Maps, Shopping, Services and Information: Did you internet that yet?

November 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Research now shows that the human brain is adapting to store information in terms of accessibility rather than actual content. That is to say, it is now a lookup table that informs you of the source or location of the information rather than content itself. Imagine that! Our brains rewired to take advantage of our dependency on the internet.

And why not? Science fiction has long professed the existence of a singular human consciousness: a repository of all human knowledge and experience, over which individuals are merely nodes or access points, much like an ant colony. Perhaps that’s a tad too dramatic a prospect to be concerned about, given the current state of the internet: with its cat videos, wrongly attributed quotes, recycled literature, and ugly compartmentalized services with cryptic URLs. But maybe we are heading towards this or a less scary version of this inevitability.

If you have read The Last Question, Isaac Asimov.

Clearly, Googling for information you don’t have,
checking for reviews before making purchases,
summoning delivered services, and
getting directions to places
have become an inseparable part of our lives, businesses,  and culture now.

To know how far we have got, we must look to what is being done right. Let’s review a few of the things the internet has got spot on!

Maps, Navigation and Location based Services: Location, Location, Location

The level of maturity that mapping and navigation services have reached over the last few year is amazing. Credit to Google to get maps and navigation right to our phones. Some folks will remember that not long ago SATNAV was a paid for service, that could go horribly wrong! It all started with the acquisition of Where2 in 2004 and its integration with a satellite imaging company called Keyhole in 2005. Several companies had, up to that point, provided some map information to find businesses etc. Google maps however,  stands out for speed, accuracy and for its availability in a surprising number of locations. A couple of years ago, Google Maps moved to JavaScript to become really fast and responsive using deCarte’s (previously called Telcontar, which I was pleasantly surprised to find is an awesome LOTR reference) Drill Down Server (DDS) geo-spatial software platform but has since started using their own in-house version. The good people at DNews have more information on how satellite data is procured and processed, and the various stake holders that bring you, what is now Google Earth. I urge you to look at the video to understand really how much money and human capital is paid for when you allow for them to shown you a few adverts.

While companies like Where 2 (founded by the Jens and Lars Rasmussen, who later made several contributions in Google and Facebook)  reinforce my believe that pure technology companies offer that next-10x-improvement magic ingredient that just make things better, those are not always the kind of companies that make the technews. Given a fast, reliable, real-time, and ubiquitous location platform, there are plenty of interesting and fun services that can go on top of it. There is a lot going for this area and  plenty to discuss, everything from the business models to devices and delivery, apart from the back-end stuff of accuracy, reliability, privacy & security, and algorithms.

navigation: Why cant we have a display on the wind-shield yet?

The important thing to keep in mind here is that synchronized satellites that orbit our planet are able to triangulate the position of my phone on the face of the earth, and a crazy company is willing to project that location onto a map that they tediously annotate and update, and render it back in my phone, so my life is better. Yes! I think this one we got spot on.

Reviews,  Shopping and Social Media 

I like it a little bit, and you?

A lot of internet browsing is about finding interesting content on the web, sharing and discussing it with friends. Almost every sharing platform offers this service with various extensions or customizations but rarely without receiving denigration. We are content creators, moderators, consumers all at the same time. I could not imagine a time when internet wasn’t personal. Our ability to rate experiences in a scale of 1-5 is just the kind of reduction that makes the internet a handy tool to have. Amazon.com was one of the first to use item to item collaborative filtering to recommend books based on similar customer preferences. We have since come a long way, integrating reviews to our credibility, our understanding of the area etc. A rating tells a company more about you than you are saying about them.

What’s coming?

This article has been about what the internet got right. What we got right with the internet. It’s tempting to think of what we will achieve with this in the future. I don’t know. Here are some stuff that I know are around the corner. Expect a huge improvement in the way we use currency, banks and financial services. MOOCs have come a long way since the early videos of professors with projectors and videolecture.net. Still engagement numbers are low and dropouts and extremely high. Top quality education will continue to be available for consumption for all of us.

This one is a bit debatable. Maybe it’s a more personal pain point, I wish was solved sooner. It is still hard for people in remote locations to collaborate effortlessly on common projects. There are some important technologies here VOIP, repositories, versioning tools, and such. How can I reach out say, to a palaeontologist who might think my sketches based on fossils for Brontosaurus are interesting and plausible? I don’t know yet.

