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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Of Cattle, Cognitive Systems and Creation - Part 1

Sub-title: Artificial Intelligence is a hugely powerful next step in human evolution. History teaches us how to control such power and ensure its use for human well-being.

As per popular history, somewhere between 10,000 BC and 4,000 BC, transitioning from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age, we humans evolved from nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers into full-fledged agrarian economies. Among other things, we had an insight that animals, which were all around us then, have strengths and skills that can be great assets to getting our own works done. We developed “technologies” to domesticate, tame, train, rear and breed cattle for various purposes. Whether it is dogs in Alaska, elephants in south India or horses in the American West, leveraging local animals to get things done became a major factor in the survival and growth of us humans. Animal-less productivity was nearly unthinkable then. Since then, we have undergone two more major evolutionary steps as a race - the industrial revolution and the IT revolution. Nevertheless, leveraging animals for human well-being (other than as food) continues to be practiced significantly.

Cattle provide an excellent perspective to think about the current Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution. But before we go there, let us first get on the same page on what the AI revolution is. In case you were busy cave-dwelling in the past decade, let me be the one to break to you that our world is being completely reshaped by AI. Clerk-less offices, driver-less roads, teacher-less schools, soldier-less wars and doctor-less surgeries are no longer science fiction. In the coming decade, intelligent machines and robots will save millions of human and animal lives, but they will also steal millions of human jobs. Companies offering AI-based products and services will earn trillions of dollars. Cities, institutions and homes will look completely different in our life time, thanks to AI.   

AI is a technology area that aspires to build computing systems that exhibit what humans can accept as “intelligence”. The dream of creating intelligent programs and systems has been active for several decades now. Many connected technology areas like Big Data, Analytics, Robotics, Machine Learning and Cognitive Computing assist in realizing the AI Revolution. It is known that thousands of mechanical, electronic, chemical systems outperform manual effort, in many areas. When the ingredient of intelligence gets added to these systems through AI, what we get (what we are getting) are truly next-generation machines that do complex activities far more quickly, cheaply, accurately, reliably and robustly than human beings. A sub-area of AI, Machine Learning, enables these machines to learn from their mistakes and from human feedback, to improve over time at what they do, just like humans. In short, AI makes it possible to create perfect, intelligent workers in many areas.

Naturally, this is highly scary. At once, our very survival seems to be threatened and mind gets clouded by many questions - What will happen to the human edifices and societies that we so carefully constructed for centuries, when AI takes over? Will humans have anything useful left to do? Or will all work be effortlessly done by AI-enabled systems, forcing us to become couch potatoes and eventually go extinct? Once machines become intelligent, how can we be sure that we can continue to control them to keep serving our interests and mandates? What if they revolt? Is it possible for quirky, emotional humans to stand their ground and fight against perfect, ruthless machines? Can intelligent machines build consensus among themselves, to become perfectly coordinated nightmares for humans? Can the intelligence of machines grow so much that humans become vulnerable disposables? There are many such questions, and they must be asked and debated. These questions are valid enough that some of the brightest minds of our times, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have alerted humanity on the not-so-distant future dangers of AI systems.

However, I am a die-hard optimist. I choose to hold a diametrically different view than the above venerable minds. My 27 years in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have convinced me that AI systems are nothing but humanity’s new cattle. Like our Neolithic brethren woke up to the possibility of leveraging the animal kingdom around them, we are waking up to leveraging a new-found kingdom of intelligent machines. This is a kingdom we will breed. We can, and we will, learn to leverage this kingdom in the right way, to advance human well-being, to thrive and prosper as human race, and to strengthen the human spirit. In the initial stages, there will be challenges and casualties, just like there are in initial horse-raring and elephant-training times. The more powerful the beast is, the more potentially useful it is, but the harder it is to tame, train and use. But I believe there are solid, irrefutable reasons to prove that we humans can tame the AI beasts.

Through this article series, I hope to convince you that we should not shy away from pursuing or building AI-based machines; on the contrary we should build them with a sense of passion, urgency and discretion. In parallel, we must put in place specific mechanisms and measures, to help create a future where the supremacy of humans over intelligent machines can be assured.

