Sunday, March 04, 2018

The humbling experience

I recently attended a meeting of a small group of technology and domain experts. The meeting was to focus on a problem statement and dissect it under different technology and domain lenses. Each person was from a different field and bought a unique expertise to the table. It was evident they had spent years in their focus area assimilating and growing their knowledge. Very quickly I had realized ‘expert’ was too modest a noun to describe them. The meeting which had started as an amazing experience had soon turned into a humbling experience for me.

I have been thinking about that experience for the last few days and seem to have found a correlation between that meeting and Expert systems/Artificial intelligence-Machine learning (AL-ML) system. That meeting to me resembled an expert system building pattern where experts pour their knowledge and experience to solve a complex problem.

As I thought more, my mind started drawing random parallels between that meeting and expert systems and generally wandered into the direction of the expert systems. Every expert system (or an AI-ML system) when introduced, first sparks a sense of bewilderment. It is approached with a set of presumptions and questions, bordering disdain. As the expert system proves and grows with promise, the disdain soon turns into an admiration for the expert system. The user starts appreciating the system and its potential. Often the admiration might even give way to distrust. A distrust might arise from a question of job security or individual well being or even from a question of ultimate survival. Take the example of Self-driving cars; they were initially struck down as a work of fiction. But as the self-driving promise held ground, it turned into an admiration. Distrust too found way in the hearts of the car enthusiasts who hated the very thought of sitting in the back seat and not at the wheel.  Isn’t it a similar pattern for most AI-ML systems, maybe with only slight variations? But one stand out feature among all these systems is the sense of humbleness that they evolve. Once you accept and understand the power of expert systems, they undeniably lead to a sense of humbleness. The user is humbled at the sheer talent of these systems.

As my mind searched for parallels, some things started falling out - the non-parallels. The non-parallels in terms of human emotions, or spontaneous thoughts, or even simple non-verbal expressions. Are there parallels to these? Even two humans can rarely experience the same levels of emotion. Any level of admiration, distrust or even humbleness that the AI-ML systems evoke, cannot replace these simple non-parallels. It is these subtle non-parallels that defines us as humans, and separates us humans from the AI-ML systems.  Maybe at some point in the future when the AI-ML systems have significantly evolved, they too might hit a point of humbleness. The humbleness that might arise in them from the fact that non-parallels exit between them and the humans.

~Narendra V Joshi

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The White Blanket

We had record snow of almost 8 to 10 inches in our city this week. It snowed nearly the entire day covering the streets, lawns and trees like a thick white carpet. It was a beautiful sight, to see everything white and glowing. But that sight was short lived. The walk ways were quickly cleared and people thronged the lawns to play in the snow. The beautiful snow carpet was trampled and almost destroyed. The temperature increased today and all snow melted. I am now waiting for the next snow.


The lawns and streets looked carpeted white;
With snow stuffed trees on the sides glowing bright.
The snow had covered every inch of the land;
Eclipsing the earth at the stroke of its wand.

The men soon arrived with shovels and salt;
To clear the snow and bring its spread to a halt.
Children and families swooped to capture the enthralling sight;
Trampling the snow which was laid picture perfect right.

The earth showed again as the day grew old;
Bursting with colors as the snow started to unfold.
Despite all colors the earth missed its glow.
Waiting to be painted with a fresh coat of snow.

~Narendra V Joshi

Friday, November 17, 2017

The price of 1 smiley

We love to shop at a particular warehouse chain of which I am a member for several years now. If we need something and it is available at that place, we buy it; no cross shopping, no price comparisons and no second thoughts. I love this warehouse to a point where if I have nothing to do, the first thought that comes to my mind is to take a stroll at this place. My wife and daughter are not so much of a fan, but my 3 year old son seems to like going to this warehouse. The attraction for him seems to be the smileys that the associates draw for him on the sales receipt. He almost snatches the receipt from us and rushes to the store exit to get a smiley on it.

I was looking for something a few days back and had called the warehouse location I frequent, to check if they had it in stock. I was told, that location had ran out of stock and was directed to a different location. My wife and daughter stayed back, and only my son and I went to the other location. I found what I was looking for and bought it. My son promptly took the sales receipt from me and handed it over to the associate at the exit. The associate checked the items and gave back the receipt without drawing a smiley. My son took that receipt and turned it over looking for the smiley. He handed the receipt back to the associate, but the associate gave it back saying it was reviewed. My son started crying that there is no smiley on the receipt. There were not many people in the line behind me and so I requested the associate to put a smiley on that receipt for my son. The associate shook his head and said he was busy.