Another area that is close to my heart and one that will significantly improve for an end-user is the ability to consume, infer, and work with images. I am not talking about cool filters here, but an array of millions of filters (interestingly!) that will infer your likes, dislikes, your fashion sense, your ability to drive, your health, the calories in your food, maybe even whether you are too drunk to drive back home. The magic of deep-learning will be the acceleration that the camera will need to forever put to rest the sensor race on your mobile phone and stake the claim of being the king of the mobile sensors, just ahead of the GPS. If some research is to be believed, even making the fingerprint scanner an unnecessary redundancy.

I would like to see a seamless integration of this collective human knowledge into our day-to-day lives: within conversations, meetings and the ideating processes. Products and services that bridge that last mile gap between the internets of opinions to the product purchasing process are, I believe, still lacking. Perhaps stronger location-based services is one answer, but that is looking at our lives through the prism of mobility. Technologists seem to be absolutely convinced that mobility is that last mile solution that will integrate internet to our living being. There is of course a lot of evidence to back that but as people lift their heads and realize that they don’t have to be wearing the internet all the time, maybe other design choices need to be explored. Devices that are as good with person recognition as they are with location,  can allow for personalization and user-stitched experiences.

I can’t help but find an analogy to the ancient cities of the world. All built around a river, a flowing entity that every citizen took a dip in at various walks of life. So too is the internet that is flowing all about us. Connect us, and help with our lives, and our relationships.

There will come a time, that our lives will be truly one with the network. Then the phrases I hope sound less like: did you Google this, or did you see that URL I sent you via beep chat, and more like: have you livedare you awake…. isn’t this great weather.

An internet that is integrated into rather than onto our lives. Making it more meaningful, productive, and fun.
Maybe then a day, where long distance will not be too painful.

 

No size fits all: Ghayal Sentiments, Smart Cars and the No-Free-Lunch Theorem

April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

My dear sweet Deepika Padukone is under fire for a rather livid monologue on her right to choice.

The poor thing had already been having a tough couple of weeks, that with her nearly being arrested for attending the torrid comedy event and the ensuing spectacle that followed.

I came across several opinion pieces on the ‘short-film’ (the word used rather loosely), some expressing concern and criticism, others disapproval and complete dismay. Exceptions taken at the use of the words, or the tone, perhaps the sentiments they arose and so forth. Even the otherwise stately The Hindu chimed in with several articles, with click-bait titles to the envy of traffic hungry bloggers, such as myself. The contents of the video were certainly not agreeable to all. Clearly, the video hurt some sentiments.

Getting offended has become a whim in recent times, (certain) people taking things remarkably seriously. Romila Thapar wrote an eloquent editorial on our inability as a society to protect our fundamental right to expression.  By cratering to the objections of fridge groups, she argues, that our society is losing the ability to function by itself. In other words, the ability to introspect, or to self-correct by allowing ourselves to have different/conflicting viewpoints. Having diverse training samples is essential for any learning algorithm, is it not?

Well, so much for click-bait opinions! Now that I have your attention, let’s move on the more enthralling topics, how about magical chariots!?

Yes, the time has come! Yet again the human race will produce the goods when necessity mothers some amazing technological inventions. It is now, as Elon Musk had foreseen, intractable for us as human beings to continue to travel in 2 ton death traps operated by levers and gears. The age of the self-driving, modern vehicles of wonder will soon dawn!

I have written before about Musk’s Tesla spearheading the efforts towards electric cars, his focus on building sporty high end electric cars recalibrated us to think of them as a formidable force. Innovation in battery and charging technologies saw light and powerful cars. Take a moment to see the Model S auto driving demo here.

Impressive! The new Tesla Model S now comes in a standard 60kWh and the 85kWh with a ridiculous acceleration of 0-60 mph in 3.2 seconds and autopilot mode to boost. The car is equipped with radar, visual camera to recognize road signs and sonar to check proximity.  This video of people’s reactions when experiencing the insane mode went viral few months ago. Musk also showed off the duel motor all-wheel drive in fine style. He recently tweeted about another big product line to be announced end of April. There is also an April fool’s joke going around that it could be Model W, a new watch!

That gag is especially funny, given that some industry watchers believe Apple is joining Tesla, Google, Volvo and Uber in the race to build a production self-driving car.  Enter, the man who has the knack to spin burgeoning industries on their heads, Sir Jonathan Ive.

Being a purist in design and novelty is one thing, and sitting on an excess cash reserve of $178 billion is another. Buoyed by the recording breaking profits of $18 billion and increasing pressure on Time Cook to let shareholders see that excess cash, if anyone can roll out a car by 2020, it’s this duo.

One thing is for sure, manufacturing companies that have for years supplied high school jocks and the Jeremy Clarksons with their “hot wheels” have to make way for the neo-age geeks to take over the last frontier of high school social eliteness in the race to the production of cool cars.