To be continued…

[This is a multi-part article series, which contains my personal views and ramblings about natural and artificial intelligence. Thank you for reading. Please watch this blog for updates.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wow! What an Example to Set!!

The following  is an account shared by someone who spent the last six hours with Bharat Ratna Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. It brought tears to my eyes. Professor Kalam, as he likes to be remembered, has set such a beautiful example of the right way to live, to think, to give.

What I will be remembered for.. my memory of the last day with the great Kalam sir...

It has been eight hours since we last talked – sleep eludes me and memories keep flushing down, sometimes as tears. Our day, 27th July, began at 12 noon, when we took our seats in the flight to Guhawati. Dr. Kalam was 1A and I was IC. He was wearing a dark colored “Kalam suit”, and I started off complimenting, “Nice color!” Little did I know this was going to be the last color I will see on him.

Long, 2.5 hours of flying in the monsoon weather. I hate turbulence, and he had mastered over them. Whenever he would see me go cold in shaking plane, he would just pull down the window pane and saw, “Now you don’t see any fear!”.

That was followed by another 2.5 hours of car drive to IIM Shillong. For these two legged trip of five hours we talked, discussed and debated. These were amongsthundreds of the long flights and longer drives we have been together over the last six years.

As each of them, this was as special too. Three incidents/discussions in particular will be “lasting memories of our last trip”.

First, Dr. Kalam was absolutely worried about the attacks in Punjab. The loss of innocent lives left him filledwith sorrow. The topic of lecture at IIM Shillong was Creating a Livable Planet Earth. He related the incident to the topic and said, “it seems the man made forces are as big a threat to the livability of earth as pollution”. We discussed on how, if this trend of violence, pollution and reckless human action continues we will forced to leave earth. “Thirty years, at this rate, maybe”, he said. “You guys must do something about it… it is going to be your future world”

Our second discussion was more national. For the past two days, Dr. Kalam was worried that time and again Parliament, the supreme institution of democracy, was dysfunctional. He said, “I have seen two different governments in my tenure. I have seen more after that. This disruption just keeps happening. It is not right. I really need to find out a way to ensure that the parliament works on developmental politics.” He then asked me to prepare a surprise assignment question for the students at IIM Shillong, which he would give them only at the end of the lecture. He wanted to them to suggest three innovative ways to make the Parliament more productive and vibrant. Then, after a while he returned on it. “But how can ask them to give solutions if I don’t have any myself”. For the next one hour, we thwarted options after options, who come up with his recommendation over the issue. We wanted to include this discussion in our upcoming book, Advantage India. 

Third, was an experience from the beauty of his humility. We were in a convoy of 6-7 cars. Dr. Kalam and I were in the second car. Ahead us was an open gypsy with three soldiers in it. Two of them were sitting on either side and one lean guy was standing atop, holding his gun. One hour into the road journey, Dr. Kalam said, “Why is he standing? He will get tired. This is like punishment. Can you ask a wireless message to given that he may sit?” I had to convince him, he has been probably instructed to keep standing for better security. He did not relent. We tried radio messaging, that did not work. For the next 1.5 hours of the journey, he reminded me thrice to see if I can hand signal him to sit down. Finally, realizing there is little we can do – he told me, “I want to meet him and thank him”. Later, when we landed in IIM Shillong, I went inquiring through security people and got hold of the standing guy. I took him inside and Dr. Kalam greeted him. He shook his hand, said thank you buddy. “Are you tired? Would you like something to eat? I am sorry you had to stand so long because of me”. The young lean guard, draped in black cloth, was surprised at the treatment. He lost words, just said, “Sir, aap ke liye to 6 ghante bhi khade rahenge”. 

Dr. Kalam meeting the Javan who stood

After this, we went to the lecture hall. He did not want to be late for the lecture. “Students should never be made to wait”, he always said. I quickly set up his mike, briefed on final lecture and took position on the computers. As I pinned his mike, he smiled and said, “Funny guy! Are you doing well?” ‘Funny guy’, when said by Kalam could mean a variety of things, depending on the tone and your own assessment. It could mean, you have done well, you have messed up something, you should listen to him or just that you have been plain naïve or he was just being jovial. Over six years I had learnt to interpret Funny Guy like the back of my palm. This time it was the last case.

