December 30, 2007

Digital Immortality

A change of job – or affiliation – is of course no headline news in today's vibrant economy, but even this otherwise simple event opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the reality of departure and absence !

A mail from an erstwhile colleague mentioned that the reality of my departure has become evident, not so much because of my physical absence from my place of work, but because email – on which I was on the cc: list – was bouncing back to the sender ! Which set me thinking ... what if my company had graciously allowed my email ID to exist ( in total violation of all corporate procedures) ... would it have meant that a lot of people would not have known that I had left ? And what if my erstwhile secretary had continued to respond to these mails .. in the manner that she knew that I would have ? In the globalised mega-corporation – which is anyway quite faceless – would anyone, other than a close group of friends, have known that I was no more associated with the company ?

But let us carry this analogy to a new level ...

Email is just one of our digital identities. Many of us have a presence in the blogsphere, in social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook and professional networks like Linkedin. Most of these identities have a real physical image associated with them but more often than not these images are stylised logos or representations of what the identity owner would like to be seen as. So it is not too difficult to replace the physical identity owner with a new owner and carry on with the digital identity without anyone ELSE being aware of this change.

When this is unintentional and non-voluntary, it is called identity theft and many victims of cyber fraud would have faced the unpleasant consequences of such actions but even if we leave out malafide behaviour, there is no difficulty in visualising this transfer of digital identity from one physical entity to another.

In fact things like snail mail to “Letters to the Editor”, or “The Secretary” or any other 'position' – as opposed to an individual – that are read by and responded to by the current encumbent of a position are in fact no different.

The only difference is in today's digital world, the digital identity is so intimately tied to the physical entity – much more so than people to designations, as in the past – that it is very difficult for us differentiate one from another : and the interesting part is that since this is difficult, we could leverage this difficulty, to create the illusion of immortality for the physical identity.

It is not immortality, but the illusion of immortality.

Even if I were to stop writing this blog but would get someone else to do it on my behalf, it is extremely likely that a majority of readers would not know the difference. And so in a sense, my current digital identity is, or can be, immortal.

This digital immortality is even more pronounced in the area of virtual worlds like Second Life where my avatar – along with its virtual possessions like land, clothes, toys, relationships and what not – could continue to operate, even if I am not there “behind” it. All that it would need is someone else who knows the password to access – and operate – my avatar.

Which again means that even though Prithwis Mukerjee is well and truly mortal, Calcutta Cyclone could be truly immortal as long as SecondLife exists !!

But do we really need another human being to “operate” my avatar on my behalf ? What if I could create a software program – a 'bot' – that would operate my avatar on behalf of any human being : me or my chosen successor ?

Writing such a program is not easy. Infact if the program has to succeed and “fool” others, it must have a level of artificial intelligence that would allow it to pass the Turing Test ... and this is not possible as yet ( and in fact may never be !!) But what is certainly possible today is to have someone else – another human being – to act on my behalf and then we have genuine Digital Immortality.

Alastair Reynolds, the writer of science fiction novels like Revelation Space, has taken this concept to the next level because he is unfettered by the impossibility, or difficulty, of having a software program pass the Turing Test. In his novels, people may die but their 'soul' lives on as a combination of a software program and holographic image.

We may not be there as yet but our version of Digital Immortality could open up intriguing possibilities as well.

September 27, 2007

Beyond Virtual Worlds : Patterns of the Future

We have been looking at what is possible with Virtual Worlds but for the next few minutes let us step out of the domain what is possible now and explore what could become possible in the next couple of years. From engineering, let us step into the domain of imagineering -- which is what this blog is all about !

Why are we constrained to 2D displays ? We are inherently 3D animals ... and the world that we are simulating virtually is supposed to be 3D. So why should we stick to traditional computer displays that render 2D images ? There are display technologies available that create 3D hologram style images ... that one can 'almost' walk around and see ( though not quite touch as yet ) Go to google and search for 3D displays and you will see stuff like what you see above and below.

Just imagine what your SecondLife, or whatever 3D world that prefer to live in, will look when you view them on a display screen like this. And interestingly enough, the cost of these display devices is not astronomical. They are obviously more expensive when compared to the standard flat screen monitors ... but certainly very affordable.

Yet the technology is not quite rocket science. We have had 3D movies using polarised light for decades. Please see the diagram below. Modern technology has used the same principles of physics and made the devices both affordable and convenient to use.

But our next question is do you need a display at all ?

Recent advances in medical science, exploring ways to make the blind see again, have created what are known as Bionic eyes. If you look at the structure and mechanics of the human eye, you would notice that optical signals ( or OK, electromagnetic energy ) are sensed on a photosensitive surface -- that is the human retina -- and converted to electrochemical energy at one end of the optic nerve. The other end of the optic nerve is connected to the human brain which can sense the electrochemical signals that are transmitted down the nerve.

Then the cognitive process of the human brain interprets these electrochemical signals and causes the person to perceive a vision of what lies in front of the retina.

Can this not be replicated using a known technology ?

Of course it can be done. All that you need is a camera that captures the image. Converts it into a series of electrical impulses and then sends it down the optical nerve. Simple ?

Not quite ?

There is a huge amount of image and signal processing involved ! Each kind of shape, colour, texture creates a different pattern of signal -- but what causes what ? This is not quite known as yet .. and so when we do it for the first time, the brain cannot make sense of the signals that it is being fed. But this is a matter of time. Currently we have systems that allow the brain to recognise the presence and absence of light and vague fuzzy shapes. But even this is of great benefit to those who are completely blind. I am sure it is a matter of time before the image processing software becomes sophisticated enough so that the signals are parsed and formed in a manner that the brain can make sense of and hence recognise a range of shapes, sizes and colours.

The problem is difficult but not intractable. No known laws of physics are being violated nor are astronomical amounts of energy required. It will happen ... and it will happen soon.

Which leads us to the first level of convergence ... that is between 3D display technology and bionic eyes.

When a 3D monitor displays an image, what is that that it actually does ? The computer program generates a pattern of signals that is converted to a pattern of lights ( electromagnetic radiation ) that travels across the distance between the screen and the user. This light is then converted back to electrochemical signals in the optic nerve either (a) through the human retina or (b) the camera of the bionic eye. So there are two conversions : electrical signals => optical signals => electochemical signals. Question ? Do we need the intermediate optical signal at all ? What value is it adding to the process ? Can we do away with this totally ? See the figure below ..

What we suggest is that the 3D display can be done away with it ! But not the technology that 'renders' the scene in 3D. That is still required to create a set of electrical patterns that represent the virtual world in all its exquisite detail ... but just that it is not converted to ( or 'shown' as ) light signal. Instead the electrical signals are fed into the processing unit of the bionic eye which is led to believe that the signal has come from the camera of the bionic eye!

So it processes these signals ( and this is no easy processing, mind you ... this is heavy duty stuff ) and passes it on to the optic nerve .. which in turn is led to believe that the signals have originated from the living retina !! This is layers and layers of deception ... but all for a good and noble cause ...

and what is that cause ? Total Immersion ..

Total immersion means that the human brain has lost the ability to distinguish between electrical signals that originate from a computer and optical signals that originate from the environment. Like the Turing test where you claim that Artificial Intelligence has been attained when you cannot distinguish between the responses from a human and those from a machine .. this Total Immersion is when you cannot distinguish between stimuli from machines or from the real environment.

The line between the real and the virtual is becoming increasingly blurred !!


But why should signals move in only one direction ? Why not the reverse ? Why can signals originating from the brain not be used to control the environment ? This is thought control .. we are talking about !!! Remember the novel / movie Firefox ... not the browser, but the thought controlled fighter aircraft that was developed by the USSR and stolen by the US ? That was science fiction in 1982 .. but it can be come a fact in 2012 ..

