Friday, December 17, 2021

What can Income Tax payers in India expect ? - Musings of a ‘Silver Certificate’ taxpayer

 Indian salary-earners, especially those paying highest per cent of income in taxes have very little voice and aren’t expected to ask for much in return for their tax rupees.  Most western countries where I have been a taxpayer for the past couple of decades had complex structures of direct (individual Income) and indirect (sales and service) tax structures, but for this writeup I want to focus on individual income-tax. 

In western societies, the concept of “tax dollars at work” and “accountable to taxpayers” is taken rather seriously with governance visible and accessible starting at the lowest levels of government – be it local schools, roads or public health service. While high net-worth taxpayers aren’t provided special accommodation, those paying higher taxes do seem to have a greater voice. For example, in the US, school districts with residents paying higher property tax are better governed, with facilities commensurate with their budgets that are clearly visible and accountable to local taxpayers who engage in administering school boards.

The accountability at the top of the administration, like a senator or congressman (equivalent of our MPs and MLAs) is equally transparent and visible. Years ago, when I had a question on my pending naturalization application, I shot an email to the local senator, whose aide called me within a few days to say they had initiated a “congressional inquiry” with the concerned government department. The aide called me back after a couple of weeks to confirm that my issue was indeed resolved. These instances of “taxpayer’s dollars at work” are routine and expected. Now, imagine you sending an email to your local MP or MLA about an issue, and expecting a response.

Fast forward to “Digital India” where I now find myself after relocating to be around for aging parents. After moving back, I took up a global role with a multinational. For my contribution to the economy, the Income Tax department has been awarding me with a “Silver Certificate of Appreciation” for the past couple of years. For those curious, the Government of India, in its infinite wisdom, issues those paying an annual tax of Rs 1-10 lakh a bronze certificate, and to those pay between Rs 10-50 lakh a silver-certificate; and those paying taxes between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1 crore a “gold” one. 

I scratch my head wondering about government services “silver” taxpayers like me can expect in return for the lakhs I pay in IT, property-tax, and GST. Our son, like millions of other kids, goes to a private school with no government aid. I don’t expect to patronize the overstretched public health system, thanks to my medical insurance and corporate health-package. This leaves the basic public services that government is expected to provide.

For instance, after the street in front of my home was dug up for months for some public drain-work, I sent several tweets, emails and calls to the local counselor’s office that went unanswered as to be expected. Only an impending local election miraculously speeded up the work.

And then there is a matter of a long pending issue with a land registration that my father had been struggling with. After returning to India, I took over the matter and filed a Writ Petition in Karnataka’s High Court. It has been nearly two years since that judgement and the casefile has been stuck in the desk of some Babu in the state’s revenue department. Several RTI requests have gone into a black hole. Leave alone the equivalent of a congressional inquiry, I probably must bribe someone-known-to-someone in the Revenue Department to even get an appointment to meet a local official, or to know the status of the pending file.

As a salaried taxpayer, I cannot avoid or evade lakhs in direct-tax payments to government coffers. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, I guess the government officials expect taxpayers like me to consider direct tax payments to be yet another “selfless action, as a source of strength.” But quoting Gandhi again, “It is humanly impossible to be selfless. As a matter of fact, human beings are inherently selfish.” And that’s perhaps why my expectations of expedient government service are not unreasonable.

Originally published in The Hindu Businessline 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Sunday morning drive to Hesaraghatta Lake

This weekend, we decided to drive down to Hesaraghatta Lake, which is a nice place for a weekend getaway. We left home around 10 am and reached the Lake by 11 after a detour around the scenic Hesaraghatta Main Road that connects Jalahalli to Hesaraghatta. The road is well maintained and is lined with small farms and plots of agricultural land, and is not very busy. 

Entrance to Hesaraghatta lake walkway

The entrance to Hesaraghatta lake area has ample parking for cars and vehicles

Hesaraghatta Lake lookout and walkway

There is a well paved walkway and lookout around the south side of Hesaraghatta lake.

