Saturday, September 12, 2020

Partha System in your daily life

During my MBA at IIMK, I had been fortunate to do a Summer Training at Rajashree Cement Plant in Gulbarga, Karnataka. Though the project was about IT systems, my friend, Amitabh and I also got exposed to all aspects of the business. One interesting concept was the Marwari system of accounting called Partha. Essentially, it gave a single-page P&L snapshot on a daily basis. To put it in one sentence, it meant answering the question "Aaj Kitna Pada" or "How much did it cost to produce 1 unit of cement at a plant?". This deceptively simple-looking number sums up everything that goes on in a manufacturing setup.

Over the years of a completely unrelated work experience, this learning has somehow stayed with me. And I tend to deploy it in my own personal and professional life. Here's how you could do it too:

  • Didn't earn my "dehaadi" (daily wages) syndrome- At the end of some days, do you feel that you haven't earned what you are getting paid for? These days just go off doing useless stuff like incessant meetings that everyone knows will not deliver. When I feel like this, I seek out a piece of work that's been pending or something that could improve an unrelated business process. The same thing could happen at home too. If I can't do my share of dishes due to some meetings, I try to make it up before the day ends by doing something else :)
  • "Kitna pada?" or How many resources did I use to work today?- This is a measure of the efficiency to do your work. Sometimes, you feel you took much more time that usual to do something and it could be because of various factors like tiredness, disinterest or non-cooperative colleagues. A critical self-analysis of the situation gives you scope for continuous improvement. I love to see how I can improve my timing to do a repetitive task and that gives me important helicopter-view to be shared with my team. 

  • Staying grounded- Using a simple Indian system of accounting like Parta instead of the much-marketed internationally acclaimed systems speaks volumes about an organization's core values. As an individual, you can view your daily routine and separate the glamorous activities from the simple tasks. I believe it is important for you to do the non-glamorous stuff at least once a day to stay grounded irrespective of your stature in the organization. I have heard stories of CEOs like Tony Fernandes of Air Asia doing his staff's work once a month. Besides keeping you grounded, it spreads the most motivating message to the team.

  • Identify Bad News early- In the Partha system, individual business unit owners send a daily report that is analyzed for deviations from the normal. By keeping a keen watch on the deviations, the leadership is able to identify bad news before it's too late. In your professional and personal life too, you need to develop an eye for identifying small deviations. A sudden and unexplained absence of a key employee who is otherwise diligent or a sudden trend of losing sleep and feeling lethargic should raise an alarm in your mind.

I have become richer by trying to use these in my life. Traditional systems of management have much to learn from and today's managers would do good to know more about them.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Worried about teaching online? Here's how I did it!

With the Corona scare, a lot of teachers in schools and colleges are being asked to teach online. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for a teacher who has been in the habit of teaching in the classroom, looking at students' faces and relying on their body language to gauge their interest and then to improvise.

I have worked as an online tutor, teacher, mentor and trainer for a long time. In fact, as a small group of tutors engaged in tutoring middle school American children online, we would have been among the first ones back in 2005. The international media (Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Rediff) covered the pioneering effort quite well and the e-tutoring industry was born!

The current situation has pushed us into this territory and it is up to us to make the best use of this phenomenal education technology. The transition is challenging, more so for the teachers than the students. Our learners today are more online than offline- with their multiplayer games and social media activities. Students may have their own reasons for resisting a change to online classes but technology adoption is not one of them. A lot of teachers, on the other hand, become very nervous about the change. In my view, this resistance stems from two misconceptions:

  1. The technology is too complex for me to handle. I am a teacher, not a nerd!
  2. I can't have good interaction with my students in the online format.
Let's tackle them one by one. Firstly, the technology has evolved so much during the last 15 years that it is quite commonplace to do a video call on Skype, Whatsapp, Teams or Zoom. The internet penetration has reached far corners and you can see people using VoIP/ Video in villages as well. My 70-year old mother and a decade senior mother-in-law are also on Whatsapp and are quite comfortable in video-calling their grandchildren from their phones.