Consider the following ..

This is again a piece of technology from the domain of medicine ... that is designed to allow paralysed people or quadriplegics to move .. by allowing them to control their wheel chairs with their thought. First thought-controlled wheel chairs, then we will have thought-controlled fighter aircraft !

Again the principles are astonishingly simple though the implementation is and could be fiendishly difficult. When you want to move an arm or a finger, there is a signal that is generated in the brain that travels down a specific nerve as an electrochemical impulse and causes a movement of the limb.

All that we are trying to do is to sense the same signal and cause a electro-mechanical device to move and do the same thing as a limb would do ... for example move a joystick ! and if you can do that you have a thought controlled device.

But again there are implementation issues. The signal has to be picked up from a probe inserted into the brain -- which can be uncomfortable, and then heavy duty signal processing software has to used to distinguish irrelevant signals ( or noise ) from the actual signal. If this does not happen .. then the intention to move a finger can be misinterpreted to move a leg ... or perhaps not understood at all.

Obviously more research is needed but again the principles that we are dealing with do not violate any known laws of physics though they could be computationally intensive. So it is a matter of time indeed before we have ...

As technology moves forward, the intrusive, painful brain probes can be replaced with simpler and more comfortable cap-based sensors of the kind shown ( and demonstrated ) above.

So now we have four pieces of technology ... namely
  • Virtual Worlds like SecondLife
  • 3D Display technology -- both hardware and software -- that can create a near perfect illusion of solid objects
  • Bionic Eyes that allow the display to be replaced with technology that allows total immersion of the user inside the Virtual World
  • Thought sensors that can "read" thoughts and make things happen in the Virtual World
And mind you all this with technology that is "almost" available today ! At the risk of sounding repetitious, I need to point out once again that the technology to do all this does not violate laws of physics or need huge amounts of energy. Nor does it require any deep and difficult to understand models of human cognition -- as is the case of Artificial Intelligence. All it needs is some powerful image and signal processing algorithm and some powerful hardware to crunch through all that data -- both of which lie well within the domain of feasibility.

So what do you get when you assemble all these technologies ? Why The Matrix of course !

September 15, 2007

Beneath your dignity or beyond your ability?

Unlike other professionals, the value of a person in the IT business does not necessarily go up with time. In the case of medicine, law or engineering, a customer is willing to pay a premium for someone who has been in the profession for a long time but a person who has been writing C code for 20 years or configuring SAP for 15 years is, in general, not more valuable than a junior colleague – at least not in the technical sense.

IT professionals handle this niggling discomfort by transiting into management roles – which in effect mean shuffling CVs and juggling spreadsheets, not technology – and then claiming that it is beneath their dignity to do otherwise. One wonders if it is beneath their dignity or beyond their ability 

My transition from Tata-IBM to Pricewaterhouse was a case of trying to defy this diktat of circumstances. At Tata Steel I had played a key role in introducing RDBMS technology into what was then the country’s first and largest enterprise wide integrated application and had come to be regarded as an expert in this field. Consequently, in my next role as product manager of DB2 in Tata-IBM, I was responsible for selling this technology nationwide. However in the seven years that I had been associated with this technology, I had come to realize that I was no more the only DB2 guru in the country anymore. RDBMS as a technology had become commoditized and there was nothing great that separated me from those to whom I was trying to sell the stuff.

At this point of time, on a visit to the US, I had the opportunity to have a look at the “world wide web” through a Mosaic browser – and I was hooked, because in it I saw the future.

Back in India, I realized to my dismay that both my colleagues and my company had still neither any clue, nor any interest in this new toy – and I don’t blame them, this was 1995! This is when I decided to leave the safe harbour, the zone of comfort, of RDBMS and take a leap of faith into Pricewaterhouse on the shaky promise of being allowed to work on internet technology.

I had traded my position of DB2-dada for that of networking novice! Very few people in India had even heard of DNS, HTTP or mail servers and here I was trying to configure them with no help from anyone. But after all this is not rocket science and so within a few months of effort, computers connected with each other, mail was delivered and web pages become visible – with each such ‘event’ being a cause of celebration – and the internet revolution had arrived, even in India. Finally I had the luxury of moving out of the server room and into boardrooms to make corporate presentations on pompous topics like “Perils and Potentials of eBusiness”.

Some people are at home in the zone of comfort, happy with CVs and spreadsheets – that is a lifestyle choice, which one should not quarrel with! But being on the edge, the bleeding edge, of technology is a different high altogether and more often than not, the rewards associated with it far outweigh the risks that it brings along.

August 18, 2007

Book Publishing - A new paradigm

One of the most overused words in digital cyberia is paradigm but unfortunately there are instances when there is really no synonym that will suffice. Such is the case here where I describe a completely new way of doing business in the book publishing industry.

After Encyclopedia Britannica, Travel Agents and other brick-and-mortar establishments that have been severely challenged by web based business models, it may be the turn of book publishers next ! The online publishing and print-on-demand (OLPPOD) business is all set give the established publishers a run for their money and offer new hope and unprecedented empowerment to unknown authors.

Online publishing is old hat. I have been writing on the web since 1998 but have always felt that substantial pieces of work need to be in hard copy for the reader to first enjoy and second make sense of complex content. However efforts to get one's work in print has been very difficult. While JK Rowlings and other well known authors have no dearth of publishers running after them, the case is dramatically different for newcomers. No publisher is willing to invest in printing, binding and storing a reasonable number of copies unless the author is willing fund the first print run. Unless the author is famous, his books are not printed but unless his books are printed, the author cannot become famous -- a classic Catch 22 if there ever was one !

OLPPOD changes this game beyond recognition !

In OLPPOD, the author is provided with a web based platform that allows him to upload a copy of his work in a standard word processor format ( DOC, RTF etc) which is then converted into a PDF file. Book covers are created out of royalty free images or from JPEG files uploaded by the author and customised with logos, images, titles, summaries in the colour and fonts of the authors choice ... in short, the author does all the work of formatting and designing his book and he does it happily since it is his, possibly, first book !

But creating the PDF is only half the story. The real value kicks in through the print-on-demand process where thanks to advances in (a) printing technology and (b) shared delivery business models, it is now possible to print & bind a single copy of the book at a price point that is comparable to the per-copy price of a book that is produced by the traditional offset printing process.

What this means is that the author/publisher need not fund a full print run and then have to bear the cost of carrying an inventory ! Instead, when a copy of the book is purchased -- most probably on an online store front -- the production process kicks in to create a copy of the book and dispatch it to the purchaser.

What are the commercial terms ? How do you price the book ? How is the income shared between the author and the platform provider ? Each OLPPOD service provider has its own business model but having had the pleasure of publishing my own first book through, I believe that they have one of the best business models in the industry. Please look up their model on their website, but in brief if you are not interested in having an ISBN number for your book, then there is absolutely NO CHARGES other than the base printing+binding+postage cost !

What is the quality of the book ? Does it compare with the books that one can buy in a bookshop ? Believe me, it does ! The quality is superb and if one was not told that the copy is a print-on-demand copy then there is no way that one can make out that it is so. These are not A4 sheets stapled together or ring bound ! This is a real book in every sense of the word -- in shape, size and texture ... No doubt about it.

This blog entry may seem to be a paid advertisement for but it is not. Instead it is clarion call to all prospective authors who are tired of running after arrogant publishers and wish to empower themselves with the latest technology. Going forward, I foresee a larger and larger share of the book publishing business going into this OLPPOD mode because the advantages offered by traditional publishers would erode rapidly.

