Monthly Archives: February, 2017

Ethics, morals, safety, and robots

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Issac Asimov devised this rule 70 years back. But experts like Stephen Hawking warn that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. Can AI embedded ultra-intelligent robots create a “Terminator-style wasteland”? The preliminary forms of AI have been immensely useful by far. But many scientists believe that creations like humanoids, that surpass humans, can be dangerous and might trigger annihilation of humanity.


“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged on for decades. But the final battle will not be fought in the future. It would be fought in our present…tonight.” Should we fear the rising, or is it just a misconception that’s blocking the transformative impact of AI and advanced robotics? Can we teach robots to behave safely and ethically? If robots can make decisions on their own, who will ensure that they are right and harmless?

It’s a near to impossible mission says some bygone happenings. Here’s an example – It took less than 24 hours for Twitteratis to teach Tay, an artificial intelligence chatterbot, how to foul-mouth and be a racist. Tay was designed to engage and entertain people. The more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets, so the experience can be more personalized for you.” explained Microsoft. But Tay soon started spouting off racist and misogynic epithets in response to question that that carried the same sentiments. It wasn’t coded to be a racist or misogynist. But Tay learned from those it interacts with.

However, many scientists are betting big on the idea of AI embedded robots with advanced technologies. From Terminator to Blade Runner and Ex Machina, many sci-fi movies have portrayed humanoids that are indistinguishable from real humans. With the advent of human-like robots in real life, we are heading towards a future where we will live side by side with robots, whether we like it or not. By far, the benefits have outnumbered the hazards, the reason why we can remain optimistic about a future amid humanoids.

Why should be build humanoids like Nao, Pepper, RoboKind Zeno? Their capabilities are incredible, and the benefits are many. Robots like Kasper have been helping children with autism in learning basic human communication skills. Robear, the robot bear that can care for the elderly Sweetie, the virtual girl, helped track down pedophiles. Productivity, safety, and savings are the three main advantages of using humanoids at workplaces. It can handle dangerous works, defuse bombs, patrol large areas, and even do the duty of a security guard. Several organizations are exploring the idea of using humanoids to accomplish tasks in more effective and timebound manner.

That said, we cannot forget the incident where a robot “killed a contractor at one of Volkswagen’s production plants”. Here is what Sophia, the latest humanoid, declared during a conversation. In a CNBC interview, David Hanson asked her- “Do you want to destroy humans? Please say ‘no.’” “Sophia” But here is how she responded – “OK, I will destroy humans.”

Good and bad, right and wrong, safe and unsafe – we learn the difference between them long before we learn to speak. The power of moral and evaluative judgment is a strong factor that decides our success in life. If robots will soon surpass humans in intelligence, it should have the ability to identify what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s safe and what’s unsafe. But how can we impart ethics and moral values to robots? Can we create robots with ethical abilities? How can we program them to behave safely? This is a colossal challenge. Because, it’s not easy to transform human decision making and reasoning powers into numerical values that robots can understand.


Clever ad campaigns hardly take time to go viral, and so does some irksome ones that promote unrealistic ideas and expectations. A recent one from a supermarket chain came under fire for shaming overweight people in the guise of promoting healthy eating. It’s not directly offensive or provocative, but many believe it has an indirect mock within. The ad features an imaginary world full of obese people. The protagonist is a young boy who wants fly like birds, but is unable to do so because of his unhealthy lifestyle. He eats lots of healthy berries, loses weight, and learns to fly. The intention is to promote healthy and mindful eating, and to shake-off the intense liking of fast food. But the exaggerated depiction is earning more wraths than accolades.

A lot of people believe in the misconception that a little bit of shaming and stigma can motivate people. Naysayers keep trumpeting – Eat less and exercise more. Of course, workouts can definitely lead to weight loss. But it’s not just justifiable to assume that people are fat because they are lazy. Uncontrolled eating, poor discipline, and lack of will power are not the only reasons behind weight gain. Some are born obese. Some become fat after giving birth; some others gain weight due to chronic illnesses or side effects of certain medicines. Even surgeries can result in sudden weight gain.