“Funny guy! Are you doing well?” he said. I smiled back, “Yes”. Those were the last words he said. Two minutes into the speech, sitting behind him, I heard a long pause after completing one sentence. I looked at him, he fell down.

Dr. Kalam collapsing on the dias in Shillong

We picked him up. As the doctor rushed, we tried whatever we could. I will never forget the look in his three-quarter closed eyes and I held his head with one hand and tried reviving with whatever I could. His hands clenched, curled onto my finger. There was stillness on his face and those wise eyes were motionlessly radiating wisdom. He never said a word. He did not show pain, only purpose was visible.

In five minutes we were in the nearest hospital. In another few minutes the they indicated the missile man had flown away, forever. I touched his feet, one last time. Adieu old friend! Grand mentor! See you in my thoughts and meet in the next birth.

As turned back, a closet of thoughts opened.

Often he would ask me, “You are young, decide what will like to be remembered for?” I kept thinking of new impressive answers, till one day I gave up and resorted to tit-for-tat. I asked him back, “First you tell me, what will you like to be remembered for? President, Scientist, Writer, Missile man, India 2020, Target 3 billion…. What?” I thought I had made the question easier by giving options, but he sprang on me a surprise. “Teacher”, he said.
Then something he said two weeks back when we were discussing about his missile time friends. He said, “Children need to take care of their parents. It is sad that sometimes this is not happening”. He paused and said, “Two things. Elders must also do. Never leave wealth at your deathbed – that leaves a fighting family. Second, one is blessed is one can die working, standing tall without any long drawn ailing. Goodbyes should be short, really short”.

Today, I look back – he took the final journey, teaching, what he always wanted to be remembered doing. And, till his final moment he was standing, working and lecturing. He left us, as a great teacher, standing tall. He leaves the world with nothing accumulated in his account but loads of wishes and love of people. He was a successful, even in his end.

Will miss all the lunches and dinners we had together, will miss all the times you surprised me with your humility and startled me with your curiosity, will miss the lessons of life you taught in action and words, will miss our struggles to race to make into flights, our trips, our long debates. You gave me dreams, you showed me dreams need to be impossible, for anything else is a compromise to my own ability. The man is gone, the mission lives on. 

Long live Kalam.

Your indebted student,
Srijan Pal Singh

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Asking Bigger Questions: Spirituality and Religion at Work

I am not one to encourage religion at work. I believe that religion is a very personal tool, and should remain so. Nevertheless, after much thought, I agreed to setup a meditation room within our office, complete with a consecrated energy form AvighnaYantra (Sanskrit for machine that removes impediments).

I have seen and heard many, otherwise sensible and intelligent, people of diverse religions and cultures, share deep personal experiences of how their financial, physical and psychological impediments to peace just disappeared when they came into the sphere of influence of the Avighna Yantra. I am personally convinced of the genuineness of these experiences, and want similar positive effects for everyone in my office.

There are also other simple benefits of having a meditation room at work:
  • Being quiet and disengaged for some time
  • Switch off work issues for a while
  • Not carrying stress home
Nevertheless, in an office with many people (staff and visitors), one should expect to face reactions ranging from silent discomfort to not-so-disguised disapproval of a seemingly religious symbol like the Avighna Yantra. Every staff member needs to feel comfortable in an office, so I feel obliged to explain my rationale for agreeing to keep an Energy Form at work.

The rationale, to me, starts with the difference between spirituality and religion. Many great people explained this difference - I may be allowed here the indulgence of providing my own explanation.

To me, spirituality is asking bigger questions. Being spiritual is deeply, wholeheartedly asking questions like "why am I here on this planet?", "why is the world the way it is?", "why do people (including me) suffer?", "what is my essential nature?", "is it not possible to be happy all the time?", etc. Such questions, I believe, are fundamental to being human. They are in fact universal. Different people may ask them at different points in their lives, but eventually everyone is likely to encounter quandaries like this. The context of the questions, and the path to the answers, are deeply subjective. One needs to personally experience the answers; just knowing the answers is of little use. In other words, the questions are universal, but answers can result only from deep subjective seeking.