As the world goes digital and online, it will be easier to search for and locate book on the web than it would be in a physical bookstore. Book launches, book reading sessions, wine and cheese parties while still somewhat important will become increasingly irrelevant in a world dominated by blogs, social networking sites, social tagging services like slashdot, digg and stumble upon ... and online search engines like Google Books. After all, the number of people who see and click on a slashdot post would be far larger than the number who would have the time to attend a book reading session !

Traditional publishers would of course be in denial mode and would stoutly denounce all such models that undermines their importance. But they should know that they cannot hold back the tide of new technology and ideas. Instead they would be better off if they were to embrace this new paradigm and work out a hybrid model that will ensure that they remain relevant in the future.

Otherwise, like Encyclopedia Britannica that was swallowed up Wikipedia they will be relegated to the footnotes of history.

July 10, 2007

DeConstructing the Corporation with Web 2.0

Why do companies exist ? Since companies consist of individuals who have the skills for which the market is willing to pay .. why is it that companies do not disintegrate ( or rather deconstruct ? ) into its constituent components ?

Ronald Coase was the first to ask this question in 1937 in his essay on “The Nature of the Firm” and his answer was simple : The cost of doing a certain transaction – that adds value – is less inside company than it is outside. What he meant was that doing business by assembling all the right people and support services inside an establishment was more efficient than trying to find and coordinate the same things in the world at large. This answer was good enough for him to win the Nobel Prize because people saw for themselves how individual craftsmen in the cottage industry could not compete in cost and lost out to the mega corporation.

But unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for many of us, this was not the last word on the subject. Jacques Derrida coined the term Deconstruction to denote a process by which texts and languages of western philosophy appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in the light of assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves. From this perspective, what assumptions facilitate or hinder the deconstruction of companies ?

Consider the case of Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. The cost of assembling a set of reasonably credible articles on a large variety of topics is far higher in the case of Britannica than it is for Wikipedia – which is why Wikipedia thrives and grows whereas Britannica ( and even its modern version, Encarta ) is virtually dead. Ronald Coase is still correct with the first part of his analysis – it is the transaction cost that matters, but his assumption that the transaction cost for a deconstructed entity will be necessarily higher is at risk.

But how did the transaction cost go down ? Because the internet and a set of related technologies has made communication, collaboration and dissemination so easy that is now cheaper to get the same quality of deliverables from a widely dispersed set of individuals than if they were in a tightly integrated organization.

In other, more traditional businesses, outsourcing of non-essential services is an immediate example. We find it cheaper to use a courier service to deliver mail rather than have an employee travel just as we find it cheaper to use a janitorial service to clean the toilets. But even before we outsource such mundane tasks we need to have a mechanism to ensure adequate quality. Tools and techniques have to be in place to ensure monitoring of individuals or clusters of individuals who are not tightly coupled to, and share the common aims of, the parent organization to the extent that a regular employee would be. Examples of such tools and techniques could be service level agreements, written contracts and the legal framework to enforce such contracts.

So we see the emergence of a collection of tools, technologies, methodology and frameworks that has a dramatic impact on the relative transaction costs and leads us toward the possibility of questioning Coase’s assumption that integrated companies would always be more efficient than groups of loosely coupled individuals.

Does this mean that the corporation is dead ? Can it be deconstructed completely ? Not quite but we can certainly consider a spectrum of opportunities.

Consider an integrated steel plant at one end of the spectrum. It is abundantly clear that no amount of current technology will ever be able to replace a Blast Furnace or a LD Converter with anything that can operate out of an individual’s backyard.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Call Centre where, a person with a telephone can and does carry on front line mission critical customer facing operations, irrespective of where he is as long as he has access to the correct computer applications.

Somewhere in between but perhaps closer to the steel plant than to the call centre is the automobile business which has historically managed to out-source the manufacture of many components to third party vendors by using a variety of modern control and tracking tools. Again, somewhere in between but this time closer to the call centre than to the steel plant is software development where again a slew of tools ranging from teleconferencing, email, document sharing all the way up to CMMI compliant methodology ensure that the quality of deliverables from dispersed teams is as good as, if not better than, comparable deliverables from apparently tightly knit and collocated teams.

The key factor in all these cases, that allows us to challenge Ronald Coase’s assumption that corporations are always more efficient than a corresponding deconstructed entity, is the quality of the tool set that allows collaboration across a locations and reporting relationships. An immediate example would be telephones : The Great Indian Software Story would never have been written had it not been for a dramatic improvement in reliability and drop of prices of international phone calls and TCP/IP networks. On the other hand, the Great Indian Manufacturing Story never quite reached the best-seller lists because infrastructure and regulatory bottlenecks never allowed the corresponding transactions costs to drop below the necessary threshold.

Going forward, what are the new tools and techniques that will allow us to deconstruct the corporation ? The jury is still out on this but one potential candidate is the collection that is loosely referred to as Web 2.0 – a phrase coined by O'Reilly Media in 2003 that refers to the second generation of web-based communities and hosted services. Web 2.0 technology has two key features namely, social networking and user generated content.

Social networking are based around products like Orkut that help create a community of familiar ( and hence presumably trustworthy ) individuals who are comfortable with each other, even though they may be separated in both time and space. Just as the comfort of being able to talk to a software programmer in India helped many IT managers to entrust their key IT systems to an off-shore software company, so would it need the next-generation of collaboration tools – in this case, social networking – to build the network of mutual trust that will facilitate the next round of deconstruction.

Equally important is user generated content. Products like YouTube, FlickR, Blogspot and of course Wikipedia have demonstrated that it is possible to collaborative build rich and meaningful content that in many cases is far superior to what is possible through traditional means.

Human beings are inherently social and are most comfortable with a visual, especially 3D, interface. This is why video conferencing is always better than a phone call, if you can afford the bandwidth and the technology. Fitting into this slot very comfortably is the technology of virtual worlds as implemented in products like Second Life.

Virtual worlds technology had its origins in online role playing games but has today evolved into what is known as massively multi-user online collaborative platforms that allow individuals and corporates to create content and facilitate social and business networking on a scale that is qualitatively different from anything that we are currently used to working with.

Telecommunication and internet technology has transformed the global business landscape in a manner that was difficult or impossible to anticipate when the World Wide Web – or Web 1.0 – first appeared in 1996. Web 2.0 is the next step towards the DeConstructed Corporation.

for a list of interesting websites check this Web 2.0 awards site

June 29, 2007

Machinima : Making Movies in the Virtual World

[ a more refined version of my earlier post on the same topic ]

Movies created without a camera or human actors is nothing new. From animated cartoons by Walt Disney to dinosaurs in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park tools to create artificial characters have played an important role in movie production and of late productions like 300 have demonstrated the versatility of digital technology to transcend the limitations of physical reality.

All this however pales into insignificance when we consider the immense potential of virtual worlds technology – as implemented in environments like Second Life and Active Worlds. Movie making as we know it today is set to change beyond recognition as producers and cinematographers realize the disruptive impact that this is going to have in the future.

Virtual worlds have their origin in interactive computer games of the category that are commonly referred to as Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games. Technology that first appeared in games like Everquest and World of Warcraft is now being used to create virtual worlds, or Multiuser Online Collaborative Platforms, like Second Life. Individuals and corporates alike are joining participating in these platforms that form the basis of 3D Internet.

A virtual world is one that exists as a 3D simulation of a familiar physical, or more often than not a fantasy, world to which individuals connect to – in a way that one connects to mundane chat server – and then ‘emerges’ inside it as an avatar : a 3D representation of his or her persona that can interact with the environment or with other avatars that represent other individuals who too have connected to this world at the same time. Controlled by the human being on the keyboard, the avatar can perform a range of activities that include but is not limited to walking, flying, making gestures, talking to other avatars, picking up and manipulating ‘solid’ objects … the list can go on. And capturing all this frantic activity is possible not with a traditional optical camera but with a low cost screen capture device that can store all this for posterity in any of the digital movie formats like mpeg, avi or wmv. That in a nut-shell is machinima, which stands for both (a) the process of creating movies in virtual worlds as well as (b) the actual movie itself. Machinima as a concept is not very new, but the process of creating realistic movies with significant dramatic content throws up some challenges. Let us see how these will be overcome in the very near future.