An author-columnist recently ridiculed an obese police inspector by posting an insensitive and distasteful tweet along with his image. The targeted cop later revealed that a medical condition is the reason behind his weight gain. Depressingly, this isn’t the first time that netizens on social media have crossed the line, and this won’t be the last. Fat shaming is everywhere, every time, and the cop is the most recent victim of this emotional trauma. In a world where fair, young, thin, and rich are the ideal, likeable, and enviable, body shaming is a favored pastime, and judgmental comments from both dear ones and strangers are a norm. In 2013, a professor was censured for posting a fat-shaming tweet. He quickly backtracked and tweeted “sincere apologies,” but it didn’t slowdown the firestorm.

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Trying to body shame an obese person will only raise the risk of heart diseases and other fatal health woes, a study suggests. Obese people are often regarded as lazy, unattractive, and incompetent. Scathing comments and insults leave them feeling stigmatized, and later the jibes and emotional scarring impair their health. After failing to deal with negative stereotypes, they spend recklessly on miracle cures and unhealthy supplements, only gain more weight and feel more dis-empowered.

Off-the-cuff remarks or comments on weight can do much more than damaging one’s health. “You’ve put on a lot of weight nowadays.” Consciously or not, we get talked down like this at some point or the other in our lives. They come from the right place, but those sugar coated words are gratuitous, only destroy self-esteem. Preventing someone from eating an ice-cream or lecturing them on the need to be “more active” are not ways in which one should indicate their concern.

People come in all sizes and shapes. Everyone looks different. But some folks cannot stop their urge to ridicule those who struggle with their weight. Entertainment and advertising industries, increasingly influential social media platforms, and their unrealistic norms, values, and standards are the main facilitators of this worrying trend. Fat shaming is more impactful than gender, racial, and sexual discrimination.

From a health perspective, obesity is undoubtedly risky, given the number health problems that it can lead to. But here is a grim fact – according to experts, its fat shaming, and not laziness and lack of will-power that leads to binge eating and obesity. It’s stressful and upsetting beyond words. Fat shaming can elevate the level of cortisol in our body, and result in overeating and weight gain. It’s harmful and grinds people down.

These days, fat shaming is rampant in our society, and women face more harsh judgments than men. It’s hard to believe that top models and actresses too get body shamed. But despite modeling for top magazines, they too are named, blamed, and shamed. But thankfully, many are good at giving sassy responses. The problem of fat shaming is not limited to adults alone. It begins at an alarmingly young age. Weight gain is one among the common reasons why children get bullied in schools.

Shame gluttony and laziness – it’s not mockery. But shaming someone’s weight gain is sheer sadism.

Perspective – The troll-fighting tool

Nowadays, internet is a tough place to begin a conversation, and most conversations end up getting extreme toxicity. Fearing name-calling, harassment, and threats, many refrain from expressing their sincere options online. According to Data and Society Research Institute, nearly “three-quarters” of American Internet users have experienced one form of online harassment or the other. Individuals or online publishers, many opt for the tedious self-censoring. They keep tweaking comments sections to avoid the retributions of having offensive comments online. If a staggering 140 million users have been affected in the US alone, the number of affected people around the world will be more shocking.

Both readers and online publishers get affected by incendiary comments. Managing them all diligently is a near to impossible task. With too many comments to moderate, the task gets tougher every day. Moreover, for lack of ample workforce to moderate them, only a few comments can be published each-day. Some online publishers are even forced to disable the comments section of their articles and avoid the aftermaths of lewd and unproductive conversations. Apart from outright and unnecessary comments, many are grappling with the menace of incessant comments from programmed bots.

