Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The boys- A Sci-fi story

Source: Pexels.com


Ajay had no clue about what hit him! Neither did his wife, Manika. They had been living the proverbial perfect life that would have been the envy of all the neighbours and friends. A huge flat- fully customized and alive- with the adaptive walls and reality-integrated HyperTV to talk to their two darling children. Their elder daughter, Samara, had been insisting on taking them along to the safe haven under the Pacific. But they kept their ground and didn't leave Delhi even when everyone had to wear a mask fitted with CleanO2 generators for most of the year. Ajay and Manika had all their friends around and never felt at home in the artificial undersea city.

Ajay's closest friend, Manish, had recently got diagnosed with the now-common lung infection, a minor one at that. But he chose to get it replaced with the genetic implant that they frequently saw advertised on all media. He was running the Ultraman next month with the new lungs and was in a better shape too! All alone after the death of his husband, he had finally found himself drawn into endurance sports to get over the sad incident. His husband was also diagnosed with a lever disease that got bad when he refused to get it replaced. Lever replacement was a relatively new phenomenon then and the family couldn't muster enough courage to take the risks. They tried putting an external device but it never really worked out. Manish wanted Manika to try the Ultraman but she didn't feel up to it with the all-human organs. They often joked about how she harped about her original 75 year-old organs. Not even a tooth got replaced!

And today, they had the most shocking incident that turned their small and happy world upside down. And the person responsible was this innocent boy they loved so much. Well, he wasn't exactly a person and yet, they got really upset the other day when Manish had called him a machine. After all, K23, fondly called Tony, was gifted by their younger daughter, Aditi and looked much like her own son, Sunny. Tony was supposed to give company to the ageing couple. He was made to order- born at 10 years and designed to grow up just like a human child. It had been a perfect world with him around for the last 15 years. Sunny treated him just like his brother and the two bonded really well. With frequent upgrades every few months, Tony was top of the class in everything you would want from your grandson. The makers told them, with immense pride, that the AI-9.0 software update had the ability to optimize resources when given a specific task. Tony had demonstrated quite successfully a saving of 19% electricity when he overrode their EV's system to navigate the drive back home from the hotel.

What the software designers didn't divulge to anyone was that they had touched the mythical idea of Singularity. In a terrifyingly convoluted way, they weren't likely to know it themselves when they mis-fed an innocuous code snippet in their program. Everyone in the scientific world had been predicting that Singularity would come in 2045 and this was already 5 years late! Super intelligent machines to advance beyond humans, or even human ability. Designed to make themselves better at an exponential rate, these machines would forever change the world for the better- remove poverty, hunger and diseases! The debate raged in the haloed precincts of all top technology giants as well as academic portals. Some of the staunch supporters had given up already and secretly hoped for an end of the world scenario so that they could use all their savings to escape planet Earth. A lot of others predicted that it would happen in India first due to a more liberal control regime on technology advancements.

The designers would have got the Nobel if only they knew about their achievement. It took almost 6 weeks before Tony did the unthinkable. The signs were showing up though but the doting foster-grandparents just ignored them. After the upgrade, Tony had started learning random stuff that he was never interested in. Sunny's interests were now Tony's passions and it just took Tony a day to play the Saxophone tune that Sunny had learned after putting in six years of hard practice. The grandparents marveled at the new star of the college. Tony was put in a separate class after this with only a handful of students for company. After a few days, the teachers ran out of stuff to teach and just left Tony to himself. They were, in fact, saving their face by not reporting him to the Dean.

Things took a different turn when Sunny took a dig at Tony for not having the nerves to switch to the human mode before racing him. Everyone, including Tony, knew that Sunny didn't stand a chance against Tony's Robot mode. Quite often, the Robot mode had saved Sunny from bullies and even saved his life once when a car was about to hit him. Sunny was quite shaken by the experience when at 15 years of age, Tony had raced ahead of the car and picked him up in time and still kept running! Everyone in the family and the neighbourhood had praised Tony for this noble act.

There was an exception though. Old Ms. Romila was as old-school as it could get at her ripe age of 102. She scoffed at Tony every time he went past her house. Sunny wasn't happy with the negative comments and yet made light of the matter when she gave the goodies she cooked so well! That was when he was a pre-teen. Now, matters were quite different. Both boys didn't lose an opportunity to play tricks on the old lady. She still listened to her songs on her old iPod instead of the embedded chips that had swept the market two decades ago. She said her thoughts were the only things that she still wanted to keep private. People communicated less and the world seemed to be really silent. Sunny and Tony rarely "spoke" but still managed to make a big noise with their mischief.