Religion, on the other hand, provides packaged answers to bigger questions. Religion has to assume that there are answers applicable across whole groups of people, that people in these groups ought to accept the answers given to them. Based on the specific answers it provides, each religion distinguishes itself from the others. Packaged answers no doubt give quicker solace at times. My problem with them is not that they never work; my problem is that packaged answers can stop the act of asking bigger questions, the act of seeking itself. That would be a disaster. For this reason, I believe that packaged answers of established religions are easy, perhaps effective, but dangerous, shortcuts. They could make you live under assumptions and hence ignorance.

Furthermore, I feel that no sets of packaged answers, no existing religions, can survive this millennium of irreverent, diversity-seeking, individualistic, border-free generations of people. A better means to find solace in this millennium is to cultivate genuine questioning, genuine seeking, in as many people as possible. In fact, I believe that this is a requirement of this millennium.  Homes and work places alike should invest in setting up environments that cultivate & encourage deeper questioning, subjective answer seeking & existential clarity.

There are multiple mechanisms to set up such environments - through libraries, through debates & discussions, through service to fellow humans, and through energy work. The meditation room in our office is an example of energy work. We also respect and practice the other mechanisms, but energy work impacts positively many people in its sphere, even without conscious effort.

It is not easy to draw the line between spirituality and religion in energy work - the problem being symbols. If we keep spirituality fully devoid of symbols, then perhaps, we can clearly differentiate between spirituality and religion. However groups of people that attempted to do this historically ended up being the most vociferous religious groups on the planet. I believe that it is not the fault of any group, but that it is inherently very hard to remain symbol-free in seeking. A lot of us have to evolve through symbols into a symbol-free environment.

Let me also dare to describe here my understanding of the symbolism of the Avighna Yantra. Seeking or exploration can be at different levels within a human being. One way of thinking about this is as different “chakras”. From a simple sense of ego, individuality &survival  (“Muladhara chakra”), one's exploration progresses all the way to universal oneness (“Sahasrara chakra”). The progression is not a jump; it's a journey, similar to energy rising in a conduit. Some significant milestones along the way are desire & reproduction (“Swadhistana chakra”), hunger & sustenance (“Manipuraka chakra”), love & compassion ("Anahatha chakra"), power & leadership ("Visuddhi chakra"), etc. I also personally visualize this progression as a pyramid of evolution - many more people are at the ego & survival stage than those at love & compassion and universal oneness stages. Everyone is travelling to the top of the pyramid, at their own subjective pace, with their own halts and impediments.

In the Yogic tradition, which is older than all religions on this planet, for thousands of years,“chakras” have been shown as different types of lotuses, and energy progression upwards as a snake raising itself from a coiled state. In addition, it is argued that the best shape to hold large amounts of energy is the “Linga” (oblong spherical shape). See the Korean nuclear reactor in this picture.

Avighna Yantra includes all these elements - lotuses, snakes, geometrical shapes, and an energy powerhouse in the form of a solidified, consecrated mercury Linga, the Linga Bhairavi Devi. So, to one who sees it as an energy form, the Avighna Yantra is far beyond any religion.

Before concluding, I should also express that I believe it is important that symbols survive. Symbols are like ladder steps. After a person climbs to a certain level, they won’t need the lower ladder steps, the earlier symbols. But while climbing, those steps are essential.  

Seeking, questioning and subjective evolution into blissful, intense human beings needs to be fostered at work places. Installing a meditation room at our office is our humble effort to seed this transformation in each and every one that we work with.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An ocean in a tea spoon

Anyone that has any familiarity with Carnatic classical music of India would know about Saint Tygaraja's work. He is said to have written 24,000 songs, one for every one of Sage Valmiki's 24,000 original slokas (couplets) in the epic Ramayana. Plus some more.

Numbers are unimportant. What is important for me is that every Tyagaraja krithi that I know of is packed with layers of beautiful, deep meaning in simple, day-to-day words that also rhyme and chime beautifully.

Tyagaraja's krithis are typically short - just a few short lines of simple Telugu words. (There are some long and complex songs, like the Pancharatna Keertanas. Majority of songs however are simple and short.) Tyagaraja is a master at fitting an ocean of meaning into a spoonful of words. The meaning of many of his krithis has deep relevance to both the mundane and spiritual worlds. I have often felt that many musicians, even very accomplished ones, Telugu-speaking or otherwise, do not explore enough, do not derive or distribute enough joy from this dimension of Tyagaraja's music.