I remember my daughter used to look for smileys on the receipt when she was little. We have been to several locations of this warehouse across the country and in a rare instance when the associate forgets to draw a smiley, they would always put it once the kid requests for it. It only takes a few seconds to draw a smiley. I have seen associates draw a smiley every time a kid hands them the receipt, however long the exit line is. This is the first time I have seen an associate return the receipt to a kid without putting the smiley even after been requested. I tried to console my son as we walked back to the car but he did not stop crying. Once I put him into the car seat I drew a smiley on the receipt and give it to him. He stopped crying only after seeing that smiley.

I had forgotten about that incident until this last weekend when I told my family that we will drive to this warehouse. My son heard me and said he did not want to come as there is no smiley. I was surprised and ignored at first, but he did not budge. He was clear he will not come and we finally decided not to go.

I have a membership at a large online retailer. I also have membership with 2 different traditional warehouse chains. In addition, I have a membership with a traditional bookstore. I prefer a brick and mortar store over an online retailer, unless I am in a hurry, or there is an extremely good deal online. I have an e-book reader but I prefer buying books at the traditional book store, unless I specifically need an e-book. My reason for this preference is that, the way the online retailers are growing, my kids might not have anything called a mall or a brick and mortar store by the time they grow up. I have nothing against the online retailers, but I am ok spending a few $ more at a brick and mortar shop just to continue seeing them around.  

I did a little thinking about the smiley incident and my shopping preference. A traditional store can provide a personal experience to the shoppers which is not possible in online shopping. This I think is the single biggest advantage they have to attract kids, the next generation shoppers, and addict them with shopping at a traditional store. Hooking the next generation to a brick and mortar store is the only way traditional stores can ensure survival. And, scribbling a smiley on the sales receipt for a kid is a great easy way to attract future shoppers.

Since we did not go to the warehouse last week, I bought the items at the online retailer and they were delivered in 2 days. I actually saved money and time doing so. If it continues like this, I think I may cancel my membership at all these traditional stores and shift to a complete online shopping.  I know I will save money doing so; but these brick and mortar stores will lose 1 current customer and a potential future customer. And all this for 1 smiley, or lack of it. Wonder what is the price of 1 smiley?


~Narendra V Joshi

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The tunnel of life

There was eagerness and fright in equal parts;
As the kids inched into the school wearing out their hearts.
Nudged by their parents to take a bold forward step;
Into the classroom to their teachers welcoming prep.

It was the parents who struggled to let their children go;
Clinching their hand as they tread their kids tow.
Futile they knew, yet struggled to break that bond;
But it was time for kids to see the world, family and parents beyond.

Our schooling system I think, is an inevitable trap;
Where futures are chalked on preset map.
Our birth on earth and the walk into school themselves are a tapering path;
The education degrees and careers are just a narrow aftermath.

~Narendra V Joshi

My son started going to school this week. It was a big day for him and more so for my wife and me. We went to drop him at the school on his first day and this poem is about the thoughts I had about the kids, the parents and our school system in general.

Of all the planets in this universe we are born in this solar system, on this earth, in a specific city, go to a specific school, get degrees and create a specific career. From the moment we are born, our life passes through a broad set of ‘universal’ possibilities to a narrower path, down through a funnel finally converging to the point of final rest.


Saturday, August 05, 2017

Learning with kids

It’s amazing how quickly kids grow up. What’s really funny is that I realize my kids are no more those tiny cuties, when we go to the shoe store every other month because they have outgrown their shoes; Or when we order pizza home and I realize I had to order a bigger pizza or an additional pizza compared to the previous order. J

I think the best part with kids is when they ask questions and I have to research to give an answer. While I feel proud, it drives home the fact that kids entering our lives is not a time to teach, but a time to learn and relive our lives.

This poem is for my kiddos who have given me a new opportunity to learn.


It still seems yesterday they came into our lives;
Years have rolled they remain the twinkle of our eyes.
Deep inside they are still those cute bundles of bliss;
Until I pause to wonder when did they grow and how did I miss.

The time together has been a joyful ride;
With teachings and learning of equal stride.
Often their questions ignite our thoughts;
Making us proud of our amazing mascots.

Again as I think, it might just be every parents dream;
To see their kids in adept gleam.
The arrival of a child heralds a subtle truth;
It’s time for parents to learn, and relive their youth. 

~Narendra V Joshi

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Can humans really have a peanut sized brain?

In my personal opinion, maybe years from now, YES, humans may end up with a peanut sized brain.

I had posted my thoughts on Artificial Intelligence in my previous blog post. In an extremely subdued way, I had focused on the economic aspects of AI particularly in the areas of employment in that post. Even after several weeks of that post, I have still been thinking about the topic of AI. My current thoughts have been on the advancements in the field of Internet of Things (IOT), Machine Learning (ML), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and their effects on humans as ‘beings’.