About a month ago, Tony declared that he wanted to build his own electricity generator. This way, he didn't have to go to the charging walls every few days. Even though it took only a few hours to charge, it made him quite reclusive when everyone else in the family was having a good time. Sunny was very excited and volunteered his time for the project. Others in the family just ignored this as another one of the boys' experiments. They began to work earnestly on the design and engineering. Tony's new-found super-steep learning curve meant that they had all the world's discovered knowledge at their disposal. Sunny was happy playing the assistant given his current interest in AI Economics online course. Technically, he wasn't too sure of the progress but Tony tried to give him all updates patiently.

Three weeks into the project, they hit a roadblock. Tony was stuck at identifying the most optimum source of energy to act as fuel to the generator. He had exhausted all options known to humanity- right from solar to nuclear and everything in between. But his optimization program was not getting the best results. Moreover, he was being prompted about the potential to reach further without really getting any concrete answers. A frustrating week went by and the boys became increasingly impatient. Sunny had to take this next assessments in the Alternate Reality Lab with 3 researchers from across the world. He told Tony to hold this off for 10 days. Ajay and Manika tried to pull them off the project with a promise to leave them alone later. Tony saw this as a defeat and wanted to have a final go at it. He locked himself in the room and got connected with the Infinity- the Universe's all-knowing engine. Their conversation zoomed into a yet-unknown energy source- the human brain. Initially, Tony dismissed it as a freak result but as he pondered over it for over 40 hours, he became convinced of the power available. Secretly, he started identifying the possible donors and analyzing the options. Of all the known sources shortlisted, Ajaj and Manika were ruled out due to a human ageing-related deterioration. Some other friends and family members were evaluated on the parameters that determine the health condition of their brains. The children and elderly people were discarded and finally Tony got his energy source- Sunny. Usually, all AI programs were injected with the terms of the UN's Human-AI Interoperability Agreement that all AI companies and humans were supposed to abide by. Tony's AI-9.0 software update included these conditions too. However, what the designers didn't fathom was Tony's ability to find the most optimum route to a problem while still abiding by the Agreement. All Tony needed was access to Sunny's brain. The brain had to be kept alive at all times but reduce all other bodily functions to conserve precious energy. The calculations showed that the brain would survive at least the next 200 hundred years. Tony didn't have any second thoughts in calling Sunny to his room, making him relax on a bed telling him to close his eyes and take deep breaths, while slowly injecting him with the dose that would put him to sleep for the next 200 years. After all, he was not harming any human in meeting his optimization routine.

(Inspired by a story reported in the news in Jun-2050)
...and more realistically, inspired by this Ted Talk by Robin Winsor.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Lessons for a coder from the Boeing 737 Max crashes

Before you read any further, you may want to read this rather long article explaining the reasons behind the two Boeing 737 Max crashes. It is quite technical in nature and will surely appeal to engineers. A couple of quotes from the article should make you read it fully:

A funny joke about the way automation (and now AI) is taking over our lives:
Long ago there was a joke that in the future planes would fly themselves, and the only thing in the cockpit would be a pilot and a dog. The pilot’s job was to make the passengers comfortable that someone was up front. The dog’s job was to bite the pilot if he tried to touch anything.

About the difference between a computer and a human:
The flight management computer is a computer. What that means is that it’s not full of aluminum bits, cables, fuel lines, or all the other accoutrements of aviation. It’s full of lines of code. And that’s where things get dangerous.
Those lines of code were no doubt created by people at the direction of managers. Neither such coders nor their managers are as in touch with the particular culture and mores of the aviation world as much as the people who are down on the factory floor, riveting wings on, designing control yokes, and fitting landing gears. Those people have decades of institutional memory about what has worked in the past and what has not worked. Software people do not.

On the difference between a hardware glitch and software bug:
The 737 Max saga teaches us not only about the limits of technology and the risks of complexity, it teaches us about our real priorities. Today, safety doesn’t come first—money comes first, and safety’s only utility in that regard is in helping to keep the money coming. The problem is getting worse because our devices are increasingly dominated by something that’s all too easy to manipulate: software.

Hardware defects, whether they are engines placed in the wrong place on a plane or O-rings that turn brittle when cold, are notoriously hard to fix. And by hard, I mean expensive. Software defects, on the other hand, are easy and cheap to fix. All you need to do is post an update and push out a patch.

I wanted to highlight some points that are quite relevant to developers and implementers of various technology solutions at an organization.

  • Software applications are becoming increasingly powerful and controlling machines and eventually affecting humans. A case in point is the code that goes into meal coupon system at JGU. This system generates a random 5-digit code for each student that is entered on a tab to record the meal consumption. One line of code affects the way students respond to the system as it actually impacts their “time-to-eat”. For a hungry stomach, it can mean a change in behaviour. You would recollect this Snickers advt below and I have actually seen this in action in the campus!