Recently I came across a rendering of the Tyagaraja kriti "Pakkala Nilabadi" by Sweta Mohan, a film singer.

In technical prowess, Sweta is nowhere near many other stalwarts. Her exploration of this song, technically, is shallow (as compared to, say, the MS Subbalakshmi version).

Nevertheless, I liked Sweta's rendering not only because it was refreshing Fusion but also because she seems to take the diction and meaning seriously. I felt that her involvement in the song came not just from the tune or music, but also from enjoying the words. I have no basis or proof for this feeling, and may be totally off here! But then, since when did feelings need a basis? :-)

Listening to Swetha prompted me to attempt to write down the meaning of this great song, as I understand it. I looked up available meanings on the web (e.g., here and here) but got thoroughly disappointed.  I had to write down my own understanding and interpretation, in brief, whether it is scholastically accurate or not.

Pakkala Nilabadi 

This song is said to have been written by Tyagaraja on a specific occasion. He was travelling between two villages in a closed cart.

The route was a deserted one, notorious for bandit attacks along the way. Tyagaraja was worried. He prayed to Lord Rama before starting the journey to protect them. Then, as he sat in the cart, he lost himself in the harmonic movement. By the time he got up and looked out, they had passed the notorious stretch. Happy that there were no untoward incidents, Tyagaraja asked the cart man how they managed the safe passage. That man, innocent and rustic, said with surprise, "Why sir? two handsome young men, one dark-skinned and one fair, walked on either side of the cart for the whole dangerous stretch, protecting us with their bows and arrows. We were saved by these young men, who called themselves your servants."

Tyagaraja was lost in ecstacy upon hearing this, realizing that the young men were none other than Lord Rama and his borther Lakshmana. In Their limitless love and grace, they took the trouble of protecting Tyagaraja, standing on both his sides of the cart as his servants. At this time, this beautiful song is said to have escaped his lips.

pakkala nilabadi koliche muchchata baaga thelpaga raada

Let me know in detail the admirable occasion when they stood on both sides and served...

chukkalaraayani keru momu gala
sudati seethamma soumitri sreeramunikiru -pakkala-

Like how the beautiful, moon-faced mother Sita and Lakshmana stood on both sides of Sree Rama...
[Sudati is a woman with beautiful teeth. Sita's teeth were like sparkling stars, the  king of which is the moon. The beauty of Sita's smiling face challenges the moon himself. Sita is not just a beauty queen however - she is the Mother. Sita and Lakshmana accompanied Rama throughout his travails, voluntarily, wholeheartedly, lovingly. This is how serving should be. It is also the case that when you serve the Lord like this, he does anything to save you. As we know, a good part of Ramayana deals with Rama serving Sita's cause, not the other way.]
thanuvuche vandana monarinchu chunnaaraa
chanavuna naama keerthana cheyuchunnaara
manasuna thalachi maimarachi yunnaaraa

With body, I am bowing down and saluting
With word, I am lovingly singing the Lord's names
In mind, recollecting about the Lord, I am lost in ecstasy
[While in the cart, I was occupied in body, word and mind in Rama. Hence I missed seeing the divine young men who came to protect us.] 
[This is the way to serve the Lord - being completely occupied in mind, word and body and being oblivious to anything else. This is in fact the way to involve with anything worthwhile - tri-karana-shuddhi. This is the correct way to use the body, word and the mind. These are the paths of hata yoga, bhajan and meditation.]
nenarunchi tyaagaraajunitho hari hari meeriru - pakkala-

Kindly, to Tyagaraja, You on both [sides]
["hari hari" is a well-known Telugu expression for being apologetic. Tyagaraja is apologetically asking his Lords (Rama and Lakshmana) here to kindly relate to him the admirable /cute occasion (muchchata) when They both stood on his two sides and served.]
It is possible to dig more and get much more "juice" out of this song (or any other song of Sri Tyagaraja).

And then there is the lovely nector of the Khara-Hara-priya raga that this song is composed in (by Tyagaraja himself?). The raaga is named to be the favorite (priya) of Rama, the slayer (hara) of the demon Khara.