A view of a farm and coconut grove adjacent to the lake

Durgamba Devi Temple on the bank of Hesaraghatta Lake

Hesaraghatta Lake is approachable by road from Bengaluru at a distance of 26.5 km to the north-west of the City. It is a manmade reservoir located 18 km to the north-west of Bengaluru. The lake was created in the year 1894 across the Arkavathy River to meet the drinking water needs of the city. Sir K. Seshadri Iyer, the then Dewan of erstwhile Mysore state and the then Chief Engineer of Mysuru, M. C. Hutchins, planned to build the scheme called the "Chamarajendra Water Works" to store a three-years' water supply to the city.

Reports and articles about Lakes around Bangalore

  • WETLANDS: TREASURE OF BANGALORE [IIsC - ABUSED, POLLUTED, ENCROACHED & VANISHING] - The current investigation focused on 105 lakes (water bodies) in Bangalore. Among these one season monitoring was done in 25 lakes as these lakes were covered with macrophytes – water hyacinth throughout the year. The study reveals that about 98% lakes have been encroached and about 90% lakes are affected due to the sustained inflow of untreated sewage and industrial effluents. 
  • Declare Hesarghatta as a conservation reserve: environmental activists to CM - Environmentalists have pointed out that the Hesaraghatta lakebed area and grasslands in the surrounding catchment area are an important reservoir of biodiversity and a refuge for endangered wildlife species like the lesser florican and leopard, yet remain outside the protected area network and face severe threats to its biodiversity.
  • No amount of rain can put life in Arkavathi river - The Arkavathi river originates on the Nandi hills and joins the Cauvery river at Sangama. However, there is no water flowing in Arkavathi till Thippagondanahalli (T G Halli) reservoir.  
  • Hesaraghatta Lake to be rejuvenated; to store water from Yettinahole project - Although it now wears a parched look, Hesaraghatta Lake could soon be brimming with fresh water. Bengaluru development minister KJ George on Wednesday said that the government was planning on reviving the water body in order to ensure that it can store water that will be pumped into it from the Yettinahole River diversion project. 
  • Construction work banned around Hesaraghatta Lake - Nelamangala Planning Authority warns against investing in real estate within 1km radius from the banks of Arkavati and Kumudvati rivers. Activists say notice is an eye-wash.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Movie Review - ‘The Mauritanian’

Very few movies make you pause and reflect on life and value of our contemporary times. ‘The Mauritanian,’ which I watched last night is one such film. #TheMauritanian, the movie starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, & Benedict Cumberbatch is streaming on Amazon Prime, and definitely a drama-in-real-life worth watching. 

The movie and the New York Times (NYT) article from this morning makes one reflect on contemporary American values, especially as it pertains to globalization. As the NYT article succinctly summarizes, “twenty years after the attacks, the United States is still grappling with the consequences of brutal interrogations carried out in the name of national security.” (NYT: The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture)

Movie: The Mauritanian - Amazon Prime

As an Indian American, who went through the arduous path to acquire an American citizenship, I cherish the values of the American system – life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – along with the quintessentially Indian and Asian values I grew up with. Like most Americans, I watched with horror as the twin towers were brought down by aircraft commandeered by terrorists over two decades ago. 

I also rejoiced as the American military went on the offensive to extract justice half-way across the world, and the bad-guys were captured. However, I continued to scratch my head as many of the detainees were shipped to Guantánamo Bay. While not a legal expert, I continued to read up on the extra-judicial process, and the way some detainees were waterboarded and tortured to extract a confession. 