Our teachers have also evolved in their use of teaching technologies and mostly use a PowerPoint presentation in their regular classes. They are using the videos and websites relevant to their subjects to make their students understand a concept. They are just one step away from moving online in terms of technology and simply believe in their own teaching expertise and the ability to connect with their students. Technology has just become an enabler to continue doing "business as usual". In times like these, similar to wars, children are the most affected ones and lose a precious year due to the disruption.

The second point is a more concerning point. And continuing from my last statement, we need to make an effort to ensure that our students don't lose out. I will give some instances of how teaching online has been an (equally) rewarding experience for me and my colleagues:

- Sometime in 2005-06, in one of his Math tutoring sessions with a grade 6 student in the US, my fellow tutor asked how she would want to spend the One Million Dollar if she won it in a lottery. This was an effort in making small-talk in the context of dealing with large numbers. The child became emotional and said she would spend that money to search for her younger brother who had been living in an orphanage after the separation of their parents. That day my friend was moved beyond the geographical and cultural boundaries and felt connected to this student he was teaching for only an hour. He might not meet her again in a tutoring session but made notes for her next tutor about this incident. Mind you, we were only doing voice conversations in those days of limited bandwidth. Even a lack of video didn't stop us from making a "connection".

- We used to conduct a 20-Questions Exercise with our classroom students to bring home a point about paying attention to instructions and keeping one's cool in stressful situations. The students were asked to "do" 20 questions and some of them involved asking the neighbour's name, clapping, running to be blackboard etc. As you can imagine, the classroom would have been quite noisy and entertaining. Last year, I decided to do this online. Converting this to an online format meant changing a few questions to suit a student sitting alone in front of a screen as well as some students sitting in a class in front of a projector. I conducted this exercise after changing the questions and was pleasantly surprised at the cacophony of the sounds on my laptop! You can see the excitement in the session below:

- In the same session, I also shared a video about setting goals and it was immensely satisfying to hear one of the students saying out aloud "I can do this!". The energy transmission was complete!

There is virtually nothing that you can't do in an online format. Just go ahead and try it out. Do share anything that you have tried and if it worked or didn't work. We can all do this together and make the best use of this time to improvise.

Wish you all a great teaching experience and stay safe!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cosy up to AI

Among the nay-sayers of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-ridden future, the popular refrain is that things can quickly get out of hand. Also, that AI can never beat the human brain and we can definitely live without it. Well, the dreaded animal is already living among us and kinda living cosily too.

AI has been around for decades now, snuggled into our cars with Google Maps. I often wondered how did it know if the roads were jammed or free without having someone (or something) to inform it from the ground. But that would be nearly impossible. That's where AI came in to help. Data doesn't distinguish between countries, cities or villages. For AI, it is just a set of data and it's power lies in how the data is analyzed. On a Sunday afternoon, I got stuck in heavy traffic because I didn't start Google Maps before departing. I am certain that this snazzy AI tool would have routed me through an alternate route and saved me half the time! There are two problems that humans can't handle:
  • Lack of information- I didn't have a mechanism to know the traffic situation through alternate routes (or, even the route I had taken) unless a set of friends had acted as my eyes on the ground.
  • Lack of interest- Even if I was provided all the information, would I be inclined to analyze it (assuming that I was a keen mathematician bent on working on the optimal-route-algorithm)? Why would I spend my time on such a problem instead of talking to my wife? (It could be a rather tricky question though!)

Of course, most of us humans wouldn't even have the skills to do that math. But I am inclined to assume that our generations are now coming "pre-loaded" with simple tech skills like operating a smartphone by way of Darwinian evolution. In future, a new-born might come pre-loaded with some analytical skills too!

A while back, there was news about a Hollywood film casting a dead actor (James Dean). That might seem gross or a marketing gimmick to most people. As expected, many actors came out against this concept and asked why a "living" actor was not used. To put things in perspective, let's look at a typical animation movie-making tool available today for your desktop. We have the facility to import pictures, videos, create animations with characters and use voice-overs. With more advanced computing power in future, we may have a real actor with the original voice instead of an animated one. While the scenario may not be very enticing to all, you only need to reflect on the reactions that actors would have given when highly real animation movies first came out of Hollywood.