First : The characters seem rather wooden today. While physical appearances are infinitely customizable – height, body bulk, shape of head, colour of hair, and even ‘skins’ that can create near look-alikes of any real person, and a wide variety of dresses are available for purchase, the behavior is still rather wooden. Avatars move stiffly and have a limited repertoire of gestures – which may be fine for dedicated gamers but would be a put-off for a movie viewer who is more interested in the dramatic content and less in the esoteric technology behind it.

However the evolution of artifacts called ‘animations’ and small bundles of these ‘animations’ arranged in a sequence called ‘gestures’ can create a fairly smooth sequence of movements like [smile] + [wave] + [say ‘hello’] + [handshake]. Using an inventory of animations one can potentially create a virtually infinite collection of gestures, most of which can be unique to an individual avatar and with some deftness on the keyboard, these can be played out in a manner that would be very, very realistic.

Animations can be purchased, but learning to assemble them into personalized gestures is the digital equivalent of going to an Acting School. Just as budding actors are taught how to laugh, cry, show anger or otherwise emote in real life, so would budding digital actors learn how to make their avatars do the same in virtual worlds. Of course some would have a natural flair for this and end up as the Big B while others would fail and end up writing articles like these !! Obviously hiring such competent people would be more expensive and star-ranking system would emerge depending on competence and popularity.

Next is creation of sets. In real life, sets are built of wood, paper, bricks and what not. Or one goes to a film studio where these are already built and the real life actors go through their motions inside these sets. In a virtual world, building sets – houses, rivers, trees, cars, bridges and so on – is simple 3D modeling with some embedded scripted programs that do things like cause doors to open and rivers to ripple and flow and bridges to collapse and fall. In real life, good sets need effort and money. So is it in virtual worlds – except that the cost is far, far less ! Something as big as a huge hotel can be built, down to the last detail, by 4 people in just about 2 – 3 weeks. Building sets needs virtual land, which can be bought or leased at a nominal cost.

With actors, actresses and sets in place, the next piece of the puzzle is the actual recording, which is again very intuitive. The avatar representing the ‘camera-operator’ must be present inside the set where the avatars of the actors are playing their roles and all that is visible to the avatar can be captured in digital file using available screen capture technology. In fact, here virtual worlds are far superior to real worlds since the ‘camera-operator’ can fly in the air or change his viewpoint from a close-up to a long-shot at the roll of a mouse ! Multiple avatars representing multiple camera-operators can be present to capture various angles as is the case in real life cinematography

And all this is possible without anyone – actors, set builders, camera-operators – ever leaving their homes in real life ! All can work from home, or a standard office environment, as long as they have computers, with the free virtual world client and a broadband connection to the internet ! Imagine how convenient all this is to the producers budget !

Movies however need more than actors, sets and camera-operators to be successful – you need a good script, smart direction and tight editing. These requirements continue whether the movie is shot in real world or in the virtual world. But by significantly reducing the cost and the physical effort required to create movies, creativity in the real sense will flourish. Directors would be able to do what they had always dreamt of but were held back by the irritating constraints of the real world.

And may be from 2009 onwards the Filmfare awards will have additional categories for the best film shot in Virtual Worlds, for the best male and female avatar in a lead role, along with the best supporting male and female avatar in a supporting role .. the possibilities are endless. James Cameron, the director of Titanic and other Hollywood blockbusters has announced that his next big project, scheduled for release in 2009, is “Avatar” – a science fiction movie where actors are expected to move between real and virtual worlds. But how soon will it be before the virtual becomes real in Bollywood ?

June 27, 2007

Second Life @ St Xavier's School, Calcutta

St. Xaviers Collegiate School, Calcutta has organised a Computer Exhibition to help students look beyond the boring ( truly boring ) world of the Computer Syllabus that they have to follow.

While most students stuck would still tend to stick to the straight and narrow, I helped my son and two of his class-mates create a movie based on and shot in location inside Second Life.

If your bandwidth supports it, please watch ... but be aware that these are heavy files with embedded music & voice-over

Part 1

Part 2

and here are two images


June 25, 2007

The Great Bengal Firewall ???

I have been trying to access the article on Nandigram at but have not been able to go past the wikipedia home page and into ANY of the articles. I am from Calcutta and this has been going for the past two days ..

My brother-in-law however is able to access the same pages from Ahmedabad .. which I thought was funny. What is even more funny is that even in Calcutta, if I dial into my office LAN and then access the internet through the company firewall ( which happens to be outside Calcutta ) then I have no problems in accessing the same pages.

I do know that wikipedia is banned ( or rather blocked ) in China .. by the Great Firewall of China. Is something similar happening here as well.

Movies in Second Life - The Next Level

As virtual worlds, as epitomised by SecondLife and perhaps ActiveWorlds, comes closer and closer to real worlds, where is it that we will have first contact ? where is it that the borderline between these two worlds will get blurred if not dissolved first ?

The obvious answer in the domain of entertainment. But how ? Today's Business Standard carries an article that explains how game developers are planning to work with the Mumbai film industry ( painfully referred to as Bollywood !) to develop interactive games based on actual movies ... and possibly using the the names and images of well known film stars.

This is good but this has been done before with Angelina Jolie and some of her movies but the real challenge is to take it to the next level ...

Why not shoot real movies, that is movies that will be shown in real life, using settings and actors in virtual worlds ?

The movie 300 has been in the news recently because of the extensive use of digital technology for creating the sets but the actors have been real people, who have played out their roles in a bleak and empty aircraft hanger. Subsequently, their images were layered on to the digital sets using fairly advanced technology.

The next frontier is when the actors themselves will be represented by their avatars in the virtual world. Can this technology be used to create full length movies without ANY optical camera at all ? Certainly, if you consider the following ..

  • The Avatars can be made to look extremely realistic and lifelike. Today, most avatars have a doll-like look but that is a matter of choice not necessity. It is not at all difficult to create 'skins' that look like very real people, if not specific individuals, like Amitabh Bachchan or Madhuri Dixit.
Emotions is the next hurdle. Currently most avatars move around rather woodenly and while this may be fine with geeky gamers who are present in SecondLife, it may not be acceptable to regular movie goers. However even here there are two pieces of technology that can come to the rescue
  • Gestures and animations are already available and a clever use of these can be made to make avatars shake hands, dance and do many other human like activities.
  • More importantly, tools have emerged to display emotions like anger and smile. The Mystic HUD gizmo that I have recently bought for my avatar gives me a two key-press access to many of these emotions.
Using, or rather activating, gestures, animations and emotions can be a little tricky and need first knowledge of their existence and more importantly nimbleness of fingers to make them visible. I for one am not very good at this and in most cases, my smile (or frown ) appears much later after the dialogue that should have triggered. Which of course means that I am a 'bad actor' in Second Life ... but then I am a 'bad actor' in real life .. which is why here I am typing blogs and not being feature in movie hoardings !!

But going forward, we can anticipate the arrival of professional actors in Second Life. What are the characteristics that they must possess ?

  • Unlike Real Life, they need not look good but they should have either bought or developed excellent 'skins' that make them look as grand and magnificent as any real life actor or actress
  • Instead of going to the gym to keep their bodies muscular or otherwise attractive, they should be knowledgeable enough to 'edit' their avatars to achieve the right physique. In fact they can also hire professional 'avatar editors' in Second Life to edit their bodies ... just as we have professional hair dressers and make up men in real life
  • They should acquire a good inventory of gestures, animations and emotions and have these available in their inventory .. so that they can create a range of emotions as and when the situation demands.
  • Finally, these people should have the dexterity to quickly press the right keys so that the right emotions appear on their avatars in the right sequence. This is analogous of going to School of Acting or School of Dancing and learning the correct steps.