Google and Jigsaw are all set to remove the vitriol out of online comments, and help publishers and media houses address the growing peril successfully. Together they have launched Perspective, an artificial intelligence tool that helps editors identify and manage abusive comments before they get published online. Perspective is an API. It uses machine learning to analyze comments and identify online harassments, insulting conversations, and abuse without the assistance of human moderators. It rates comments based on the scale of toxicity. In other words, “Perspective is an API that makes it easier to host better conversations.”


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Most of the times, what’s toxic and what’s not is purely subjective. But Perspective takes a broader approach and decentralizes the power. Thousands of people can judge comments and share the toxicity scale. This helps adopt an unbiased approach to improve online conversations.

The search engine giant has been testing a version of Perspective with The New York Times. It has helped them moderate and enable more comments on each article. For The New York Times team, comment management was both laborious and time consuming during the pre-Perspective days. An entire team had to sift through and moderate every comment before posting them online. But Perspective has transformed the task into an easier and more effective one.

Developers can ask for access to Perspective API and the approval will be given on a rolling basis. Perspective is still a work in progress, but encompasses strong technologies to enhance troll-fighting efforts. Both the Guardian and the Economist are now using API to improve comments sections on their sites. According to Google, increasing usage of the API will help Perspective “develop a better understanding of what makes certain comments toxic”.

Can Perspective turn the tide against bullies, haters, and trolls? Will it work, or join the long list of failed discoveries? Can it identify and handle the complicated nuances within every comment? We’ll have to wait and see!

Work smart, not hard

“If you want to succeed you’ve got to work hard.” You have probably heard this a hundred times. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and a whole lot if tasks to complete- so how long do you ‘work hard’ each day? Eight hours per day is the most accepted timing, but for many its nine to ten hours or perhaps more. How good is the output? How much time do you waste on social media sites and news portals?

Despite working for most part of each day, productivity rates are often dismal, or so say many global surveys. This is the grim fact. Many have been slaving over laptops and desktops even on Saturdays and other holidays, but productivity can hardly be evaluated based on these long hours. Nor can it be measured based on the time they get in or leave. That’s an amateurish assessment, and only leads to dissolution and frustration. Clocking 9 or 10 hours in the office can hardly be equated to exceptional productivity. It’s not worth bragging about. It doesn’t guarantee success. Or else, millions across the world might have tasted stupendous success way before.

According to National Sleep foundation, an average adult should sleep 7-9 hours every night. However with competition scaling up everywhere, not many of us enjoy luxury of sleeping for such long hours each day. But working for extended hours and burning the midnight oil never increases productivity. It harms our physical and mental well being. Working smart, not hard is the right mantra.

How can we define working smart? Smart working is about making smart choices. Assess tasks, create an outline, follow a strong communication method, have the right attitude, be willing to lean, learn when to say no, team up with the right people at the right time, be flexible, make wise use of your time, but take periodic breaks – you can do more in less time.

smart work

Working our tail off for 9 to 10 hours is mismanagement of time and energy. It drains creativity and induces monotony. It bludgeons innovation and weakens effectiveness. But many continue to believe that working hard is the cornerstone of success only to end up failing, at times just short by a few inches. What goes wrong? They worked hard, but failed to work smart. Does that mean our heroes and idols never work hard? No, they work much more than most of us. An artist or a business man, it takes time to hone ones skills and stay atop. But as they grew smart, their choices too became smarter, and so did their working pattern.

Here are four productivity hacks of top business leaders:

No meetings Wednesdays – Dustin Moskovitz
Two-Minute rule – Christian Sutardi
Make wise use of the “golden hours” – Jason Kanigan
“Use sticky notes to make daily to-do lists” – Chapin, co-founder and chief product officer of Casper

Working harder and working smarter are closely entwined, or, while working hard one has can choose to work smartly and avoid getting weary, frustrated, and negative-minded. Think out of the box, innovate, experiment, and improvise to get best results with comparatively less effort. It adds positivity, boosts effectiveness, and fuels growth. That said, working smart should not be mistaken for procrastination or lackadaisical attitude. Strong vision and clear prioritization are critical. Give your best shot, be strong willed, set the right goals, and adopt the best plans to achieve them. Make mistakes, but beat paranoia. Learn the lesson and move on, you have a dream to achieve.