AI empowers you to do amazing things and as with all great inventions, we are the ones who decide the good or bad usage. Let's look at another human-friendly application. A medical diagnosis of conditions impacting eyes, heart or even skin is now being considered to be a candidate for AI as it only needs data points to figure out the diagnosis. A simple app on a mobile phone can capture an individual's data and compare it with the huge database it has been fed. The lack of doctors is the single-most-important problem that the world faces, especially, the localities far away from the hospital areas. Arvind Eyecare is partnering with Google to use AI to screen patients for diabetic retinopathy and Cureskin does the same for skin by analyzing photos taken with a smartphone and running the data through a deep learning algorithm.

 With the enabling technologies like Smartphone (with an ever-increasing array of smart sensors getting integrated into it) and 5G, AI and deep learning will far outweigh the human capabilities. We simply can't turn our backs to it in the fear of losing our jobs and being overpowered by robots. The latter may not happen anytime soon and the job losses always happen with new technology and yet humans find alternative jobs. Just as a self-driving car makes a driver redundant, it will save our lives and the drivers (or, rather their next-gen counterparts) will get busy with managing and improving these cars.

I highly recommend watching the 9-part Youtube original series on AI featuring Robert Downey Jr  It may all seem like science-fiction but each one of the featured applications is currently operational! If this is the present, you can only imagine what the future beholds for us! Let's just cosy up to AI, I say :)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The boys- A Sci-fi story


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...

Monday, November 26, 2018

AI to correct answer sheets?

The other day, I was chatting with a professor about his teaching workload in the ongoing semester. He admitted that he had a fantastic run with an elective course that had more than a hundred students. With the examinations already underway, he was dreading the deluge of the answer scripts that would follow! He was also engaged in a research project involving blockchain applications in solving a community problem. Our discussion veered toward the blockchain technology and its applications in the real world today.

Most applications of blockchain are centered around finance, (virtual) money, governance, public health etc. Education has found an interesting application too in ensuring that one can access the certificates and marksheets securely and with full confidence about their authenticity. You may want to listen to this McKinsey podcast discussion about blockchain concepts.

The conversation with the professor started me thinking about more applications of new technologies in education. One of the most draining tasks in a professor's tenure is the evaluation of answer scripts. The task is quite repetitive, not full of academic discoveries barring those rare gems and takes away time from what could have been more rewarding activities like research or consulting. This looked like the perfect recipe for a tech intervention. Artificial Intelligence has come a long way already in making sense of a paragraph beyond the elementary spelling and grammar checks. The idea isn't novel and has been in the making for at least a couple of years. This article from Aug, 2017 mentions about the experiment in US and Australia and ends with a word of caution from some teachers.

AI systems, unlike their predecessors in rule-based computing algorithms, learn from their experiences and over time, gain a much deeper understanding than a human brain. Currently, they may lack the understanding of creativity but they are very good at doing the repetitive tasks in a quicker manner. We are moving beyond the mundane matters of OMR-based answer sheets to now make sense of a written word in the right context. Some simple algorithms existed already in trying to "rate" the essay in Statement of Purpose that colleges receive every year from thousands of aspirants. But these were simple keyword searches and couldn't have been used as definitive assessments. We are now able to design AI-based systems that do medical diagnosis from MRI scans! On another front, the AI systems are also able to compete (and defeat the best humans) on games like Chess and Go.

It may sound simple as compared to these winning examples but evaluating answer scripts from different student minds is not an easy task. The "model" or "sample" answer script, against which the answers are evaluated, can't be an exhaustive sheet, specially, in the fields of humanities or social sciences. It involves an open mind to identify originality, creativity and underlying understanding of theory rather than applications of mathematical formulae.Since most exams are still conducted on paper today, it adds an added complexity of recognizing human handwriting through Optical/ Intelligent Character Recognition (OCR/ICR) technology.

If we can crack the code to use AI in evaluating answer scripts, and assuming that we move to type-written answer scripts, the opportunity of setting up a central BPO operation for multiple colleges/ universities is huge. More importantly, this will lead to a more personalized feedback mechanism to aid the teaching assistants and tutors to help the student better. Data-driven analytics will feed back into the faculty's teaching to improve quality too.