The low cost high volume production car manufactures of old may still have important lessons to disseminate as far as productions and operations are concerned. However, when an industry sees such massive disruption many existing notions must be revisited and new ideas given an opportunity to flourish.

There is an interesting mathematical folklore, dubbed the No Free Lunch theorem, which states that no algorithm (learning and recently also extended to optimization) is necessarily better than another when their performance is averaged over all possible problems (situations). The theorem is taken very seriously, some even suggesting it as proof of intelligent design. If I can be so bold as to abstract, different human ideas or opinions when applied over enough circumstances become immaterial! .. Right??.. bit much??

No peace yet for my lovely Deepika P., as she struggles to hopelessly induce meaning to her commercially thriving acting career; by alternating every hollow crowd-puller Bollywood Masala appearance with a sobered performance in an even more pointless drama.

Just like her movies are take-it-or-leave-its, so too are most films, books, cars, technologies, algorithms, thoughts, or opinions. For surely, no one size fits all!

[Book thoughts]: M. Gladwell’s Blink, Data modeling, and Corporate Structure

December 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

I got around to reading this book from my house a couple of weeks back as I have become increasingly intrigued by the art of decision making. This is an interesting discussion on the art of snap judgement, what the author calls ‘thin slicing’. There are several interesting and well written anecdotal evidence of instances where this technique is effective, misleading and not-applicable.

On the onset, I am not a fan of the Gladwell’s writing, in fact his entire approach of presenting a theory makes me uneasy and I will briefly explain why. Most of the socio-anthropological topics/theories he writes about are, in my opinion, to be thoroughly examined by scientific approaches, with rigor and thoroughness. The evidence must be collected without bias and examined skeptically. Any insights developed from observations must done so with caution.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – Carl Sagan

Consider how Gladwell introduces John Gottman, a professor from University of  Washington working in relationship counselling and social sequence analysis, to build the case for the thin slicing theory.

John Gottman is a middle-aged man with owl-like eyes, silvery hair, and a trimmed beard. He is short and very charming, and when he talks about something that excites him his eyes light up even wider. During the Vietnam War, he was conscientious objector, and there is still something of a 60’s hippie about him, like the Mao cap he sometimes wears over his braided yarmulke.

I understand that the elaborate description of the person helps to perhaps build context, to prepare the reader for an outlandish claim that Gottman is about to make. To be fair, when reading a journal publication or before attending a technical talk, we have all scrolled down to the author’s photo and description or looked up the speaker’s homepage to get a sense of what to expect. But it belays a fear that what is about to come must not be taken too seriously either. Clearly, the author is carried away by the person’s appearance and credentials to sufficiently scrutinize what he is being presented with.

The book has, however, held my interest. This unformed style of writing has compelled me to make my own interpretations of the facts and theories presented to me. There is something Dr. House-esque about the situation, if I may say so. Thin slicing fits in with an important adage in the machine learning community, known as the Occam’s razor principle. The degraded version of the principle implies that simple works best. In this age of large data, and its unending sources of evidence to make decisions, this thumb-rule implies that plugging more information to your data model can infact be detrimental to its performance.

Imagine there are a large number of fuzzy input parameters that you could use to make a decision. In case of Gottman’s experiment, it is a video of a couple who are arguing on an issue and then go on to reconcile. If you were asked to predict if this couple would go on to have a lasting marriage, there are several things you could consider. For instance, you could endlessly profile each member, everything from who they are, what they do, likes, dislikes, attitude, personality, background, profession, interests. Then there are interactions, their behaviour towards one another, the words they used during confrontation and reconciliation. Perhaps you want to factor in what kind of day they had so far, even stress at work or health. To put it simply, your data model here can always seem incomplete, since to some extent at the least, there are always going to be factors that you are not privy to. Gottman concluded from his study however, that as little as four indicators of negative behaviour (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) that can predict divorce with an accuracy of over 90%! Now, I for one can’t think of a fifth negative behaviour myself, so anyone with four of those going on in their lives seem pretty screwed.

This ofcourse is just one example and there are other interesting instances you could look at too. For instance, the car dealer who resisted pre-judging his customers as they entered his showroom. I often wonder about this contradiction of information, where less is more. It is something you see everywhere. Corporate hierarchy too in interesting in that sense, since the person who makes the biggest decisions, is the one with the least amount of ground-reality information! And to its credit, it works!

Bosses can be helpful!

