Sunday, January 10, 2021

What do you think of an AI chatbot that can help you ‘talk’ to a Dead loved one?

Those of us scanning the tech landscape continue to be intrigued by the barrage of applications of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Last week I came across an interesting post on ubergizmo that talks about a recent patent granted to Microsoft for a chatbot that could talk like a person you know, including a dead loved one.

According to the patent document (link), "In aspects, social data (e.g., images, voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.) about the specific person may be accessed. The social data may be used to create or modify a special index in the theme of the specific person’s personality."

This comes at an interesting post-pandemic digital era when the world is struggling with the lack of in-person social engagements.  Human-like chatbots filling the void experienced by lonely people has been explored in Hollywood flicks like Her. In that movie, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes fascinated with a new operating system that develops into an intuitive and unique entity in its own right. 

The idea of a bot filling void in lonely hearts is not too farfetched. In China, Xiaoice a sassy Chatbot is stealing millions of men’s hearts while recording their most intimate desires and emotions. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. (sixthtone).

Technology for the grieving 

People grieve the loss of loved ones in their unique ways. Some like the Mughal emperor Shah Jahān dedicate the resources of an entire kingdom to build mausoleums in memory of their beloved, that stands tall among the 7-wonders of the world centuries later. 

A few like the Bangalore businessman Shrinivas Gupta dedicate their resources to commission silicone replica to memorialize their beloved (link). Many others take to digitizing old photographs, videos and recordings in an attempt to recreate and recall fond memories of years gone by. 

Years ago, while consulting with the largest American funeral and cemetery property and services company, I was intrigued by their digital roadmap. Their clients were increasingly asking to digitize the services and memorials by including virtual and augmented projections and holographic eulogies. 

One can imagine how an AI/ML enabled Chatbot could 'learn' some of the traits of the departed by ingesting photographs, video and audio recordings, blogs, emails and correspondences. When the survivor begins interacting with the Bot, it could mimic a response that the beloved could/would have given by using similar phrases, idioms and customized tone of the response.

Just let Time be the natural Healer?

"Time's a great healer" is an oft quoted phrase one hears while grieving; it is a concept that has a grain of truth to it. Those of us who have lost a beloved know how emotionally vulnerable we can be while grieving. However, it is unclear if such a bot will help with the grieving process or end up amplifying the sorrow and anguish. Bots like this take us into an uncharted realm of the ethics and morality of technology adoption.

Bottomline: it is unclear how or when Microsoft will develop chatbots described in the patent. But the idea of reincarnating the dead as a chatbot raises questions around privacy, consent and the ability to opt-out: Who controls your digital Avatar after you are gone? 

(Reposted from LinkedIn)

Friday, November 27, 2020

When the cloud goes dark: Amazon’s Cloud Servers goes down and people complaint they can't use their doorbell or Vacuums

Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud service is the backbone of many websites and apps across the globe. And when it encountered a multi-hour outage this week, it sent the digirati and media buzzing. 

The multi-hour outage on Wednesday before Thanksgiving impacted many popular services like Adobe Cloud Software, 1Password, Flickr  that tweeted about AWS outage impacting their services - - 1PasswordAcornsAdobe_SparkAnchorAutodeskCapital_GazetteCoinbaseDataCampGetaroundGlassdoorFlickriRobotThe Philadelphia InquirerPocketRadioLabRokuRSS PodcastingTampa Bay TimesVonage.

AWS' brief outage highlights the risk of IOT dependent services

Internet of Things (IOT) describes the network of physical objects - "things" - that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet. Many of our modern devices, gadgets and Smart Homes are IOT enabled by sensors and software and are dependent on access to the internet. 

An outage like this can disrupt the functioning of IOT and internet dependent devices and services. Not surprisingly, consumer tweets didn't mince words, highlight the sign of our times and how dependent we are on uninterrupted internet services:  

Comments on social media sites like Reddit were equally pithy

yoloman0805 posted "The future is here. Can't wait for smart toilet paper dispenser which connects to to the internet." and  CaptainFunktastic added "Our houses could be filled to the brim with all kinds of stupid things wired and connected in such a way that they do everything we think a chip in our brain could do, but somehow having vaccine crosses the line." 