A 2016 TEDx Talk by Prof. Ashok Goel from Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrated use of an AI-powered chatbot to handle student queries effectively and virtually freed up the Teaching Assistants' time. When we hear contrarian voices about people losing jobs to AI and robots, we need to remember that human brains need to focus on the "new" rather than the "old and regular" work.

Instead of worrying about the job losses, which are quite inevitable, we need to find out what our brains are capable of beyond intelligence and let technology take over the routine stuff that it can learn over time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Does technology really reduce work?

This week, I came across an interesting news article that quoted Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an organization in the United Kingdom representing labor unions.

"I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone," O'Grady said during a speech at the TUC's annual gathering in Manchester, England on Monday.

My personal experience over more than two decades of working life in India has been a mixed bag. There are primarily two ways in which technology impacts a worker's life. First, the efficiency increases. This translates to more work in lesser time but then mostly, the work itself increases to occupy the time gained. This is typical of situations where technology intervenes to perform the same task in mostly similar manner but in a "faster" way. Imagine a cashier in the 70s doing calculations manually and then using a calculator in the 80s and then on an Excel spreadsheet in the 90s. However, I am sure the cashier wouldn't have seen herself free of work due to this change over the decades. That's probably because technology was trying to make it quicker for the cashier to do the enormous amount of work that was piling up. As a result of this speed, her desk started clearing up faster and the manager piled on more work. In some cases, another cashier might have been thrown out of job to give the extra work load to this "computerized" counter.

The second way in which technology impacts a worker's life is, ironically, extended working hours. There was a time when our parents came home from office and just relaxed. I never saw my parents carry work to home because that would have involved carrying bulky files. Even if they could have managed to carry some file home, the "connected" work dependency on other colleagues and files would have rendered the activity useless. Look at the situation today... Work itself is now on cloud and the mobiles (that are more powerful than the entire computing devices of an erstwhile office put together) have made it "light-weight" to carry work home. Moreover, the connectivity through virtually free-of-cost calling and whatsapp messaging has made it easy to get help from colleagues and other work files. This has meant that the poor worker is never off-work. In fact, it is increasingly becoming very hard to go on a vacation without feeling guilty about not being connected to work, while wanting to stay connected with your friends and family through social media.

In an interesting study about working hours per week conducted for the young millennials in 2015, it is quite evident that technology was not really helping matters.
Infographic: Where Do Millennials Work The Longest Hours? | Statista (You will find more infographics at Statista)
There are fundamental questions that we need to address before we begin to think of how technology can free up man-days from our work week. The first relates to the context of availability of resources. For instance, when I saw a fully automated self-payment enabled counter at a Retail Store in Melbourne, I was taken aback by the "impersonal" treatment while marveling at the technology and trust. In India, it would seem foolish to remove people who smile and interact with you at the checkout counter of a superstore. Foolish, also because you wouldn't trust customers to pay without trying to cheat. This is also the reason why your Boarding Pass gets checked by at least 4 humans before you board the plane in India while not a single human looks at it in Singapore today! The logical argument to this phenomenon is to provide employment to people when the government is always looking worriedly into the unemployment statistics.

The next context is about commercial feasibility. A few months back, I was astonished on seeing a group of 4 people using a earth-boring contraption to drill for water. The sight that confounded me was that of the sheer manual force being used instead of the usual electric power. From my vantage point of the pre-conditioned notion of seeing boring done in cities, this was a complete reversal. But then it made definite sense in that rural area set 50 kms away from the Lucknow city. It would have cost a fortune to get the boring machine to the site. Moreover, the electric power may not even be available at the site. Some times, especially, in the developing world, the notion of using technology seems like an unnecessary and overstretched piece of imagination.

Lastly, as a wise man had commented, "work stretches to occupy the available time". This also holds true for the time left unoccupied by technology. I have often seen people overstaying in the office beyond the office hours and completing work that could have been done in regular hours. That's probably because the deadline is for end-of-day and this is literally taken as midnight by a lot of "hard-working" people. Besides, you run the risk of getting more work (probably from a less-efficient colleague's desk) if you finish yours faster!