Tesla: Undoing the patent system

June 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

Last week, Elon Musk, the visceral founder and CEO announced that this company, Tesla, a pioneer in electric vehicle technology is making all their patents freely available to the world. Following the announcement, the patent wall at their headquarters was replaced with a giant banner that reads

All our patent are belong to you

Tesla patent wall: All our patent are belong to you

The sign is a reference to a historic meme from an old Japanese game with bad translations in the cut-scenes. More on that here.

Just to be absolutely clear, this is an unprecedented move in an otherwise highly secretive industry that has taken the world by surprise. Musk is offering something that is unheard of.

And I am not even talking of the swag of it.

It is one thing to open source software; Google did with the Android mobile operating system. And as commendable as that is, it is a totally different thing for a technology company with less than 1% market share in the US, to give up its innovations, its bread and butter, to its competitors. Giant automobile companies with huge infrastructure, marketing and production capabilities, that have struggled to innovate and be productive in this segment, now no longer have patent roadblocks to copy the best technology. Imagine the thrill of Chinese car manufacturers!

Musk writes that it is unfair that Tesla has such an advantage technology-wise compared to other companies. He wants electric cars to be a sizeable chuck of some 2 billion cars produced each year. It is impossible for his company to do that alone. So he welcomes some competition, and wants to give them a boost. Technology leaders are not those who sit on their patents, he says, but rather those who can attract and motivate great engineers and researchers to work for them. Perhaps a challenge to himself and his employees to constantly be ahead of the curve. He cites as his inspiration, the slowly brewing open source moment of technology companies such as Twitter and Google who are now slowly presenting a new thought process that side-steps patent obsession that has been the sad theme of the industry in the past.

Tesla is an industry leader in battery technology, particularly the super-charging that has cut the time-to-charge substantially. If the industry picks up these technology and they become accepted as  standards, there is huge potential for big companies like Toyota or Mercedes to bring electric vehicles to the foray. Last thing we need is another industry standards fiasco à la mobile charging pins.

If there is a future for us with sustainable energy consumption, I wonder if history will look back to when the ideas to develop really high-end electric vehicles first opened up.

Tesla model S

It is not just a fantastically generous gesture from Tesla and Musk though. Industry analysts say that it is in fact a sound business decision. Tesla is founded on big promises of innovation and growth. Increasingly there is consensus that it is not doing as well, financially, as investors had hoped.  With a looming $2.2 billion debt, Musk is really counting on the industry to adopt his technology and make charging stations and battery manufacturing at scale. He hopes to sell his better designed and branded cars on the back of industry laid infrastructure. In a world where people are only too eager to jump the bandwagon, this move may result in Tesla becoming the industry monopoly if they are able to hold on to key aspects of their technology others are unable to reverse engineer. In fact, creating an atmosphere where it is easier to build on existing baselines may kill other innovations trying to come through. We are seeing this happen right now, given that Android is a decent mobile operating systems, it is so much easier for the industry to comply with Google and adopt their operating system, than to build something from scratch.

What we know for certain is that the patent system is quickly becoming obsolete and Elon Musk as pulled yet another unicorn from his hat. It is a characteristic high risk, high reward move that we have become accustomed to seeing from him.  His words in the blog post are cautious suggesting that he may still use his patents as defence against potential trolls. Either way he has put his chief innovators and technology people on the spot. The world is now watching.

Overall I consider Tesla’s patent move a good news. Perhaps there is an underhanded opportunity under the guile of altruism but one thing is for certain, Tesla and Musk have yet again broken stereotype and convention. So now others have no excuses.

You da’ man, pops!!

June 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

Pappy Day!

“ Good has two meanings: it means that which is good absolutely and that which is good for somebody. ” — Aristotle

Last few weeks I have been giving advice to students regarding their prospective universities for bachelor, masters and PhD programmes. Its a  tough time for any kid, particularly the undergrads, fourteen is no age to be asked what you want to do with your life. That though, is another story. The practical questions get asked, rather blatantly.

How much does the university cost? What is the scope?
How much money will I make ones I get out?

In the entire ordeal, I realized that my father had got me quality education. For all the times I bunked class, or didn’t pay attention, while I did end up getting a decent degree, I never questioned my own abilities. I think it was reassuring to know that my father thought of me as a smart kid.
So, whatever potential that I had and whatever I managed to exhibit, this man always always believed. Simply that. Believe in your kids. So today I think I should just say…

You da’ man, pops!!