Going forward, we can envisage the entire movie industry getting metamorphosed into Second Life where we will have a full cast and crew of
  • Actors and actresses .. who will play out their roles using ONLY the keyboard. This will include not only the lead players but also the junior artists ( or extras)
  • Support crew like make up artists and set designers who will not work in real life but instead work through their avatars in second life to design dresses, hairstyles and the virtual sets where the action will take place
  • Photographers who will not use 'optical light' at all ! So they cannot really be called photographers. Instead they will use non-optical moving image capture devices like screen grabbers .. like they do today when they create machinimas
What will not change will be script-writers, directors and post production staff ... who will continue with whatever they are doing except that freed from the restrictions of physics and economics of movie making, they can give full reign to their imagination and skills.

And in the competition for the Oscar for the Best Actor and Best Actress, we will have nominations from people in Real Life as well as avatar's in SecondLife ...

And may the best candidate ( person or avatar ) win !!

June 23, 2007

Plassey : Agony or Ecstasy ?

Today is the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey, where on the banks of the Hooghly River, near the town of Murshidabad, Robert Clive and his Indian allies, defeated the Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal and laid the foundation of British Rule.

There will be events to commemorate this Battle and the overwhelming tone and tenor of these events will be that of regretful nostalgia .. to commiserate with the subjugation of India and its loss of independence to a foreign military power.

But is this really correct ?

Should we not celebrate this event as the dawn of the Indian Renaissance ?

Politically correct historians and semi-literate bards and dramatists have given this event an emotional tone that is quite out of sync with the real emotions that were felt by the common people who lived in those tumultuous times.

I believe that the population was actually quite jubilant at the fall of the tyrannical Nawab -- and the utter lawlessness that his rule symbolised -- and a direct echo of that is found even today ! Calcutta's famous Durga Puja festival which is so widely publicised and celebrated today has its roots in the celebration that followed Clive's victory in Plassey ! Though this fact is often ignored when we watch tired and cliched dramatic performances ( the Bengal Jatra's ) which groan and moan about the fall of Siraj.

In the wider perspective of India, the event of Plassey, heralded the end of medieval times and sowed the seeds of a new beginning.

Had it not been Plassey, the medievalist Muslim aristocracy that had kept India under its heel since the 12th century, would have been very difficult to dislodge. Despite the energetic protestations of politically correct historians and despite the occasional generosity of a handful of Akbar-like liberal rulers, it is fact that the Hindu population of India had been terrorised into a sullen submission ...

While the Babri Masjid may be a subject of scholarly debate, the facts at the ground level are abundantly clear ...

For example in Bengal, there are literally hundreds of Hindu temples that were ravaged by people like Kala Pahar -- the notorious Muslim tyrant who ruled South Bengal. To see and example, please visit the famous Kankalitala temple near Shantiniketan and you will see the remnants of vast ShivaLinga that has been felled by his thugs.

Similarly Sri Chaitanyadeb, one of the leading lights of Vaishanava movement in Bengal had to flee to Puri to save his dignity, if not his life, from these tyrants.

So it is childish to believe that the people of Bengal mourned the passing of the Nawab's rule. In fact, conch shells were blown and diya's were lit in village after village when the news of Clive's victory or rather the fall of the Nawab was received. These celebrations coalesced into the triumphant Durga Puja celebrations .. that have since become a part of Bengali mindscape. [ A contemporary analogy would be the eviction of the worthless and incompetent Nawab of Hyderabad by the Sardar Patel ... do people in modern Andhra Pradesh mourn his absence ? ]

At a national level, the Battle of Plassey, paved the way for British Rule in India. Again, there can be a debate on whether British rule was a curse or a blessing ..

Economic historians have pointed out that because of British economic policies, India's share of global GDP declined precipitously and the country went from being a land of riches to a land of poverty.

I would argue that while British economic policies might have been partly responsible, the real problem was that India was stuck in the past ... cut off from the groundswell of science and technology that would be the engine for future growth. Without access to this new schools of thought, India was doomed anyway ... irrespective of whether the economic policies were favourable or hostile.

In any case, India was falling back, or the world was surging forward .. and we would have been left behind anyway !!

The Battle of Plassey was our ticket to board the train to progress, albeit a third-class ticket .. but a ticket nevertheless. Without it India would have been left behind on the platform !

The Battle of Plassey paved the way for British Rule. The change of leadership allowed the liberals to stand up and raise their head. Without the Battle of Plassey, there would have been no city like Calcutta and without a modern city there would have been no Bengal Renaissance ..

Without this Renaissance, there would have been no Raja Rammohan Roy, no Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, no female education, no reforms in Hindu society, no institutions like Presidency College, no Vivekananda, no CV Raman, no Jagadish Bose, no Hargobind Khorana ... all the way down to no Kalpana Chawla, no Infosys, no TCS and no sign of the resurgent Sensex !!

And to think that all that goes back to that rain drenched field at Plassey where on the 23rd of June 1757, the forces of modernity and progress triumphed over the forces of regressive medievialism ...

250 years ago, not too many people were perhaps aware of the significance of event ... except to celebrate the overthrow of a local tyrant.

Today we know better. So let us celebrate this anniversary as the 250th anniversary of the Indian Renaissance.

May 31, 2007

Virtual Worlds - the Future "Life"

My article on what the future holds for Virtual Worlds or rather what Virtual Worlds hold for us in the future appears in the Economic Times today.

You may read the full article here.

There is one important prediction that I have made in this article, namely, "Today it is impossible to exist without an email-id in real life and who knows it may be the same with similar identities in the virtual worlds, which are on the horizon. "

Let us see how far this holds true

Virtual Worlds - the Future "Life"

My article on the what the future holds for Virtual Worlds or rather what what Virtual Worlds hold for us in the future has appeared in the Economic Times today ...

Read the full article here.

April 20, 2007

A global avatarID

The news that SecondLife will become opensource is a big step in the development of 3D Virtual Environments. Should it become a genuinely open platform then evolution of the resulting architecture could become very interesting ..

Individual organisations maintain their own physical servers and these can be accessed through the TCP/IP protocol.

Currently, on these servers, we run the same HTTP application server (the 'web server') .. and anyone anywhere in the world can connect to the HTTP application server through the HTTP client ( the 'browser')

Similarly, going forward, organisations can run their own SL servers on their own hardware and and allow ( or disallow ) individuals to connect their SL clients .. and this 'visit' SIMs ( just as we visit websites today)

On current HTTP application servers we run fancy stuff like java applets, Flash animations, RealAudio and YouTube style specific applications ... provided they comply with correct protocols and clients must have the required plug-ins

Similarly on our SIMs we can run fancy stuff ( not sure what ?) and as long as they comply with protocols and the SL clients are configured to access them.

One major difference is that browsing on the web is an anonymous exercise ... the server has no way of knowing who am i ... also when i am browsing, artefacts that belong to me ( cookies etc ) remain on the client machine ..

In SL that is different .. we need an identification and also a place to store our assets ...

So there has to be a central identification management agency that will ensure uniqueness of avatarIDs

In certain countries, the SSN could be a source of uniqueness (though revealing that will be a big blow to our privacy ) but that is not universal. So it is likely that there will be a parallel ID system that will be created ( do i see the beginnings of a global SSN ? )

The concept of a central identity management mechanism is an intriguing possibility ... going forward, avatars will have a global ID and they will also need a global "warehouse" where they can store their inventory of artefacts .. and i suppose there will be competition from different agencies to act as the "warehouse" ... just as banks compete with each other to be the custodians of our cash.