Butwinsky posted

Public: The government wants to put chips in our brains!
Amazon: oh no! Anyways, here's our new Alexa enabled literally everything
Public: Shut up and take my money!

As of 4:18AM ET on Thursday morning (26th Nov) , Amazon announced that the service has been restored. AWS Service Health Dashboard posted an update: 

“We have restored all traffic to Kinesis Data Streams via all endpoints and it is now operating normally. We have also resolved the error rates invoking CloudWatch APIs. We continue to work towards full recovery for IoT SiteWise and details of the service status is below. All other services are operating normally. We have identified the root cause of the Kinesis Data Streams event, and have completed immediate actions to prevent recurrence.” 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What is the main cause of corruption in India? Here is a recent story that explains one reason

The main cause of corruption in India? Ambitious people who want to desperately get their way; at any cost.

Let me explain with the following news article I came across a few days ago - “Retired Bangalore University professor kills himself

According to the article, A 64-year-old retired professor from Bangalore University and former registrar of Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS) committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling of his residence at KAS Officers’ Colony, Mico Layout on Sunday morning.

NS Ashok Kumar, who was serving as registrar of Garden City University for the last two years, was earlier a professor at departments of communication and later electronic media at BU. Police said the incident came to light on Sunday morning after his family members entered his bedroom around 6.30am. The jurisdictional police were informed around 8.30am. Mico Layout police found a note, in which Kumar stated that he alone is responsible for his death and no one is behind it.

Prof. NS Ashok Kumar

This was followed up by another article (link) that described a few more details:

Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D K Shivakumar on Monday demanded a judicial inquiry into the death of retired Bangalore University professor NS Ashok Kumar. Shivakumar claimed that Kumar (64), who was found hanging at his Mico Layout home on November 8, had paid Rs 2.5 crore to “influential people” in exchange to get appointed as vice-chancellor to four new universities.

On November 7, a day before Kumar was found dead, the state government appointed vice-chancellors to four new universities - Gomathi Devi L (Maharani Cluster University), Harish Ramaswamy (Raichur University), Shrinivas S Balli (Nrupathunga University) and Puttaraju (Mandya University). “Kumar was told that there was some problem with his file and his money wasn’t returned,” Shivakumar said.

He borrowed loans and was made to wait 5-6 months. But, he did not get the position. Therefore, he took the extreme step. This is what’s being discussed widely,” Shivakumar told reporters.

“The appointment of vice-chancellors is mired in corruption. In every university, the staff and students talk that the V-C’s post is for sale. People go to Vidhana Soudha and ministers’ homes for this,” he said.

After retiring from Bangalore University where he headed the department of electronic media, Kumar was the registrar of Garden City University at the time of his death. He was also registrar (evaluation) of the state-run Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences and his tenure there was marred by alleged tampering of marks cards.

Here are a few thoughts

While the media may or may not follow up on the true cause of Prof. Kumar’s suicide, these articles highlight the sad state of affairs in modern India:

  • Appointment to top public offices and positions are mired in cronyism and corruption
  • If Sivakumar’s allegations are to be believed, Prof. Kumar borrowed Rs 2.5 crore (about $330,000) to bribe decision makers for a position he didn’t get.
  • Prof. Kumar had seemingly reached the pinnacle of his career as the head of department of electronic media at BU. It seems like his ambition at a late-career got better of his judgment, and he took on substantial debt to bribe his way for a post he couldn’t attain
This is just one story of an extreme step by a person whose attempt at bribing his way to a top public appointment failed. There are millions of such cases of people trying to get ahead of their fellow countrymen, even if it means bribing their way, and millions who are willing to facilitate them in the effort!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Yet another suicide: unsung victim of COVID shutdown and downturn

 We have all been reading about the impact of COVID-19, shutdown and financial loss suffered by millions. The story hit closer home recently when a neighbor committed suicide. 

