  breath, because the next assertion just might take your breath away.

Let us go back to the Brahman, of Advaita Vedanta, and view it as a pool of intelligence, or consciousness, of which each individual person ( or sentient entity) is a part of. You would really need to read the book or, if you do not wish to spend the money on the paperback, visit the website to appreciate this point of view. The Atman of an individual person and the Brahman of the universal consciousness are tied to each other in a manner that is understood, or experienced, if and only if the individual can reach a state of intellectual maturity. Sages, seers and mystics across civilisations who have achieved this level of maturity can then see or experience "visions" that cut across space and time -- in a manner that is very similar to what would happen if an industrial robot that welds car components could play Jeopardy as well as Watson does !

After Wikipedia, Raputya could become the next model in our attempt to understand intelligence and consciousness.

For more information on Raputya, you could visit the RoboEarth Cloud Engine website, watch this video or check out the BBC or the IEEE reports.

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