A few sections from the NYT article

  • Mr. Slahi was a clever, curious son in a Bedouin family of 12 children who became the first in his family to study abroad. While working toward an engineering degree in Germany in the 1990s, he traveled to Afghanistan to train in the anti-Communist jihad at a time when the United States endorsed it.  
  • There were the guards who menaced him with attack dogs and beat him so badly they broke his ribs. The troops who shackled him, blasted him with heavy metal music and strobe lights or drenched him in ice water to deny him sleep for months on end. The mind-numbing isolation in a darkened cell without his Quran. The female guards who exposed themselves and touched him sexually in an effort to undermine his adherence to Islam. 
  • “If you don’t admit to it, we are going to kidnap your mother, rape her,” the interrogator said, by Mr. Slahi’s account. “I remember telling them: ‘This is unfair. This is not fair,’” Mr. Slahi recalled. The interrogator, he said, responded: “I’m not looking for justice. I’m looking to stop planes from hitting buildings in my country.” 
  • The United States has long since stopped employing the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in what studies have concluded was a fruitless or counterproductive effort to extract lifesaving information from detainees in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo Bay.

Much of what is depicted in the NYT article seems to be summarized from Mr. Slahi’s book and also depicted in the movie.  

As NYT article summarizes, on one level, Mr. Slahi’s is a hopeful story. A story of human grit and resilience. One man’s effort to maintain sanity while undergoing tremendous torture and being imprisoned for over 15 years for something he didn’t do. “I wholeheartedly forgive everyone who wronged me during my detention,” he said in a YouTube message to the world soon after his release. “I forgive, because forgiveness is my inexhaustible resource.”

The book and movie are certainly worth checking out.

IMDB - The Mauritanian (2021) - Mohamedou Ould Slahi fights for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who underwent brutal interrogations while he was held at Guantánamo Bay, is a free man in Mauritania after nearly 15 years as a detainee.Credit...Btihal Remli for The New York Times


Friday, September 3, 2021

American Dirt (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - #BookReview

With lockdowns and the pandemic slowing down life and travel as we knew it, I have been bing-listening to Audio Books during the past year. I generally listen to top-ranked non-fictional novels and most stories are transient in my mind. However, a few stories, linger in one's mind long after the book is finished. 

Jeanine Cummins's American Dirt is one such novel - and not surprisingly it has received a lot of acclaim including 51,000 reviews on Amazon! 

 Here is my review from Amazon

I came across American Dirt while searching for my next audio book and was captivated in the first few minutes. Midway through the saga, I googled the book and realized it was a bestseller with critical reviews. I decided to tuck aside that piece of information and continued the journey with the protagonist Lydia, her son Luca and their migrant cohorts as they make the treacherous journey "El Norte."

The story begins with Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca witnessing the brutal murder of 16 of their family members while the pair have a miraculous escape. That sets in motion Lydia’s determination to escape to the US ("El Norte") with her son. We then join Lydia and Luca in their perilous journey on foot and top of goods train as they try to escape the wide net cast by a cartel boss.

The saga, set in a short span of a few weeks, has a bit of everything – philosophy in the form of Lydia’s oft repeated mantra “try not to think,” suspense, crime, drug lords, cartels and drama. It also tries to give us a glimpse into the sordid state of affairs when a drug-cartel takes over a placid Mexican town. With a few characters who join Lydia and Luca in their journey, the author attempts to highlight why some migrants risk their lives to try to cross the border "El Norte."

Bottomline: Follow Lydia’s advice; “try not to think” of the reviews and just enjoy a good read.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Reflecting on wealth creation in the era of Offshoring IT Services

Topic of money dollars and fortune never get boring. Even after one thinks he has read every possible angle to a story of wealth creation there is another angle or review that knocks ones socks off.

As a shareholder, I was reviewing the invitation for the 40th Annual General Meeting of Infosys Limited this weekend, and “section 7” caught my attention (link to the report). This section highlights the aggregate shareholding of the promoters and promoter group. 

The list in "section 7" includes the famous founders, their spouses and progeny, each holding hundreds of thousands of shares of Infosys. The company’s shares have been hitting record highs and is trending at about ₹1,450 (As of June 2021). At the bottom of the list at #19 is the lowest of the promoter group who owns about 2737,538 shares worth about ₹ 397 crore (about $56.7 million).