The victim was our neighbor Babu, a 40-something techie working for a multinational at a Tech Park in Bengaluru who also had a thriving side-gig: investing in real estate with his brother-in-law who is a local contractor. 

The Babu family is well-to-do - by Indian middle class standards - with a couple of houses and plots that his dad and uncles had invested-in a generation ago. During the past couple of decades, their properties had grown in value exponentially, and Babu had mortgaged the properties to invest in additional real-estate projects.  

On the surface, Babu led a fairly normal middle-class life with his wife and young daughter. His parents in their eighties, lived with them in their old duplex house that Babu had built a couple of decades ago. He had also built a couple of shops on his property facing the street that was let out, generating additional income. Babu’s only sister, married to the contractor also lives a few blocks away and the families would frequently meet up.

Our subdivision is adjacent to a private mega-university that has been expanding considerably over the years. Many independent houses and plots in the neighborhood have been converted to commercial enterprises including multi-story Paying Guest (PG) complexes that accommodate the influx of out of town students.

A couple of years ago, Babu and his brother-in-law decided to jump the bandwagon and tore down a couple of old houses that the family owned in the area. Babu financed the construction of the multi-story PG complexes spanning 200+ rooms, and the construction was supervised by his contractor-BIL. 

The project took nearly two years to complete and they had a grand inauguration in February. And then came COVID-19 and the lockdowns. 

The buildings remained vacant for the next six months while Babu began to struggle to pay off his loan and mounting interest. During the past few months, he unsuccessfully tried to liquidate a few other properties that the family owned, and Babu continued to fret over the complex web of finances that were starting to unravel.

Last weekend, Babu’s wife went to visit her parents with their daughter and on returning found him dead, hanging from the ceiling fan. 

The family quickly corralled together to finish the inquest and funeral, but this incident didn’t even make the local news. 

#RIP Mr. Babu

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Experience in buying a Pet Dog in Bangalore - in 2020

Like many nuclear families coming to accept the new normal of work and study from home, we were looking for an outlet for our 11-year old. A couple of months ago, our son began asking for a pet that would be his companion. Many of his zoom classmates and friends had begun to acquire pets and Vijay didn’t want to miss out on the bandwagon.

It has been a little over a week since we got Max, our Labrador Retriever home and we took him for his first vaccination. In the week since he came home, Max has been settling in and winning the heart and the minds of our family. And did I say he is a bouncy little pup who is more than a handful?

If you are looking to acquire a pet dog, there is a tremendous amount of information online, but most of that is generic. Therefore, I thought I’d take some time to share some of my insights on acquiring a puppy in Bengaluru in 2020.

How much is that doggie in the window?

Unlike Patti Page’s old classic song, it is not easy to spot litters of puppies at pet-shops in Bengaluru. One may spot the occasional litter of stray (Indie) puppies in neighborhoods around the city but picking up a puppy from the street is not everybody’s cup of tea.

Some local pet shops stock an assortment caged birds or rodents, but very few puppies. It took me a few weeks of searching online and making calls before we finalized on Max.  Here are a few observations

·       Arm yourself with basic knowledge of dog breeds – there are 8-10 popular (common) dog breeds and as a buyer, you should be aware of what you want based on your budget, temperament and ability to manage. Most agents offer two kinds of dogs – ‘pet quality’ and ‘show quality’. The latter comes with KCI papers and a microchip and show-quality dogs can cost almost three to four times the price. There are several online resources and YouTube listings to familiarize you with dog breeds and their traits.

·       There are a wide variety of breeds and varieties of pups and the prices are all over the place. The demand for puppies shot up post-COVID and the puppy mills, many of them operating in shoddy conditions, are operating in full-swing out to make a quick buck.

·       Dealers out to make a quick buck - while experts suggest weaning away pups from moms after 8 weeks (about 2 months), it is all too common to see dealers touting 21-28 day old pups. Early weaning of puppies is not only detrimental to its growth, but can lead to a lot of anxiety for buyers who have to spoon or bottle feed it till it gets stronger.

