Friday, October 27, 2006

The Much Cliched Debate: Man vs Machines Revisited From a Different Perspective

It has been an innate desire of the human race since the very inception of its civilization, down the times of Adam and Eve, to explore the Nature and tame the surroundings to suit their needs. While human civilization coming down through the apt hands of Galileo, Kepler and Newton in the medieval ages had struck to explore and in a way revere how the Universe is, Einstein, Maxwell and today Stephen Hawking entended the realms of exploration and have bound the human race to think beyond all boundaries of time and space and that it indeed is the most intelligent and superior entity on Earth.
But consider the scenario of today. Flip through the pages of the science and technology sections of any leading magazine or newspaper. It is no longer the news of the 'awe' about the Nature, Earth or the Universe. Rather it is all geared around our achievements how we have taken over all these three: be it taming them to our needs or an attempt to beat the very way the Universe is created or even falsify the notion of 'three' dimensions with 'seventeen' dimensions or even think of time to be cyclic and periodic instead of the long believed belief that time is uni-directional and linear. We, the humans have emerged to be the most powerful entity in the Universe known.
In spite of all climbing to the zenith of success in all these areas of basic sciences, the man of today is not placated with what he has. He wants more control over everything around him. He seeks everything in his environment to be automated and adaptive to his own personal needs. And the most powerful tool that has given man all these options to think about is 'technology'.
Today we are living in a world booming with all the hi-fi electronic gadgets and applications that tend to make our lives easier, smoother and our tasks more adaptive to ourselves: the much hyped concept of personalization. And herein the human race is faced with a whole new challenge!
We are surging ahead on our way to make everything adaptive to what we mean, need or want without any requirement to specify it explicitly. In a sense, the machines of tomorrow will be intelligent enough to automatically get our stuff done in our own way. The question arises: to what extent?
There has been a lot of debate and fiction element on machines taking over man. I am not talking on those lines, but I am definitely suspicious of the hyper-execution of adaptiveness of machines. The only reason man has reigned five thousand years on Earth is because he had his own 'control' over what he wanted to do and he could accomplish that sooner or later. But with these adaptive and intelligent machines storming inside our lives today and tomorrow, it is not far away when man will have little control on what he wants to do, because the machines will be so intelligent and adaptive that they will start taking decisions on our behalf which we might have little control upon to strike a change.
I am not kidding! This is a grave-serious issue. Even though I am one of those folks who is contributing to making those systems more intelligent and adaptive, but honestly I do not want to get counted in tomorrow to be one without enough farsight about machines taking over man.
All the HCI (human computer interaction) research is overwhelming beyond words. But we always need to take care of the subtle thing that we leave enough traces or loopholes in building our systems which can bear the proof and carry ahead the legacy of our being the most superior entity on Earth in the years to come.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Want to be the next Mr India??

Could not resist blogging this new catching research on 'Invisibility' in this article. I am not talking about radars and aircrafts and rockets getting invisible for the enemy, but though hilarious, the 'Mr India' thing does not seem to be too far :D !! Have fun reading the article about how the electromagnetics has realized this fascinating longing of human beings persistent since centuries together...

The Small World Phenomenon: Privacy Issues

While we are always jumping at the very concept of the Small World Phenomenon, apart from all the other rumors and news that have been around, the issue of Aleksey Vayner is really going to surpass the heights of what can happen: thanks to the Small World Phenomenon!
As you would see in this article, the guy made his 'video' resume as a investment banking job applicant which eventually caught so much attention due to his athletic struts in it, that it made its way through all the popular email servers and social networking services like YouTube and MySpace.
The 'food for thought' is not the analysis of the cause and effect of these incidents. It is more grave and profound: an insight into how the very notion of the Small World Phenomenon has changed our perceptions, ethics, expectations and the way we interact with people in our social lives. In my view, if it has enabled us to better revive and sustain our geographically distant kith and kin, know people with similar interests, goals and profession, it has come to conflict people's notion of privacy too as we have seen in this case with Aleksey Vayner.
Privacy is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with in the design of all social networking frameworks. This is all the more difficult and different from the usual privacy maintenance because it deals with humans; people seek all different levels and notions of security. And managing privacy on a public domain with people from different socio-cultura backgrounds and age groups make it all the more a challenge! As I would like to present an excerpt,
"The private versus public boundaries of social media spaces are unclear. On the Internet, the illusion of privacy creates boundary problems. “New users and those engaged exclusively in recreational domains probably feel this illusion most strongly.” For example, in a television interview about Facebook, one of my students stated that she was concerned about revealing personal information online. When the reporter asked to see her Facebook page, the page contained her home address, phone numbers, and pictures of her young son. Without being aware of the dangers of online social sites, she had revealed too much personal information."