Overall, this song, like many songs of Tyagaraja, can transport & transform us. Tyagaraja's songs are indeed mantras- the more we dwell on the words, meanings and tune, the more they will enlighten and transform us.
[Mananat-trayate iti Mantrah. Sanskrit definition of the word Mantra That, through the repetition of which, you get protected (from bondage/ ignorance/ troubles) is called a Mantra.]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Facebook phase begins

Time magazine Person of the Year for 2010 was Mark Zuckerberg, the most popular co-founder of Facebook.

Getting on Facebook has been a memorable part of my year also. While I have been on LinkedIn for longer, I feel that Facebook, which I started using on August 15, 2010 (Indian Independence Day), is the true beginning of my social e-networking journey. What a simple and significant phenomenon this Harvard drop-out and his friends have created! In my own field of work, I hope to create something as significant in my life time.

A compendium of all my FB status posts in 2010 is here, for what it's worth.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Inclusion a better option than choice?

Often in life, when we are sailing comfortably along one path, we bump into a starkly different yet attractive option. An alternative that in itself is attractive and makes sense, but just does not fit comfortably into your existing scheme of things. Examples?

  • You  are a youngster with supportive, loving, sensible family, who is helplessly charmed by someone whose background and views just don't gel with your family's. 
  • You are comfortably handling a successful business, and you encounter an opportunity that irrationally but strongly appeals to your gut, but all your supporters advise against it
What is the right thing to do when you encounter two paths in front of you, one of continuing what you have been doing comfortably, and one of switching to a wild and attractive new option?

There is a whole area of Decision Sciences that deals with making the right choice. Choices can be quantitatively weighted, scored, prioritized, optimized and selected in scientific ways. However, I recently began to wonder if this whole business of choice makes sense at all.

I encountered many forks in my own life. Looking back, the best decisions I took involved embracing both sides of the fork rather than choosing any one side. Including the new option into my existing life, so as not to destroy/lose what  is already there, but expand horizons to embrace the new, has always resulted in growth for all concerned, enriched perception, and made new opportunities available.

Making and sticking to a choice is far easier than inclusion. Hence it is the short-cut that people tend to prefer - just come to some conclusion quickly and simplify life. Hindu versus Muslim, urban versus rural, moral principles versus convenience, profit versus social service, parents versus friends, etc. However it seems to me that each choice we make is like a little wall we build between ourselves and the real, beautiful world out there. Choice breeds exclusion.

Inclusion is not easy to practice. Including some new thing as part of your current life is like becoming pregnant. Many existing parts of you will be forced to yield, many preferences get compromised, many allowances get made, many acclimatizations happen. But once the painful gestation is over, the end result is well-worth it. Your world definitely becomes richer.

In my personal & business life, I was fortunate to have encountered many situations where I was forced to choose between strong options. I feel grateful and gratified that something in me selected both options instead of only one. As an easy-to-understand example, my choice of a life partner was strongly objected to by my wonderful parents. I often felt cornered and forced to make a choice, but something within me adamantly stuck to "no I want both my parents AND my fiancée; all should be happy". It took time for a solution to naturally evolve, but when it did, the conclusion was more beautiful than any single choice could have been. There were many similar situations and learnings in the context of my business.

It will be wonderful if some Decision Sciences researcher takes up a scientific study of inclusion as a decision-making strategy, and evaluate its merits compared to choice.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Obesity & Undernutrition - two sides of the same economic coin?

To address India's dual health burden, Stanford researcher Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, PhD, has joined forces with colleagues across disciplines to better understand the seemingly opposing issues of undernutrition and obesity and to develop nutrition policies aimed at reducing the public health concerns. According to a release:
Bringing his own expertise in mathematical modeling, Goldhaber-Fiebert is working with the group to consider the patterns of future illness and death due to undernutrition and obesity. The researchers would like to know how economic and demographic changes will impact these trends. Ultimately, broadly delivered nutrition policies will have to address undernutrition and obesity issues without exacerbating either one... Although currently focused on India, the research will have broad implications for many other countries that face the undernutrition/obesity dual burden.
The research is funded by a Woods Institute Environmental Venture Projects grant.