·       One can find a number of online forums and listings, but there is rampant fraud. The most common fraud is the listing-and-shipping switch where puppies are listed online for a rather attractive price and after the buyer sends the amount, the seller asks for an astronomical fee for ‘shipping and handling.’ The enticed client might end up paying an arm and a leg.

·       Sifting through online listings can be overwhelming. Pet-dealers and agents continually barrage online forums to entice prospective buyers and those who evince interest are hounded online and offline. The dealer whom I eventually dealt with began sending me WhatsApp updates of available puppies on a daily basis, following up with phone calls.

·       Puppy-mills are too busy breeding and farming young pups and are content to leave the marketing to shoddy agents and pet dealers. Finding a reliable pet-dealer is hard since those who have been swindled are hesitant to share contacts of their agents. When I asked a few acquaintances who had bought pups recently, they simply said they got it from a ‘friend’ preempting further queries about their experience with a pet-dealer.

·       The market for pups is gray with several layers of shady breeders, agents, and middlemen. Breeders and Kennels don’t encourage visitors. Most probably operate with cages our of garages or rooftops in their homes and the conditions would horrify many of us. Link to a few recent articles on the topic - After 10-day-old maimed husky dies, activists start #AdoptDon’tShop || Social media fury over animal abuse leads to FIR on breeder


How did I end up choosing Max?

I began my search for a pet online and after some preliminary research I got an idea of prices that were swinging all over the place. A pet-quality Lab, for example was going for 12- 18 K, German Shepherd for about 20 K etc.

After calling a few online pet-sellers, I decided to check if local pet-shops would have a listing of local pet vendors. I stopped by a pet-grooming center that had a contact of Sanjay, a pet dealer who was operating out of our neighborhood.

I gave Sanjay my requirements and he began to send me listings of available pups with prices. I wanted a male black Labrador puppy and I decided on this breed for a couple of reasons. Labs seem to be the most popular pet breed, akin to Pomeranian that were ubiquitous a generation ago. These are easily available and seem to be relatively easy to maintain. Beige or Fawn colored Labs are very common, and I wanted a Black for a bit of differentiation.

After a few weeks of back-and-forth, Sanjay sent me a picture of a seller with four black labs, out of which one was a male. We agreed on the price and I decided to drive down to check out the puppy and pick it up. We reached an underpass near a Metro station at the designated time and the sellers drove in a scooter with a pet-carry box. They handed the puppy over to my agent who showed it to me before we finalized the ‘deal,’ and I paid the amount before driving back with Max.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

What do you think of the forced exit of China’s ByteDance from the U.S. and the transfer of Tik Tok to Microsoft?

This was an interesting question that came up in a social media platform. To me, this seems to be yet another case of Business and Geopolitics playing out in front of us.

Let me start with another example before I answer this question. Some years ago, I worked for Syngenta, a multinational that had large operations in the US too. (footnote) The company, worth more than $45 Billion, had intellectual property in key areas of agribusiness - including specialized hybrids and GMO corn, soybeans seeds and pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.

The Chinese have over 1.4 billion people to feed. And to feed the growing masses, they need a lot of livestock. They need a lot of corn and soybeans to feed industrial farms producing pork and beef (to feed the pigs and cows).

To produce a lot of corn and soybeans they need modern agricultural technology, that companies like Syngenta have. Before bidding for the company, the Chinese began refusing entire shipments of Corn/soybeans grown using Syngenta’s technology (Reuters: Syngenta risks fresh China corn dispute with unapproved trait).

American farmers began lobbying the congress to get Chinese to allow shipments of their Corn/soybeans. After a bit of back-and-forth, the Chinese ‘relented,’ and then ChemChina, the country’s national Chemical company made a bid to buy-out Syngenta

There were murmurs from US congress whether to let the strategic deal pass, but they remembered China’s refusal of corn shipment and relented. Syngenta was bought out by the Chinese. (Fortune: ChemChina Clinches Its $43 Billion Takeover of Syngenta).

Fast forward to the present. Tik Tok has morphed into a hugely popular social media App that has also been used for social activism.