I am quite certainly sure that technology will have the desired impact only if it is implemented with a clear objective of freeing up human time. That will involve rethinking the complete process rather than a mere replacement of human task with tech-enabled task. And then the humans will, hopefully, get over the idea of working in office at the cost of family or social time.

Till then, let's keep burning the midnight oil...

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

That's not my job!

What are the most self-damaging statements a young professional can make?

As a young man starting my work life, I joined a forging company. Like everyone else of my age, I had big dreams of making an impact, earning respect and rising up the ladder quickly. Like most others, I thought that people up the hierarchy probably didn't deserve the status they had earned. I knew for sure that hard work and sincerity in my work was the key to success. Very soon, I had many people reporting to me and some of them were my father's age! I became a Shift In-charge managing the maintenance function and had one particularly highly talented electrician in my team. This man was an expert trouble-shooter who, as legend had it, could tell the problem by smelling a circuit board.

At the top of the plant hierarchy was the General Manager, who became the Vice-President of the Group in just about 2 years that I was there. He had risen from a plant supervisor to the Vice-President in less than a decade of joining the company. Legend also had it that he could tell you that a particular bearing set was worn out on hearing the press "cry" while passing by the factory in his car. The comparison with my expert electrician was stark and made even more conspicuous because of the fact that both had joined the company together at the same rank!

This VP gentleman, however, could also tell the problems in an account statement, give expert opinion on raising debt from the market and help the marketing interns reach out to new clients. The Electrician stayed, more or less, where he had been.

The key difference between the two men was the single statement "That's not my job". Mr. VP made it his habit to reach out to other colleagues over cups of tea and made an effort to understand their work. He made sure that he was available for any "menial" work in any department at any level.

In my considerable work experience at different levels, I have seen those people moving up faster who haven't held themselves chained to their allotted work. Statements like "Am I supposed to do all the work?" or "Why don't you do it yourself if you think you can do better?" don't go down well with your manager. But more importantly, these statements are damaging their own future career more than anyone else.

My advice to young and not-so-young professionals is to cross-skill and up-skill before you get out-skilled!

Monday, July 16, 2018

How Indore became India's cleanest city for two consecutive years!

It is rare for an Indian city to transform itself and then sustain the effort to a level where people make cleanliness a habit. Indore (a city in MP with 3.2 million population) is a case in point to prove that a great plan and greater execution can make a huge positive change.

The story of Indore's transformation made a case study in IIM-Indore. The cleanliness drive doesn't come free though. Having lived in the city before this transformation happened, I was appalled at the daily sight of cows eating up plastic from overflowing garbage dumps. This was, of course, not any different from any other Indian city. Many like me would have felt a sense of helplessness and resignation. But someone from the city took this as a challenge. I admire the industrious nature of the city in that it makes you feel at home if you take risks and go on your own instead of taking the beaten path. In this video about Indore's makeover, it is worth noting the way the drive is run financially. The municipal corporation buys plastic waste at Rs. 5/ kg and sells it at Rs. 8/ kg to road builders. With 1,000 metric tons of waste being processed every day, you can do the math...

In my last visit to the city, I was overjoyed to see the herculean task of city cleaning happening at night with a gusto reserved only for the foodies' delight at the city's Sarafa Bazaar or Chappan. I was also informed that the organic waste converted into compost was sold at Rs. 2/kg to the public to encourage greenery.

The city's municipal corporation introduced a "third bin" to dispose of sanitary and medical waste, tried public shaming on FM radio channels, set up composting units at the waste source like the large vegetable markets and painted the town red with public messages about cleanliness! A song sung by Shaan is now the city's anthem for getting the act right and is played in all the 800 plus garbage collection trucks. These trucks are cleaned daily too to give them a clean look.

All of this has had positive fallout for the city. Not unexpectedly, Indore's "Muni bonds" that debuted at NSE earlier this month were oversubscribed 1.26 times and generated more than Rs. 200 Cr. for the corporation. Market rewards a good track record.