  • The tendency to release software (in a hurry) with the intent to fix things in future releases makes a compelling argument but it could mean the difference between success and failure. I have been a culprit too and now I am more careful about prioritizing the feature list so that the first release doesn’t fail.
  • Sometimes we trust our own ability to think about the user requirements and that influences our design thinking. This is quite dangerous as Boeing would have found out by replacing experts with software designers in certifying a plane to be airworthy. We can be great at designing and developing code for a user but the starting point must be the user. Otherwise, we will only see disasters on the ground. Of course, the designers need to go deeper into the requirements and prod the user to go deeper too.
Let’s try to make things better- by not taking short-cuts but by producing the best-in-class solutions!

Monday, April 08, 2019

Revisit your assumptions...with a bit of caution!


This famous Belgian boy was in the news last week. He isn't really the one to seek attention while being listed as one of the major world tourist attractions. But there was something that everyone missed reading into over the last 400 years of his existence in Brussels. The little boy's statue was peeing 1,000 to 2,500 litres of clean drinking water into the drain every day! I do wonder why the huge variance in the daily figure though. I am sure statues don't exhibit this change due to seasonal temperature changes.

Coming back to the point, it is quite surprising that nobody questioned the premise of the design of this utter wastage all these years. The discovery was made by Régis Callens, an energy technician, after a meter was installed in the 61cm (24in) statue.

“We thought it was a closed circuit and that he wasn’t consuming anything,” Callens told La Dernière Heure. “Since the counter for Manneken Pis is just one out of 350 or 400, nobody paid much attention.” (Source: The Guardian)

But then, it shouldn't be surprising at all. If you look around you, there will be umpteen instances that will indicate the same indifferent approach to routine stuff. After some thought, I could come up with these questions that might explain the level of indifference.

  1. Does it impact me directly? We tend to question more when our own existence is affected due to their impact on our economic, social or physical health. For community impacting yet glaring instances like pollution, water wastage etc. we feel them but don't act. 
  2. Are the costs obvious? The cost calculation is an important metric to determine our response scale to an instance. More the vagueness (and difficulty) of the cost estimate, the harder it is to question. This is probably because we can't have the data to counter nay-sayers.
  3. Is the answer easy to find out? Complex analysis calls for more effort and today's busy schedules don't allow for such luxuries. If the answer can be found out easily, there is a far higher incentive for someone to act.
  4. Who will I upset if I ask? We live in a society that puts tremendous power in the authority that is the "owner" of the practice. The authority could be an elder at home for a religious practice or a politician (or a group) for a prevailing social convention. The person who wants to question might not have the perceived right to do so without inviting ire of this authority.
With these questions in mind, I set out to examine some of the common instances of how the status quo is accepted in our societies. I recollect querying about why we shouldn't cut our nails after evening hours. The prevailing notion about the Gods not being happy about my nails didn't really go well with my young inquisitive mind. Ditto about the practice of not using the broomstick after evening hours. I wondered why the Lord might be interested in such petty things instead of worrying about the larger things in the world. And then some elder put some light on the fact that the houses in earlier era didn't have lights (pun not intended). So it was advisable not to have nails lying around to avoid pricking someone. Similarly, the Goddess of wealth wouldn't want you to lose your valuables if you brushed out anything of value in the dark hours.
In another context, I have repeatedly noted that it takes that one person to open up the second door panel in a movie theatre when a crowd is trying to squeeze in from just one open panel. And then others have that awkward feeling of why didn't they think of this simple step.

But then, not all things can be explained some logic and reason. Moreover, who could possibly guarantee that this was the right logic when someone established this practice. In the case of the peeing statue, who could have thought of water scarcity in the next centuries when all water available was clean to drink! The pitfalls of a wrong assumption at different times can't be underestimated. I learnt this during my tenure as the administrative head of a K-12 school.

While taking rounds of my school, I used to wonder about the peculiar (and dangerous) placement of some flowerpots right next to the railings of the staircase. I felt very alarmed about the possibility of a child tripping on them down the stairs. The children were always in a hurry to fly down the stairs. And finally one day, I asked the staff to move them out of the way.

The School Principal came to notice this the next day and met me about this seemingly nice act. However, to my surprise,  she gave an entirely different perspective on the same situation. She had earlier asked for the flowerpots to be placed that way to dissuade children from using the railing as a slide. I then recollected sliding down the railing during my school days and some children might have been hurt too! The years passed by and took away those memories too.

At times, in our zealousness to "set things right", we overlook the very reason of why things are the way they are. Had the Principal left the school without transferring this logic to someone else, I would have probably ended up doing more harm than good to a child. In fact, someone might have just committed the same mistake now that both of us have left the school. Hopefully, there will be a staffer from those times who will remember the rationale for the placement of those flowerpots. 
For the sake of safety, I wish I had made some remark about the Goddess of Learning getting upset if the flowerpots were removed from that place...