Recently, there was a lot of coverage about how TikTok was used to inflate the number of attendees at President Trump’s political rally, throwing organizer’s plans for a toss. (NYT: “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally”).

This was perhaps a wake-up call for the Trump administration: How a social media platform controlled by Chinese could be used to manipulate American election rally.

The Americans seem to be using a chapter from China’s playbook back at them: Threaten to ban the Chinese owned Tik Tok and then get an American tech giant (Microsoft) to make a bid for it.

Footnote: I am using publicly available information to draw the analogy between these companies

Friday, June 19, 2020

Dear Indian, you want to exit the Chinese Dragon? Easier said than done!

This week, Indians watched footage of gruesome hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the inhospitable, high-altitude terrain in Galwan Valley, the "Chinese occupied" part of Laddakh. After watching video snippets of Indian soldiers brutally attacked with iron rods and clubs, passions in India are running high.

While most Indians await the government’s promised military retaliation for the killing of 20 of its soldiers in Laddakh, there has been a rush for a grassroots movement to boycott Chinese goods, services and investments.

Rush to boycott “Made in China”

The clamor to boycott Chinese goods began even before this week’s gruesome killing of Indian soldiers. Amul’s long running advertisement campaign, that is known for its timely reaction to current events had its Twitter account briefly blocked in early June after its anti-China message “exit the dragon?”

China has been fledgling its economic muscle around the globe and its economy is largely dependent on exports. With nearly 11% of its imports coming from China, India currently has a $59.3 Bn (£47.7 Bn) trade deficit with the Dragon. Therefore, there is an argument to be made for an economic retaliation.

Plan for an economic retaliation? 

Anti-China protests have broken out sporadically all over India, with effigies of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, set on fire. The Indian news outlets have begun carrying footage of local political leaders and activists going from shop-to-shop handing out pamphlets about boycotting Chinese products.

The central government, sensing the mood of the public has jumped on the boycott Chinese bandwagon. After the attack on its soldiers this week, the central government ordered telecom providers (including BSNL) and other private companies to ban all future Chinese deals and equipment upgrades. Chinese companies will also be banned from participating in tenders for future projects, which is likely to include plans to upgrade 4G services in India. (NDTV Article)

Can Indians really boycott Chinese products and services?

The Chinese have a direct or indirect footprint on almost all the products, gadgets and service you touch. If you look around you, you can probably spot trinkets, household gadgets, smartphones and computing devices that are marked as “made in China,” which are easy to identify (and target for boycotting). However, identifying products and services from startups and Indian enterprises may not be as easy as it seems.

A recent report by foreign policy think tank ‘Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations,’ has estimated China linked investments in India’s tech start-up sector alone at $4 billion.
Many startups that Indians are familiar with have major Chinese investments, including Big Basket, Byju’s, Delhivery, Dream 11, Flipkart, Hike, MakeMyTrip, Ola, Oyo, Paytm, Paytm Mall, PolicyBazzar, Quikr, Rivigo, Snapdeal, Swiggy, Uddan, Zomato.

Does #BoycottChineseProducts include boycotting these startups that employ hundreds of thousands of Indians?

Most multinationals make and assemble products with complex supply chain that includes manufacturing of components in dozens of countries that include China. These components travel from one Distribution center to the next across geographic boundaries before being assembled in a specific country.

Products that we associate as American or European like Apple’s iPhones, iPads, Amazon’s Kindle or even Levi's, Nike and Adidas’s apparel are all either assembled in China or made with Chinese made components.  Identifying the ‘country of origin’ of products or even components that go into assembly of such end products is not as easy as it sounds.

And then there is a matter of practical consumerism that is hard to wean away from. For example, OnePlus, a China-based smartphone maker, saw its latest model sold off within minutes in India this Thursday, despite growing calls for boycott of Chinese goods following a border conflict between the Asian neighbors.

Bottomline: While #BoycottChineseProducts makes for a nice sound-bite, and a few local politicians, activists and digirati will get a 15-minutes-of-fame ripping up a “Made in China” trinket, these actions may not have real economic consequences on Chinese exports or China’s trading surplus with most nations.