Someday, all cities in India will follow the Indore model and transform their filth into green! And we wouldn't have to look overseas for motivating stories of change.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What does IT mean in an educational institution?

In the early 90s, IT in an institution meant PCs, Laptops, LAN cabling and often people confused Electricity with IT.

A couple of decades later, IT additionally started meaning Software, Mobiles, Apps and probably, more headache (read, work) for a lot of people working in these institutions.

Have things really changed?

Today, IT "interferes" with almost everything in a campus. None of the functions can work without internet, solutions like Excel or Word, mobile apps or, in our case at O P Jindal Global University, even a food coupon vending machine. We are aggressively pushing IT usage in almost every aspect of a student's life, knowing well that these will bring more and more responsibilities on the small IT team. New skills need to be developed, not just within the IT team but even outside!

If most users still panic only when the WiFi fails for an hour or a Projector system fails to connect within 2 minutes, it is not entirely their fault. The essence of IT infrastructure is that it should work behind-the-scenes silently and efficiently, just like water, air or electricity. The residents seem to understand that Power switch-over may take 15 minutes or water taps may run out due to maintenance needs but they can't remain disconnected for that long. A Skype or Video conferencing call may be happening with their colleagues in another country or a large contingent of eminent personalities may be waiting impatiently for the projector to connect. These instances are indicative of criticality of IT services in today's context and must ring alarm bells in the top ranks of service providers.

A larger question is about the role of IT in the institution's strategy and direction. The litmus test is to see the constitution of the Board to verify if IT has a representation in it. We are yet to see this happening in educational institutions and we continue to see the representation of HR and Finance and in some cases, the Infra team if the institution is in an aggressive growth phase. IT representation in board meetings becomes limited to ensuring that the Powerpoint presentation runs well on the projector!

If educational institutions want to make projections into the future, they have a near impossible task if they don't think of IT as a strategic partner. How does one be prepared for a future that will see more learners outside of a campus than inside? How does an institution plan for a future where their students will not be from a definite geography? How does one get ready to launch academic courses and research programs if the courses will need global collaboration using technologies not prevalent today?

In the modern context, IT initiatives can have major impact in the cost structures of an organization. With the right interventions, IT can free up precious resources to redeploy in more
high-value transactions. At O P Jindal Global University, we have replaced a manual process of calling students' parents for approving gate-passes by an automated IVR-based calling process. As an immediate impact, the hostel staff could now focus on calling parents for feedback and longer chats concerning their wards. Subsequently, we released another upgrade to allow the parents to approve their ward's gate-pass request by clicking on a dynamic link.

In other situations, IT can help solve operational challenges to manage costs (like a mobile app for meal coupon tracking), ease processes (by installing a mechanized RFID/ Biometric-based entry-exit gate) or improve efficiency (by automating the sticker generation process for conducting anonymized examinations). These measures drive home the point about taking IT as a central pillar that drives innovation in an institution and impacts almost every aspect. As a visible reminder of the potential of impact on other departments, at OPJGU, we call our IT department as the Office of Innovation.

IT must bring about the change in an institution's working and strategic planning. And as with most other things, this change starts at the top. We are fortunate to have the leadership at OPJGU take cognizance of this fact and allow the Office of Innovation to make interventions that have long-term impact on the institution's vision.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Teachers, lead from the front when it comes to technology!

Professional development for teachers focuses on pedagogy and content and misses the critical point about the necessary technology connect with the students. In today's classroom, a teacher is usually hopelessly lost about the students' "techaptitude". Right from the toddler stage, today's children are exposed to a natural barrage of gadgets and technology all around them. Unfortunately, a teacher isn't in the same league due to an entirely different stage of life.

Parents often face this dilemma and choose to stay aloof giving the excuse of being too occupied in their careers and home. Teachers, however, don't enjoy that luxury as they are expected to guide their students, and not be left behind. Adding to their woes, technology changes at a much faster pace than they can even begin to understand the current one. Newer apps, tools, games, gadgets and lack of time/interest make the job of keeping oneself updated even harder.