Who will run this central identity management service ? would it something central ? or would it something heirarchical like the DNS service ? with a core group of identity servers ? would our avatarIDs become something like ( provided by our employers ) and would there be people like Yahoo and Google who will tempt us with (free ?) identities like or ? and will these link to our current names like Calcutta Cyclone ?

The possibilities are enormous and extremely exciting ...

The Road to Singularity

This is an account of a very personal quest for the Truth. There are many ways to reach the same goal and this particular effort seeks to reflect the Truth in the still waters of a dispassionate yet rational analysis.

Sages and seers from time immemorial have held that the Truth is beyond reason, transcends the boundary of the physical world and can only be perceived at an intuitive level. This humble exercise is an attempt to see things from a slightly different perspective. a rational approach, based on physical phenomena, may have many limitations but the desire to abandon it is an act of intellectual laziness. While it is true that many mystics have perceived the truth intuitively, it may be more satisfying to take the intuitive approach as a matter of choice and not of necessity.

This analysis begins with the principles of Advaita Vedanta and maps them against known facts from the world of science. Unlike in the past we have neither tried to invoke Quantum Mechanics and other forms of modern physics – which are both dated and sometimes as unprovable as religious beliefs themselves, nor used the barren sterility of Artificial Intelligence. The analysis may not be logically complete. We admit that there could be gaps in the chain of argument but we have not taken shelter in the beliefs and mythlogy of religion. Instead we have used mathematics itself to argue that such gaps can never be completely eliminated and we need to learn to live with them. Only at the very last step, when we are at the edge of the rationality and looking at the vista of the infinite, do we introduce a glimpse of why we need the grace of the divine.

We have created a new pattern of thoughts by connecting a number of unusual dots, namely ..

• The principles of Advaita Vedanta as enunciated by Sankara in the 6th century
• The plausibility of illusions and non-material information transfer
• The computational metaphor of the Universal Turing Machine
• The persistent and evolving nature of the ‘Selfish Gene’
• Godel’s Theorem of Incompleteness

in a manner that is unique and has not been attempted in the past. Without being dogmatic and parochial about the greatness of the the Hindu relegion, we show how this ancient philosophy is not only relevent in the contemporary environment of rational science but how it has infact anticipated thoughts and ideas that have now appeared a thousand five hundred years later.

The lure of the unknown is irresistible. Any frontier is a challenge for the intrepid few who will want to push it back. This is the spirit of enquiry and enterprise that has taken human civilisation across oceans and now into the deepest reaches of interplanetary space. The boundaries of the physical sciences are no less challenging -- can they be pushed back to include the ultimate truth ? even if the goal proves elusive, the journey itself is worth the effort. And as we walk along this path it is but natural that we meet fellow travellers with whom it is a pleasure to exchange our thoughts.

Hence instead of using the platform of the we-know-all discourse, we have used the format of a dialogue between a seeker and a sceptic to first articulate, then challenge and finally reaffirm the mosaic of ideas that add up to an unusual image of the Truth.

If you want to read the full text, please follow this link.

Akshyaya Tritiya,
6th Baisakh, 1414 BS
20th April 2007.

April 01, 2007

Calcutta Cyclone in the Deccan Herald

The Deccan Herald has an article that features yours truly aka Calcutta Cyclone. Though the article is rather sceptical about SL calling it a fool's paradise, the fact remains that this is how new technologies are initially viewed. But we know that Satyameva Jayate, Truth shall Triumph, even though truth is portrayed in an illusion.

The original page is no more available but you can see a cached version of the page here.

Given the confusion with transient links ... here is a 'permanent' image of the article.

Calcutta Cyclone in the Deccan Herald

An article on SecondLife in the Deccan Herald features your truly, that is Calcutta Cyclone .

The original page is no more available but a cached version of the page can be viewed here.

March 25, 2007

Form Factor : A Consulting Approach to Indian Cricket

The disastrous performance of the Indian Cricket team in the World Cup will no doubt spawn an outpouring of unimplementable solutions like "change the coach / captain", "get fresh players" etc .. however all these and other respectable solutions are useless because the people who are entrusted to implement any of these are all (a) corrupt and (b) incompetent and there is no hope of anyone who is not corrupt or not incompetent to find a place in the cricket administration.

Hence I would like to propose a solution that is absolutely person independent ..

  1. Let us create a catalog of all possible first class cricketers in India.
  2. Let us define a metric against which the performance of any cricketer can be measured. This could be in terms of runs scored, balls faced, number of 4s/6s, wickets taken, runs given away and so on.
  3. This metric should be moderated by certain weighting factors, like 'strength' of the opposition ( obviously, 50 runs scored against South Africa in a ODI counts for more than 50 runs scored against Bengal in a Ranji Trophy and so on )
  4. Based on this metric for the last 30 matches, we should define a Performance Form Factor for each the cricketers on the catalog.
  5. Any team for any match should be chosen strictly according to the descending order of PF Factor for the individual cricketer. No selectors with their hidden agendas and no consideration for the past greatness of people like Tendulkar please ! At best, we can have ONE wild card entry based on the combined judgment of the captain and the coach.
There are two difficulties for this approach
  1. Can we really come up with any such metric ? Obviously I cannot, but there should be competent people in the country who can come up with one such ... something like the Duckworth-Lewis metric. And in any case, even if the metric is not perfect, the selection arrived at through this approach cannot be any worse than what is happening right now with our so-called Selectors.
  2. The second and more serious difficulty is procedural. The current crop of administrators cannot be expected to give up their discretionary powers at the alter of such objective algorithms. They will fight tooth and nail. So who will force them ? Not the government ... since government ( or rather politicians ) have brought the team to this state so they have a vested interest in keeping it like this. The best option is the Sponsors -- those who have no emotions but have the maximum skin in the game. Let them arm twist the BCCI to follow a more objective mechanism of team selection.

I understand that such a complete loss of faith in the cricket administration is a phenomenon that has not happened anywhere else in the world ( with the possible exception of Pakistan ) .. but India is different and we should lead the world to come out with a unique solution to our unique problem.

May I suggest that some interested and competent Indian fans create this PF factor anyway, even before it is acknowledged by the cricket administration. Then when actual teams are chosen, we can compare the PF factors of those actually chosen with those left out and will have an objective measure of the subjectivity in Indian Cricket

March 08, 2007

Virtual Worlds : Predictions coming true

Sometimes it feels good to beat your own chest ... and say ... that I said so. And that is precisely what I intend to do in this post.

Way back in 2005 i had written in a post that games of the future would be controlled by thought processes and had said that perhaps it will take 10 years for this technology to mature. And here we are today with Emotiv Systems announcing that this is a reality today and would be commercialised by 2008.

My second prediction was that if you want to make money in Second Life it has to be initiated through the entertainment route. Not financial institutions or banks.

Today we have Sony announcing their presence with a world similar to Second Life where you can not only build and create your own stuff, you can actually play the Playstation type games.

I have two other predictions that are coming close to realisation.

First the 3D graphic displays and Open clients that will allow anyone to connect to ANY of the virtual worlds using the SAME client software.

When these two things happen .. will there be any difference between the Real World and the Virtual World ?

March 04, 2007

Talent Management : An Industrial Approach

Good Morning friends :

It is my pleasure to deliver this key note address and I thank the CII-Eastern Region and its Chairman, Mr Bhusen Raina for the privilege of addressing this august body.

We are assembled here today to talk about how we can enable excellence and I believe that to excel it is necessary to have the talent to excel. So my focus today will be on the management of Talent in India.