To their credit, Infosys’ founders seem to be living by the original corporate motto “Powered by Intellect, Driven by Values.” The founders, while making immense wealth for themselves have shared their fortune with employees who signed on early. And some of us who joined later in the game didn’t do too badly either. As a former employee who spent a decade with the company in the 2000s, I fondly look back on the small fortune in ESOPs vested in stock that is accruing in my nest egg.  

A brief history of time: Wealth creation beyond Offshoring IT Services

Infosys, along with its peers TCS and Wipro defined and scaled up the business model around Offshoring IT Services. Outsourcing IT work by multinationals to lower cost nations like India really took off after 2000. Consequently, the valuation of these and other service companies skyrocketed, making the founders uber rich.

Q&A in Tech forums and social media routinely feature young techies who ask about pursuing top-dollar jobs, and a few aspire to be entrepreneurs. While software product companies in 2021 attract top talent by offering USD equivalent salaries in India for talented techies, the real wealth is still concentrated at the top of the pyramid. 

Billion-dollar valuation and millions in personal wealth is the stuff urban myth is made of. A quick review of “India’s richest tech billionaires in 2020” shows this was true for the IT services boom in 2000s, as it is for the digital waves that have followed. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Yet another unsung victim of COVID19: RIP Krishnappa

I heard of the passing of Krishnappa yesterday - yet another unsung victim of COVID-19 that has claimed thousands of lives across the country, and millions globally.

Krishnappa was a friendly neighbor who would make small talk with me and share local news and happenings in the neighborhood.

Although it was shocking, like every death, it wasn’t unexpected given that Krishnappa had been hospitalized and was on a ventilator for a week, gradually going downhill. A couple of weeks ago I realized he was ailing when he came to collect coconuts we had gathered from our tree - his dry whooping cough was a dead giveaway though he was mobile and tried sounding ‘normal’. This was a few days before he officially tested “positive” and had to be hospitalized.

In his mid-sixties, Krishnappa and his wife were living a typical middle-class dream – kids and family living nearby, grandkids going to a decent private school. The pandemic cut short his life rather hastily.

Krishnappa and his wife lived off the rent from a multi-story house built on a small plot a couple of rows opposite our house. He lived in the ground floor with his wife and a son and had let out the 5-6 rooms on the two floors above to students from a nearby university. He had gifted a part of his plot to his daughters who had built another multi-story house where they lived with their families.

He also owned a private-auto that he would drive around. In the mornings he would run errands - buying greengroceries and supplies for other Paying Guests (PGs) in the neighborhood, after which he had the entire day to himself.

On most days, Krishnappa could be seen walking around the neighborhood, chatting with all and sundry. Even during the days leading to the recent lockdown, one could spot him chatting with the local vendors and hawkers on the main road nearby. During late afternoons, I would see him lounging on his auto parked near our compound where he would hold impromptu meetings and get-togethers with his friends.

Given the severity of pandemic and spread of COVID-19, one wonders if he should have been a bit more cautious, not ‘socializing’ as much. But it is not for us to question what, or why.

There was a flurry of activity in the neighborhood yesterday, and a few locals were seen walking around gathering near Krishnappa’s house. I suspected something afoot; perhaps he was being shifted to an ICU for Oxygen? Turns out, he had just passed away.

With the COVID-protocols in place, his body was directly whisked away from the hospital to the crematorium for a quick and quiet funeral. Unlike ‘normal,’ times no neighbors or friends around to pay their last respects to the departed.

With his abrupt passing, Krishnappa joins the thousands of unsung names and faces who are ending up as yet another blip in the great-statistical count of our generation.

#RIP Krishnappa

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Two die and more than 100 test positive in coronavirus outbreak among US diplomatic staff in India

There has been a major coronavirus outbreak among US diplomatic staff in India with two locally employed staff dying and more than 100 people testing positive in recent weeks. This comes as India struggles to cope with a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

A US embassy spokesperson said necessary precautions were being taken to safeguard health of US diplomatic staff in India after two died of them and more than 100 tested positive for Covid-19 in the recent weeks. 