Similarly, ViĆ©gas’ (2005) research on bloggers suggests “there is a disconnect between the way users say they feel about the privacy settings of their blogs and how they react once they experience unanticipated consequences form a breach of privacy.” Lenhart (2005) reports that 81 percent of parents and 79 percent of online teens report “that teens are not careful enough about giving out their personal information online.” Moreover, parents of younger teens are more apt to be concerned about the disclosure of personal data.

Social networking tools, have almost become indispensable for teenagers, who often think their lives are private as long as their parents are not reading their journals. Teen use of social networking sites has increased to an average of one hour 22 minutes per day. Social networking sites are “already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and real–world interactions.” For example, “when students began posting pictures of themselves at parties holding a beer and leaving messages that were hurtful, defamatory or demeaning, schools began considering ways to regulate the speech on [MySpace].” Adults tend to use the Web as a supplement to real–world activities while teenagers tend to ignore the difference between life online and off–line."

The privacy issue needs more attention as we move ahead on our research towards research excellence in social networks.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Netflix: $1 million award!

"Netflix, the popular online movie rental service, is planning to award $1 million to the first person who can improve the accuracy of movie recommendations based on personal preferences. To win the prize, which is to be announced today, a contestant will have to devise a system that is more accurate than the company’s current recommendation system by at least 10 percent. And to improve the quality of research, Netflix is making available to the public 100 million of its customers’ movie ratings, a database the company says is the largest of its kind ever released."
It was a huge wave today among some of the students in my lab; because of this article coming up in the Times today! Phew, folks giving a try to earn some $1 million in one shot with a recommendation algorithm that can override the existing Netflix one performance-wise (10%)! Reading the following paragraph in the news, it seems that it is the new strategy of the industry/certain defence organizations to put the toughest research issue in a competition awarding decent money! Other than Netflix, there has been other attempts by others too like,
"Cash prizes in other difficult technical areas have been offered in recent years. In 2004, there was the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a reusable spacecraft. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is again running a contest involving robotic vehicles with the first prize $2 million. And NASA is offering prize money ranging from $200,000 to more than $5 million for building equipment including lunar excavators and solar sails — large mirror-based equipment intended to collect solar power and conserve rocket fuel."
So keep your fingers crossed guys, it is possible that my lab will be the most amply funded lab in the world sometime soon...
Anyways, this idea can be critiqued as well being a stingy/improvident investment too, apart from the fact that it can yield to a fast solution to an exisitng research problem!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Issue of 'India Shining': A Critical Insight

This post is the extended version of the discussion started in 'Can TCS/Wipro/Infosys Make It?'. I have tried to address some of the points raised here in the comment by dead man walkin.
The first issue is of the huge investments being made in India by software giants like IBM. However, a matter of concern to look at is what all are the domains that the investments are being made? How much of that investment is going to development of some kind of indegenously analyzed/designed product? If that investment is being made with the mere goal to employ a big Indian workforce in some service-oriented regime, it is not really anything which we can be proud of in the long run. How much liberty will the India on-site employees of IBM themselves have in development of a new product which is at par with some of the stuff being done by IBM Research in US? As a matter of fact, IBM in India is 'IBM Global Services' and not 'IBM Research' (the one for which IBM is 'IBM' today!). I am pretty skeptical about the goal of those investments!
The next issue is of the mushroom growth of MNCs in India. Agreed, this is drawing in 'dollars' for us and creating a lot of employment. But the prime motive of these MNCs crowding the south Asian countries is basically because the latter have cheap labor compared to the scene here.
Talking about value-ended R&D, yeah, companies are spawning off new departments, but the scene is still in the ice-age. If we talk about statistics and number crunching of GDP growth and all, I would like to know how many patents are filed from India every year? How many publications are made to the top conferences every year? These are areas we need to give more thought to. Good examples, US, Germany, Japan.
To sum up, the issue is not of 'India Shining'. Nor is it an issue of facts, figures and statistics. Although I am not a huge proponent of 'India Shining', I am not a rebel either. The point I had raised was the scope and extent of quality research work in India. It is unfortunate that it is very meagre still now. But it is true it is very important for a real value added technological prosperity: an issue of primary concern for 'India Shining'.
What motivated this thinking was a personal evaluation though. I am not a prodigy, but I think after an year of coming to US, things have made a lot of difference to me, for the better. I am very different from what I was an year back: I think critically, I am much more sound on my way towards an interesting next generation research. So the question arises, what actually brought in the change? And I think the obvious answer is, the scope, the opportunities and the work environment. These things need to be brought in India too. Needless to say, there is a lot of potential in all of us; a lot of potential in all of who are working in TCS/Wipro/Infosys. We need not be stuck with some work dictated and defined by others outside the nation which just increases our forex reserve. Rather we need to venture into novel endeavors and attempt to address open ended issues which can culminate into a next generation research that can, in turn, change colors of tomorrow's world. We need to cherish an instinct like that in all. And we are capable in doing that, we know. I strongly believe, only then, 'India Shining' accrues a profound meaning for the nation than just mere numbers!