We are told that India is moving away from an agrarian economy to an economy dominated, not by industry as it has happened in the west, but directly to a knowledge economy .. an economy dominated by services. As a management consultant, buzz words like these should be a part of my professional repertoire but strangely enough I am always hesitant to be so discrete with my thoughts. The world is not quite so black-and-white ... it is always shades of grey. So when I talk about an industrial approach to talent management I will try to weave into my words, some thoughts and ideas drawn from areas that fall outside the traditional domains of talent management, education and human resources management. There may be a few who disagree with this -- but then seminars like this are always meant to bring forth a plurality of opinion. So let it be with this one.

Amartya Sen has let the cat out of the bag when we talks of the Argumentative Indian. We love to talk and argue but when it comes to work we are very often found lacking. I want to avoid this trap and so in addition to talking ( which I cannot help, in a forum like this ) I would like to propose two actionable ideas of which one has short term implications and the other has a more long drawn impact on India.

So first the short term one ...

I am a great fan of Thomas Friedman right from the days when he lionised the Outsourcing Industry with his thoughts on the Flat World. I am not here to talk about the Flat World but about another idea that he has floated of late ... and it is an idea that I like very much : The concept of drilling for talent.

His thoughts on this are very simple. There are countries that drill for mineral resources and he is specific about drilling for oil and he says that countries that drill for oil -- the Middle East, Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia are the ones who are making short term wealth but this wealth is not sustainable in the long term. In contrast, he lauds countries like India, who are not very successful in drilling for oil, but who have managed to drill for talent inside the population and have used the talent that has gushed out to develop a flourishing and sustainable knowledge based economy.

So let us focus on drilling for talent.

Actually this is not such a new idea at all but we must thank Mr Friedman for building a buzz around a very good idea. We in India have always been drilling for talent through our National Talent Search Examinations. These are conducted by the NCERT, Government of India and there have been some variants run by other organisations. Unfortunately this whole infrastructure of the NTS is pretty badly managed and if I may say so, it is on the verge of collapse. May I suggest that corporates under the banner of CII redesign and rejuvenate this program and make it more effective.

The current Talent Search process works with school children and is focused on text book knowledge. As a National Talent Scholar myself, I can assure you that despite this focus on bookish knowledge, it is indeed a source of great inspiration and financial support to many middle class people like myself. However in today's global arena, book knowledge is only one arrow in the quiver ... and I would suggest that the Talent Search process be enlarged to include entrepreneurial skills ... from the current National Talent Search to a new National Entrepreneurial Talent Search.

Consider the example of Radio Raghav that enjoyed brief notoriety when it was operating a full fledged FM radio station without a license in Mansoorpur in Bihar. It was hailed as the perfect example of the triumph of enterprise in the face of insurmountable financial odds and was the toast of the global radio community when it was showcased in the BBC. Of course it is a different matter that the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1880 was invoked to shut it down ... but it goes to show what kind of entrepreneurial talent exists in the country.

My suggestion is this : Can the CII put together a mechanism to locate such entrepreneurial talent, match it with managerial talent available in the country's B-Schools plus the money bags of the Venture Capital community and then hand-hold then for a period of say five years so that such enterprises can thrive and grow ?

Students in business schools are familiar with the latest technology, the latest business processes and the latest global trends .. but are they natural entrepreneurs ? Not likely ... the skills needed to clear the GMAT are very different from the risk appetite needed to dream about, start up and follow through with a thriving business ... but for every Sunil Mittal who has made the successful transition from selling cycle parts to owning the largest telecom company in the country, there are hundreds who fall by the way.

Can the CII sponsor a formal Entrepreneurial Talent Search process that will identify these individuals and help them reach the next level ?

Many of us who have graduated from IITs remember with extreme gratitude the monthly stipend of Rs 250 from NTS that was a source of great motivation for us. And it is the same people who are now holding positions of trust and responsibility in companies that are making India proud in the global arena. Is it too much to expect that 20 years from now, the CII leadership will have a fair share of business leaders who would be admitting their gratitude to this Talent Search Process for the success of their enterprises ?

The Talent Search is something that can be thought of as something in the short term, but perhaps we should think of something more fundamental that can affect India in a more profound manner.

I began this address by Drilling for Talent but let me carry the industrial analogy a little further and into the domain of mass production. This may be a slightly more long drawn approach, as opposed to the ETS process that I mentioned earlier but is also based on another old concept of public-private partnership in infrastructure.

The PPP route in physical infrastructure is now well established -- roads, airports and all that and I suggest that we now bring it to the educational domain.

If we look back on the Great Indian Outsourcing Story, we would note that the success in this area has been achieved because of the educated people that we have in this country. This is often referred to as the Demographic Dividend .. the benefit of having lots of people. However sub Saharan Africa is perhaps cheaper but you would not find people to do the job for you.

Unfortunately the Demographic Dividend is running out. It is not that we are running out of people -- we are billion strong and thanks to the teachings of the Kama Sutra we are growing ... but as every HR manager worth his CV knows it is impossible to get the right people with the right skills. While jobs are going abegging in the service sector -- Software, BPO, KPO or whatever, there are semi-literate people standing outside the gleaming glass houses and either begging for money or at best serving tea to those who drive cars for the people inside the building.

How can we bring in these semi-literate people into the work pool and convert their idle despair into billable hours ?

Private donation based colleges -- good or bad, I will not comment here -- we have and more importantly, we have business models in place that allows the growth of such colleges.

But where are the schools ? The primary schools and secondary schools ... where are they ? And more importantly who will fund them ? It would have been great if the government could -- considering that they now charge an Education Cess but frankly when did you last hear of brand new government school that has come up in your neighbourhood ? This is where the CII can step in with some creative business models.

  • Let us explore different funding models -- the MPLAD scheme ? Tax Free Bonds ? The Education Cess ?
  • Let us explore new technologies -- modern materials ? pre-fabricated buildings ? Wireless broadband
  • Let us explore new pedagogic tools -- distance learning ?
  • Let us explore new management models -- parent-teacher councils ? an All India cadre for teachers like the IAS or IFS ?

Let us put all these on the table, throw out all holy cows and shibboleths of the past and craft a new vision of education that has ONE single goal -- to create ONE NEW school in every district of the country, every year for the next five years.

The National Highway Authority of India is a good model for a central agency that funds and monitors the construction and operation of highways by quasi-autonomous commercial entities in the country. It is impossible to argue against the fact that highways in India today, especially the ones along the Golden Quadrilateral, are two generations ahead in quality and quantity, compared to the roads that we had 10 years ago ... and this has happened because the NHAI has been hammering at it in a focussed manner.

Can the CII catalyse the formation of an equivalent National School Authority of India that will in a public-private partnership mode fund and monitor the building and operation of schools in the country ?

The NHAI has a target of <so many> kilometers of highways to be built every year. The parallel NSAI should have the target of delivering 500,000 class room seats every year in the rural districts of the country.

During the Second World War when German U-Boats were sinking Allied shipping at an alarming pace, business men and engineers came out with the plan of building the Liberty Ships, in a manner similar to the process of making cars on an assembly line. Perhaps we should think big, as big as that, when we plan for these schools ... which are as important to us in India as the ships were to the Allied Forces.

I have talked of two specific ideas .. one is short term idea of having an Entrepreneurship Talent Search process and a long term idea of high volume 'manufacture' of primary schools. If I go on speaking I can come out with some more ideas ... but the trouble with many of us in India is that we talk too much and deliver too little.

I am sure that there are and would be many more ideas but let us get some consensus around these to begin with. If a significant number of us agree with these ideas we need to get down to the nuts and bolts of implementing the same. Unlike individuals from the political community who revel in announcing new schemes and laying foundation stones, we in the corporate community, who have in the past executed projects in time, within budget and to the satisfaction of our customer ... must get our act together to see how we can deliver.