Vrath, Laddoos and God

June 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

DSC06274 DSC06285

I woke up earlier than I am used to. My room window faces east, but the rays of morning sunlight are governed by the vagaries of the swaying Ashoka tree. Today, the house is ablaze with the preparation for the vratham. I wouldn’t say our house is old as much as that it has personality. Slowly it creeks and cracks towards readiness to shelter some 30 invitees, all family. The women of the house are priming it like a temple elephant that is still good for one more festive procession. Ok, wake up!

Grandma, mom, sister, and aunties are in-charge today. You best stay out of their way.

I look around lazily as preparations are underway. I have an automatic exception from house duties. There seems to be an unwritten understanding that I don’t do my best work in the morning. I must not take this privilege lightly. I know better than to ask for coffee, it will come in time. I hope.

Papa is a smart man, he knows his place today, he hovers quietly in and out of existence, declaring himself in-charge of any last minute shopping, extra thamalpaku (betel leaves) or more incense sticks. His only act of valor is when he periodically declares that we need to hurry up and that we are running behind schedule, much to the scorn of the ladies. Like any of this is planned!

I should probably try to help. Yum Laddoos!

DSC06327

Physical attributes lead to employment today, my height makes me in-charge of hanging flower garlands to doorways. I need to hang around here, lest I get transferred to something horrible, like last minute dusting, or heavy lifting. Ugh!

I am always keen to declare that I am a man of science. Evidence and scientific proof are of great value to me in any argument. Hence, I always wondered if I am an atheist.  Moreover, if I am a hypocrite if I practice religion. It is true that there is no evidence to support anything religious I do, but there is peace of mind, is that not evidence?

The calm words of Prof. Carl Sagan bring reassurance. His commented in 1981:

“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”

Agnostic it is…

 

Don’t be an Idiot. Vote!

April 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

Earth Day, Dilli

I am so proud of IIIT for participating in Earth Hour last week. What matters is that we tried, don’t care for arguments that the energy we saved was too little, or otherwise inconsequential. As any high school coach would say, it’s important that you try. It shows culture and character.

So, today I stand shoulder to shoulder, to join the chorus of hundreds of voices that descend your social network feeds in saying, please vote.

The Hindu presented a rather depressing account of the situation of election in our country (read here). It is but one example of how  the electorate has devalued the process of electing a leader. Depressing? yes! but..

Let me just say this though: We have always ridden on hope. A belief that at the very end of need, the machinery will come through to save us. While Dhoni batting at number six is one example, let us review this claim a bit more theoretically.

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is a treatise written by Albert O. Hirschman in 1970 on a concept of the ultimatum that faces a person when (s)he no longer finds value of being in association or membership of an organization. Basically, there are two choices: either “exit” or “voice”.

A good explanation from Wikipedia that I directly quote:

The basic concept is as follows: members of an organization, whether a business, a nation or any other form of human grouping, have essentially two possible responses when they perceive that the organization is demonstrating a decrease in quality or benefit to the member: they can exit (withdraw from the relationship); or, they can voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance or proposal for change).

Across our nation, political discourse has long shifted to “exit”. Consider a working middle class man, a father. He will invest with low risk (land or gold). He accounts for and is willing to pay bribe for any procedural activity. He wants his children to be educated and hopefully settle abroad. Wouldn’t like to talk openly of his political views .. I could go on, but I am sure this person sounds familiar. Hence, Exit, need not be physical option as much as a mental or an emotional one.

Diesel prices are subsidized in our country as it is important to keep the price of transportation of essential goods and food low. However, a large portion of this subsidized fuel is now used by diesel vehicles in urban India. The justification being, I get very little as it is, so let me grab what little I can.  Let, me, my family and my sub-society survive first, then I can worry about the good of the nation.

The past year is special in the history of India, where we begin to see the manifestation of the second form of ultimatum, the “voice” .  A counter-culture phenomenon, that has made it acceptable to be vocal of our anger, resentment and displeasure with the system. Hirschman makes an interesting point in  that the biggest threat to the “voice” is the “exit”. It may be sufficient to say however, that both forms to ultimatums can co-exist in a vast populace of our nation.

If we are absolutely honest with ourselves, it can be quite interesting to see how much of our thought is shaped by Voice and Exit. I know mine has, and perhaps there is value in being self-aware on this front.

Which brings me to the premise of this article. I believe, firmly and with vigor, that the “Loyalty” of the people of this country dwarfs any postulate Hirschman can make. For all said and done, we are so fundamentally rooted to a fuzzy concept of my India that transcends the displeasure of how poorly she is governed, or how unfulfilled is her potential.

So, I urge each and everyone of us, to look to this connection, to feel that we belong to something extraordinary and give us an opportunity to change ourselves.

Don’t be an Idiot. Vote!

 

 

 

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