“We’re closely monitoring the situation & taking necessary measures to safeguard health & wellbeing of our employees, including offering vaccines to them. Due to privacy concerns, we’re unable to share additional information. We offer our deepest sympathy to the people of India who are suffering during this global pandemic," US Embassy spokesperson told ANI on Tuesday

The spokesperson also offered his sympathies to people of India "We offer our deepest sympathy to the people of India who are suffering during this global pandemic."  The US operates five consulates in different cities and an embassy in New Delhi.

According to CNN, US personnel, family members and locally employed staff in India only began receiving their COVID vaccines within the past two weeks, one of the sources said. Within the past six weeks -- even as India's case rates were ticking up and staff had not yet been vaccinated -- there were two high-level trips by Biden administration officials to the country.

A few days ago, US Secretary of State,  Antony Blinken tweeted

India has reported more than 360,000 covid-19 cases, a new global record Wednesday. According to Indian Ministry of Health, there are 2,978,709 active cases with 201,18 deaths. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

COVID 2.0 Crisis in India (April 2021) Is this the time for finger pointing over “failure of government" ? Not right now!

There is a tremendous amount of finger pointing over COVID-19 and the failure of government in the media.

Stop and think for a minute how all this finger pointing over the “failure of government” is utterly counter-productive... and it can be disheartening to government and frontline workers and policemen/women helping us battle the pandemic. 

Yes, it is heart-breaking to see thousands dying and millions being affected by a virus. Images of mass funerals bring tears to our eyes, but let’s step back and think how WE are helping battle this pandemic!

Image via NYT

About a year ago when the world was coming to grips with the virulent effects of COVID-19, the central government used all its political goodwill to impose three rounds of nationwide lockdowns.

  • Stage 0: Jaan hai to jahan hai - Even during that stage, the media was quick to focus on the negative - the plight of migrant workers returning back. Did we once stop to question why the greedy factory owners and builder forced this on the workers by refusing to pay them during lockdowns? 
  • Stage 1: Jaan Bhi Jahan Bhi - The same industrialists, commercial leaders and builders then used political pressure on the government to open up the economy. 
  • Stage 2: Present-day crisis - After restrictions were lifted and people took it easy. This led to a free-for-all and a callous attitude towards the risk posed by a virulent pathogen. Why, we were blaming local officials and policemen who were enforcing mask-wearing rules!

Guess what? After restrictions were lifted, the pathogen mutated and came back with full vigor

I love it when folks like us sitting in front of computers are able to collate digital resources - “Reddit - Resources for Covid-19 - Beds, Plasma, Oxygen, Vaccines, Medicines, Grocery etc” Try to upvote and RT tweets that from folks who are trying to help, get oxygen, vaccinations etc. We should do more if we can and contribute to such efforts.

It is easy for armchair critics like us to sit back and criticize “the government” while thousands of central and state government officials, workers and contractors are helping us battle this pandemic. Just sitting back and forwarding articles and posts about “failure of government” is counter-productive at best.

Remember, there is a time and place to criticize: make sure you reflect on all this when you get to the voting booth during the next general election. But till then, help contain this pandemic if you can.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Photo Essay - Coconut trees at home in Bengaluru - Labor of love in 2021

Most Bangaloreans would love to have a few shady trees in their house. But with the price of real-estate skyrocketing, an independent home with even a small garden or a few shrubs has turned out to be luxury that few can afford. 

After spending years globe-trotting, I returned to Bengaluru a few years ago and moved back to the house that my dad had built. The corner-property in North Bangalore also came with four coconut trees planted nearly three decades ago. 

A house in Bangalore with four coconut trees 

The trees have now grown to be over 55 feet tall with a lovely canopy shading our property

A few years ago, my mom asked if we could have the trees chopped off since it was a bit of a hassle to maintain. After all, finding specialized labor (climber) to climb the tall trees to prune, clean the leaves and harvest the nuts isn't that easy in urban Bengaluru. I disagreed and decided I would help maintain the trees. 

What a labor of love it has turned out to be.