I call upon the CII to anchor the process of evaluating these schemes in greater detail and see how they can be transferred from speeches heard in Taj Bengal to real business cases and then finally execute them for the good of the country.

The theme of this conference is Enabling Excellence. I believe that with these two steps, one short term Entrepreneurial Talent Search and the other long term plan for a National School Authority of India ... CII can accelerate India's growth to the stars.

I have always believed that when Resources are Limited, Creativity is Unlimited. As Mr Friedman says, when a country has a lot of valuable resources like oil, its creativity gets blunted. Let us leverage this shortage and instead of drilling for oil, let us dig for oil and then transform our educational system into an assembly line.

Jai Hind.

Speech Delivered at the CII Eastern Region Conferance on Talent Management and HR at Calcutta on 28th Feb 2007

February 17, 2007

Second Life and the Maya of Vedanta

Advaita Vedanta is the school of thought that lies at the heart of the perennial philosophy – the Sanatan Dharma – of India and it has been elegantly articulated by seers like Sankara and Vivekananda. Second Life is a popular software application that has evolved in the 21st century out of the seemingly trivial genre of computer games that are collectively referred to as Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games. Is there a connection between the sublime and the apparently ridiculous ? Perhaps there is … That is what we explore here.

Advaita Vedanta is a profound discipline that has been researched and commented upon by numerous learned persons and it would be futile to try and explain it in a few paragraphs here. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, it is necessary to look at some of the important concepts around which it is based.

An important idea that Advaitins believe very strongly in is the concept of : Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya – the World is an Illusion, Consciousness is the Only Reality. This idea rests on three other concepts namely that of the Atman – the Self, the Brahman – the Supreme Consciousness and the elusive concept of Maya – the Illusion. These three crucial concepts can be summarized as follows1 :

Atman - the Self : The entire phenomenal world is bound by time, space and causation and as long as one is confined by these concepts, the experience is limited. Beyond the realms of time and space, there is an absolute and unconditional Reality that has no beginning and no end. That is Atman, the Self. The Self cannot be experienced by the senses. This Self is both within and outside the body. Unlike the body it is beyond death and decay. The Self is the fountainhead of the life force that animates and motivates the mind-body complex. According to Sankara, this Self is the all-pervading, self-illumined Consciousness.

Brahman - the Supreme Consciousness : Brahman is the ultimate Truth within and without. Brahman is also all-pervading and self-illumined Consciousness and the relationship of the Brahman to the Self is that of the forest to the tree. The entire universe emanates from Brahman, exists in Brahman and at the time of dissolution returns into Brahman. Stepping beyond the primitive monotheism of the Judeo-Christian philosophy/theology, Sankara asserts that the individual Atman and the universal Brahman are one and the same and the concept of a creator that is distinct from the creation is a cosmic illusion.

Maya - the Illusion : The phenomenal universe that can be perceived by the senses is actually an illusion called Maya. This Maya is what causes human beings to perceive worldly phenomena and respond to the environment. Vedanta states that Maya shields the Truth or Brahman from the Self or Atman. The concepts of time and space that veil the face of Truth are aspects of Maya. Because Maya veils the Truth, the individual Atman misconstrues both the world and itself as different from the Truth or Brahman.

For the modern scientist, the concept of Maya or illusion is unacceptable. How can the world us be unreal ? I can feel it, touch it and it has an existence even beyond the life span of any individual.

Adepts and enlightened seers have of course understood the nature of Maya and have managed to overcome the illusions with which she shrouds the ultimate Reality but for those of us who have not yet achieved the right karma to break through the veil, the only option left is to believe those who have been there. However the emergence of Second Life as a popular software product can help many of us to understand the nature of this Maya a little better. SecondLife has its origins in the class of software known as Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games but is now more than a game.

Wikipedia describes2Second Life as an Internet-based virtual world which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007. Developed by Linden Lab, a downloadable client program enables users to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse”.

According to Wired Magazine3 The vision of former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale, Second Life emerged from beta just three years ago. Rosedale was convinced that the increasing adoption of broadband and powerful processors made it possible to create a 3 D virtual world similar to the metaverse Neal Stephenson described in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab govern Second Life and rent property to the steady stream of fresh immigrants, but beyond establishing a few basic protocols, they pretty much stay out of the way. Almost everything you'll see has been built by the locals, from the swaying palm trees at the Welcome Area to the pole-dancer's dress at the XXX Playground.

Second Life is a fairly standard client-server application that runs on the Internet but the analogies which it offers are truly staggering. You use the SL client software, running on your computer, to “enter” the virtual world that resides on the server machines, with a userid and password and immediately an “avatar” – a graphical representation of the user – appears in the virtual world and become visible to other avatars, who are connected to other users who have similarly entered the world from their machines.

Avatars interact with each other in a virtual landscape populated by persistent objects like houses, trees, lakes, cars, shops, merchants, animals, aircraft – you name it, it is there. Each of these objects has been created by other users through their own avatars inside Second Life. This an eerie, but enjoyable world, filled with almost all ingredients of real life – there is a thriving economy, based on a convertible currency, almost as large as the GDP of a small country, there are relationships between avatars, there is law and politics and inevitably crime – committed by avatars and appropriate punishment. A key ingredient of Second Life is the concept of property rights. What you build is what you own and what you own, is what you can sell or rent !! And this is why Second Life is no more a game but an all new world to explore and profit from.

If you are immersed in this world – an at the time of writing, there are more than 3 million users of whom nearly 15-20,000 are concurrently in-world – it occasionally becomes impossible to the borders of what is real and what is virtual. Is this Maya ? Obviously not but if you consider the following … the analogy could be very compelling indeed.

The author has his own personal property in SL where he has built the Mahamaya Kali temple and it all began with a simple desire, to know who was visiting this temple. As the first step was very simple he created a phantom, nearly-invisible, trip-wire around the teleport point and sent out an email to his blog whenever someone passed through it and this helped track who all were visiting the Temple. But then he got ambitious and decided to see if he could create an in-world camera that would take a snap of the individual instead of just sending the email. Unfortunately this proved to be impossible .. and here is why.

Objects in SL are represented as pieces of data and it is the SL client software that assembles this data and gives it a visual representation. So to create an in-world camera, one would have to use a full fledged SL client, that runs recursively within the SL client itself … and this is orders of magnitude more difficult than writing code to do a host of normal things like driving a vehicle or creating a flying bee.

This leads us to the larger philosophical question .. does the existence of reality depend on the existence of a consciousness to perceive the reality ?

This is where we can invoke the analogy and state that the SL client is the equivalent of Maya ( or illusion) that assembles the view or perception. Without this Maya ( or the SL client) there is no Reality or at least the no perception of Reality. Is it that the act of seeing or perceiving is the cause for the existence of the object of perception ? Is it that I perceive, therefore the world exists.

Of course it may be argued that even if the SL client was not around to perceive the artifact in SL, the artifact would still exist in the SL asset server. But the representation of the asset in the server is a series of digital bits in a database which is far removed from the tables, chairs, houses and trees that are perceived when they are viewed through the SL client.

So in Real Life, the Reality could be in a form that is significantly different from the way we see it ... and we see it the way we do because of a Viewer that is placed between that Reality and us .. and that is what the Advaitin would say is Maya. When this Maya is removed, what remains is something quite different. In SecondLife, if we equate the SecondLife client to Maya and if the Maya is removed, then there are no artifacts, only a stream of digital bits. In Real Life the big challenge is to know the equivalent of the digital bits. Is that Brahman ? The supreme consciousness ... Perhaps it is.


1 This brief introduction to Vedanta is based on the book "Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy" by Pandit Rajamani Tigunait, Ph.D. ISBN 0-89389-076-6 © 1983 by The Himalayan International Institute