Swimming with the tide is toiling hard, but swimming against the tide is smart working. What’s your choice?

Boom or bubble?

After short-term explosive growths, an overwhelming number of Indian startups are now tasting failures and grappling with fund woes. Their valuations have been slashed repeatedly. Revenues are plummeting and many companies are on major lay-off sprees to reduce costs.


“Successful people don’t do different things; they do the same things differently.” But, it is not the maxim that several Indian startups live by. Many businesses with international footprint took a decade or two to setup firm grounding and attain sustainable and steady growth. However, some Indian startups shamelessly copied ideas from the West, or took the easy route, and frantically burned too much cash to catch up with the global leaders. The plan worked well during financial might, but not anymore. Missteps, shortcuts, and misplaced focus have now started making them feel the pinch of cash crunch.

Copy-paste ideas, illogical hurry to set foothold as soon as possible, poor strategies and execution, aggressive expansion in minimal time, no clear understanding of ‘target’ market, failure to leverage capabilities and core competence, bad financial management that includes hefty and never-heard-of salary packages, and weak technological setup – most of the cynosures in Indian startup space are sadly standing on such shaky fundamentals.

What’s hurting their growth? What’s stopping them from succeeding? The reasons are many – they relying on half-baked business plans, fail to manage expenses, offer massive discounts, pay exorbitant salaries, and thus create a huge hole in their balance sheets. One among the top e-tailers is gearing up to cut its workforce to conserve money and turn profitable. They are not the first, and they will not be the last to announce job cuts as part of retrenchment. Other companies that are saddling with huge losses might soon hand out pink slips to many employees.

Taxi booking, e-commerce, or online rental business, replicating an international model is not innovation. However, many Indian companies are setup on cloned business models. They have amassed significant VC funding and live in their mirage-like world with the illogical hope that the original businesses will acquire them soon.

That said, not every startup is guilty of having weak fundamentals. Some of them are growing leaps and bounds with well-thought-out business models, while some others are falling by the wayside. The downturn is slowly engulfing some high-profile companies. Want to know why? They focused on the unicorn model and overlooked the cockroach model. They kept building unsteady businesses with fragile market presence. They never curbed their spending, and quickly moved from one unviable business model to another, only to soon ramp them down for lack of profit and sustainability. In other words, the reasons include myopic business decisions, careless spending, and major defocus from the core business models and long term goals. They just simply ran out of runway, and even failed to save money in reserve to avoid complete derailment.

In their frenzy to grab more market share, many companies expanded exponentially without focusing much on making sizeable profits from their increasing market presence. All that they needed was the easy money from VCs who mistook vast market presence for sustainability and profitability.

Dreaming big is not a sin, but entrepreneurs should not overlook the basics. Here are a few timeless tips – “What do you need to start a business? Three simple things: know your product better than anyone, know your customer, and have a burning desire to succeed.” “No growth hack, brilliant marketing idea, or sales team can save you long-term if you don’t have a sufficiently good product” or service. ““Make something people want” includes making a company that people want to work for.” Let’s add two more golden rules – “Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1.”

There is a clear uncertainty in Indian startup ecosystem and this might tempt many investors to step back. Funding will soon dry up, but many companies still haven’t figured out what went wrong and how they can adopt corrective measures to start running their business feasibly. They must soon cut back on their costs, move towards profitable business models, provide better customer service, build brand loyalty, innovate incessantly, and exploit market opportunities faster.

P.S. – The implications of founder’s syndrome too can jeopardize the very existence of a business. Founder’s Syndrome or founderitis kills opportunities and lets ego overpower the potential and entrepreneurship skills of a founder. When founderitis strikes, founders feel the strong urge to micromanage everyone, take complete control, ignore inputs from experts, and turn into an autocratic I-know-it-all mode.