Every advancement throughout the human history has been logically/technically next step over the previous way. If something was done in one way, the advancement was to do it in a better way or a newer efficient way to achieve the same thing. Most advancements have been excellent and much needed; bestowing humans with luxuries their previous generations had not seen. However I think every advancement also took away something from that generation of humans. In most cases that adverse side effect of advancement took its toll on the knowledge, or a process or just the general way of life. For instance, people mostly forgot how to read latitudes and longitudes or even navigate looking at the stars, after the advent of GPS. As cell phone use increased, remembering 8-10 phone numbers became a big thing. Starting a fire rubbing stones which was once a part of daily life is now limited to museums and end of the world survival lessons.

Extending this thought of side effects of technology to humans as ‘beings’, I think technology advancements will have a direct impact on the human brain. As we continue to see advancements in the fields of IOT, AI and ML, I think most people will start using their brains less and less. Computers and AI algorithms will continue to learn and improve to ensure they serve their human masters well; while humans will use their brain less and depend on the AI algorithms more. Truly speaking isn’t that the real reason for AI? To take away the ‘human’ element to maximize safety and efficiency? However, going at this rate I think humans will very soon reach a point where most of us will use our brains primarily (or should I say ‘Only’?) for watching TV, using cell phones, eating, sleeping and such basic activities. Machines will do all the heavy lifting ensuring humans do not stress their brain.

Similar to how a Giraffe got a long neck, I think the human brain will slowly shrink and might become a ‘vestigial’ organ. A vestigial organ as per the dictionary, is an organ which had a use once but has lost its use now.  So a human brain might, in my opinion become more like eyebrow or appendix, a vestigial organ. I do not think humans will end up brainless as we will continue to use our brain for basic needs, but I think as the usage of the brain reduces maybe our brain will shrink in size. If our brain is the size of 2 apples today, maybe it will reduce to the size of 1 apple and gradually to the size of a walnut. Over the next several centuries or millennia’s our brain might eventually reduce to the size of a peanut.

~Narendra V Joshi

Sunday, February 12, 2017

My ‘Artificial Intelligence’ dilemma

My daughter came back from the school the other day and asked me if my father and his father also used to work on computers. I think it was related to some activity they were working on in the school. I explained to her what my father and my grandfather did for a living, which by the way, was not computers.  As I went further in my explanation she seemed surprised and amazed that back in the ‘olden’ days, ‘people’ used to do things and not computers.

I could not get over my own thoughts even long after my daughter had stepped off once she had found her answers. I was intrigued by the thoughts of my childhood. There were not many devices or machines or cell phone apps to do things. Most chores had to be done manually. The most important point, in my opinion, was that back in the ‘olden days’ people had to ‘know’ how to ‘do’ things; unlike today, where people have to ‘know’ how to ‘use’ things. A finance person back then had to write up a journal, a ledger, a trial balance to get to the balance sheet. Today all that a finance person has to do is provide raw data to a software which throws out a balance sheet. Teachers are now ‘virtual’ and ‘online’; while signal lights, cameras and radars are the new age traffic cops. I wonder how many bankers now actually know how to write a balance sheet or how many students know how to write a sick leave letter or how many industrial workers know how to work on lathes and milling machines.

Slowly my thoughts strayed into the world of ‘Artificial intelligence’ (AI), the supposedly next big revolution. With the advancement in the areas of machine learning, self-healing, self - cloning-and-shut down; things are no more just programmatically done. They are now programmatically discovered, built, advanced, cloned, rebuilt and even destroyed. Humans are no more needed in many of the processes. Self-driving cars and trucks are replacing human drivers while ATM’s and teller-bots are replacing banking staff. Robots are replacing human workers in industries, in hospitals and even in armed forces. Maybe 20 years from now, people will have their own robots which will work on their behalf. Maybe ‘my’ robot might take my place as a programmer and program on my behalf; while a ‘farmers’ robot might do farming on behalf of its farmer owner and a ‘lawyers’ robot might argue in the court on behalf of its lawyer owner.

The more I thought about the possibilities of AI, the more endless that list seemed to me. I was amused, fascinated, intrigued, and also terrified at my own thoughts. The opportunities seemed limitless.

As I thought through, one question came up often and has remained unanswered in my head. Assuming that the intelligent humans will get into the task of building even powerful AI systems, what job will an average human do, say 20 years from now? Going by the rate of growth in the field of AI, most jobs that average humans do today, might be done by ‘AI-Bots’ in future. So what will a regular guy like me do?

On a lighter note -
I feel there is 1 job which cannot be take over even by the best AI-bots. Throughout the human history, there has almost always been 1 kind of people who have made their presence felt in almost every culture, in almost every civilization and in almost every country – ‘the politicians’. I think politics is one safe career that the next generation average humans should think about until the intelligent folks come up with something that the average folks can look into.

~Narendra V Joshi