The trees frequently shed dried leaves that can span nearly 10 feet and can weigh 10-15 kilos. They shed more in summer than in winter. 

Every 3-4 months, I call Jagdeesh, the local tree climber who services trees in our neighborhood. He generally comes early in the morning with a helper and gets to work. Jagdeesh charges about ₹ 400 per tree to climb, clean and harvest the coconuts.

My job is to make sure folks who have parked cars and vehicles near our compound remove them and to guide the flow of traffic to avoid falling leaves and coconuts. 

The stem of coconut leaves, when dried, can be bundled into brooms ! 

By morning when the leaves have been gathered, the local sweepers and corporation workers congregate to 'harvest' and reuse the leaves. The beauty of coconut tree is that all its parts can be reused, if one has the time and labor. 

After the stems of leaves are  'harvested'  by the workers, they discard the dried stem that can accumulate on the footpath. 

I then give a call to the local corporation's dry-leaf collection service; and the guys take a few days to schedule a compactor truck to come and gather the dry-waste. 

We 'harvest' about 100-150 dried coconut from the four trees that we distribute among neighbors and also save some for our use. The dried coconuts need to be de-husked 

And, did I mention the fruit of labor is that we are hardly ever out of stock when it comes to fresh coconuts?! 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Review of TiLT Red Wine in a Can from Fratelli’s - My2Cents

During a recent visit to a local wine shop in Bengaluru, I came across cans of TiLT wines stacked attractively. The shelf had a couple of varieties - Rose, Bubbly and Red laid out on the shelf. 

Not surprisingly, I hadn't heard of the brand. This being India, liquor and wine advertising is highly restricted and a few brands that are advertised are camouflaged as mineral water or the like when advertised. The colorful cans of TiLT looked appealing enough for me to do a double take, and I decided to check them out.

During the years spent in the US and Europe, I had cultivated a taste for Red wines, with a strong preference for Cabernet Sauvignon. It also happens to be the world's most widely recognized red wine grape varieties and is grown in major wine producing countries. Cabernet Sauvignon typically exhibits strong fruit flavors of black cherries and plum and go well with Indian snacks and savories. 

Being value-driven-budget-conscious, I would explore bottles priced under $20, of which there were a number of great brands and vintages to choose from. Although I was partial to bottled wines, I would occasionally buy single serve ones packaged in plastic bottles or tetra-pack of which there are several varieties available in American shelves. Attractively priced between $3-6 per bottle/pack, these are favored by those looking for a quick glass before dinner.

After moving back to India a couple of years ago, I gave up my passion for wines, preferring the good-old Kingfisher. Trusty and reliable brand that is easily available in local stores. I didn't prefer exploring local wines and would stock up on a few wine bottles during my trips abroad. 

COVID-19 and ensuing lockdowns put a hold on my travels and wine tasting adventures. At least until recently. 

When I spotted the attractive and colorful cans of TiLT Red Wine in that showroom, I was intrigued. Priced at about  ₹ 180 for a 250 ml can, it looked like an attractive alternative to a cans of Kingfisher that I was out there for. 

Review - Slightly fizzy and metallic taste

As the wine came in a colorful, beer-like l can, I decided to pop it open and take a sip directly from the can. After the first sip, I was underwhelmed. The wine tasted a bit carbonated and fizzy with a distinct metallic flavor. Perhaps it was the fact that I was sipping from a can and not a wine glass? 

I decided to switch tactics by pouring the contents from the can to a wine glass. Needless to say, it was the same-old wine in a new container. Even after a couple of sips, the distinct metallic flavor overpowered any lingering aroma of the red wine. After polishing off rest of the glass, the 11% alcohol gave me a slight buzz.

After this experience, I was left scratching my head over the audience for this Indian wine-in-a-can. Folks like me who have sampled other wines during their travels are likely to give it a pass. Indian youngsters looking for just an alcohol-buzz may find cheaper alternatives - a can of beer holds more fizz and alcohol per rupee. 


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)