Image result for technology friendly teacherI faced a similar situation myself when I used to teach at a test prep centre and then a K-12 school. While I was teaching the class, I realized that my students were using their phones for twitter, instagram and other such sites. While they were quite observant in the class, their attention span reduced to a few minutes due to the constant inflow of information on their mobile. During the class break, I started interacting with them to understand their source of attraction. I would be lying if I said I wasn't drawn to some of these sites. So, I decided to dive in too and learn the new technologies and make my presence felt on these sites.

I believe a teacher is far better geared to handle the "distractions"- probably due to the age factor and the intent. With an intent to be prepared and ahead of my students in understanding the tech tools of the times, I could now address the class with the trending hashtags and speak in their language. It generated an amused curiosity in my students about this old guy who was up-to-date with the trends of their age. In just a short time, I was now ahead of them because of my interest in "what was coming next" than "what was happening now".

This was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted till date and I have been blessed to have an ever-unsaturated hunger to be ahead of the curve. It has helped me, as an edutech practitioner and learner, to connect with today's learners in more ways than the subject allows. I feel sympathetic towards those teachers who don't take the pain to adopt technology, or at least, understand it. They are probably not realizing that it is only a matter of time when their students' interest will wane out from the subject- not the least because of the teacher's subject knowledge!

So, what do you do to upgrade? Simple, use technology to learn technology. Google for what you want to learn and you shall come across tens of sites and courses to help you jump in the bandwagon.

Welcome aboard!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Playing God, or better than Him?

In an article in Scientific American, the author, Larry Greenemeier, presented a case about whether prosthetic legs gave an unfair advantage to athletes like the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius or the Paralympic long jump champ, Markus Rehm.

Even in today's technology age, a differently-abled person is not expected to perform as well as an able-bodied person, though we have seen enough inspirational stories of grit and determination that indicate to the contrary. These stories are exceptions than rule. Most people in this context will feel less equipped to handle the otherwise routine work carried out by able-bodied people. Well, this is going to change in the near future. In fact, I believe that completely able-bodied people will begin to opt for a prosthetic change instead of the one they were born in. Does this seem like science fiction? Read on...

When my mother-in-law went through a knee-replacement surgery, the difference in her walking stance was stark. Had she been a runner before the surgery, she could have continued doing so after a slight recovery gap. There are numerous examples of marathon runners in every marathon today who have had a knee replacement too. I would definitely want to replace my ageing knees or the entire teeth set to be able to run as well as eat more sweets! Taking these cues further, I could have done this two decades earlier if I was convinced that the new man-made knees would give me a definitive edge in shaving off 30 minutes off the Marathon time.

On the high technology front, a bionic lens could enhance normal 20/20 eyesight three-times! With the existing technology, you could have your natural lens replaced with the bionic lens at about $3,200 and get a super-sight. With this lens, you could see the molecular details on your palm or read a book 10 feet away. I am certain that much more fancy stuff is on its way that will allow you to choose the super-sight features you may want and at a much more affordable price.

The organically grown body parts will become such commonplace within 50 years that a parent might choose to enhance the yet-to-be-born baby's eyesight with hyper-vision and get it changed after child-birth. In a way, it will be a customized accessory that will replace the "factory-fitted" eyesight. And unlike what we might be dreading as a robotic fixture, the body parts will be grown out of the mother's tissues.

What does all of this imply for education?

How and what one could "teach" a child, who has a customized memory-retrieval chip that will not add on to the world's largest memory stick (your brain) but will be far more efficient in retrieving the things you need. Teachers today are already finding it hard to cope with the ever-pervasive Google and the good ones are changing their teaching styles by using Google/ internet as an enabler.

In future, a teacher may become a redundant figure in a child's development and get replaced by a much more involved creative guide to a learner. Technology (read, internet) hasn't really replaced schools or teachers. But that is only because the employers are still hesitant to hire someone without formal schooling/ higher-ed qualification. With this set to change to hiring requirements for thinkers and innovators, the kind of education one needs would need to change too.

We are slowly, but surely, moving to a future with far more complex relationships with machines and robots. To keep our human-ness intact, education will play a very big role. They may take a completely different form but schools and colleges are not really going away soon. The trick is to ensure that they keep current, even in future...