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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Auctioning Algorithms : for those who design algorithms!

In Education, Research and Development on April 20, 2017 at 4:56 PM

The Algorithm Auction was the world’s first auction of algorithms in 2015. This auction was meant, like most other auctions, to celebrate something. In this case, it was the algorithms (in the form of code) that can be considered artsy. Organized by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and Artsy, the auction brought together vintage items like hand written and signed code of the original Hello World C program by Brian Kernighan, a very compact Perl code (6 lines and named qrpff) that could decrypt content on a DRM protected video disc etc. The qrpff code fetched 2500 US$.

I had only heard about auctions of cellular spectrum, houses, historical artifacts and vintage collection items. The auction of algorithms was the idea of a company by the name Ruse Laboratories which it seems has ceased to exist. I could not find any good reference or website. Nevertheless, I think that this was a wonderful idea. Looking for art in science and technology is very interesting. I had organized a thematic issue around this subject in the Nov-Dec. 2016 issue of IEEE Potentials.  This auction goes to prove that a curious mind can come up with really novel ideas and open up doors for others. My friends who design algorithms have something more to cheer about!

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Translational Research: What I learned doing (seemingly) mundane task of video annotation

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on November 27, 2016 at 3:04 PM

In the recent past I have been doing some work related to automatic video annotation. Videos that you and I take can be annotated with data about the contents of the video. The contents of the video can mean: objects, their types, their shape, background scene (moving or static), number of objects, static and in-motion objects, color of objects etc. One would like to keep a track of objects as the video progresses. Tracking helps in knowing when an object appeared in the scene and when it disappeared. All of the prior work on automatic video annotation is not really completely automatic [1], [2] etc.. They are semi-automatic at best and manual input and control is still required when annotating using these methods.

While doing this work, I developed a better understanding of some of the so called “automatic object tracking for surveillance” solutions out there in the market.  None of these solutions can ensure a complete hands-off scenario for humans. Humans still need to be involved and there are reasons for that.  At the same time, it is also possible to do everything in cloud (including human interaction) and claim it as “hands off for a user”. In this case, it is simply that the client is paying someone else to provide the service. It is not a stand-alone autopilot kind of system installed in a user’s premises. Real automatic video annotation is extremely hard, especially when the scene can change without any guarantees. If we add “video analytics” i.e. ability to analyse the video automatically to detect a certain set of activities, it again becomes very difficult to propose a general solution. So, assumptions are again made and these can be based on user requirements or can be domain specific (say tennis video analytics at Wimbledon). Here is a system which may be of interest to you: IBM’s Digital Video Surveillance Service and a few others described in the paper titled “Automated visual surveillance in realistic scenarios“.

Most of the research work makes certain assumptions either about the scenes or about the methods they use. These assumptions simply fail in real world scenarios. These methods may work under a “restricted real world view” made using a set of assumptions, but when assumptions fail, these methods become limited in applicability.

I believe this is a critical issue that many researchers who want to translate their work into usable products have to understand. This is where both strong theoretical and practical foundations in a discipline are needed: theory gives the methods and the tools, engineering tells you what can/cannot be done and the two can interact back and forth.

ChatBot: Cost Cutting at the cost of User Experience

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on August 31, 2016 at 4:09 PM

Many of you may be familiar with chatbots. For those who aren’t, a chatbot is a computer program designed to have conversation with a human being (wikipedia). So, instead of talking to a real person, you talk to a computer program. The chatbot responds using artificial intelligence methods which can also include using databases. For instance, you can ask a chatbot on a merchant website to show you “shoes of size 5, blue in color, for sports and within 50 dollars”. You don’t have to search using a filter and set various thresholds. The chatbot will process your “textual/verbal (assuming there is speech recognition) input” and get you the results.

This technology is being promoted as the next major innovation to improve efficiency. The problem is that “efficiency” is itself a much abused term: I will go into the details some other time. Companies are being told that by using chatbots they can increase customer satisfaction, reduce manpower, automate customer interaction etc. This to me appears far-fetched conclusions. Human beings like to chat with human beings. That is one reason why Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO and other similar attempts have failed to make a cut as care takers. They simply can’t replace nurses as of today. Artificial intelligence and care taker robots are too hyped as of now.

I agree that in certain circumstances where a conversation revolves around very structured data and can be very specific, chatbots may be useful. However, if we examine how humans search for something, we will find plenty of randomness in that. Most of the music videos that I have liked, I have bumped into them accidentally. This may not be the case with music aficionados but it is with me and others like me who explore certain things randomly and out of curiosity.

The reason I am writing this post is because I had a recent experience with a chatbot which was contrary to the selling point of chatbot providers or those who buy chatbot technology to improve customer engagement. Read the hilarious conversation below. Let me call the chatbot CB though it actually had a name on the service provider’s website.

Me: I wanted to know something.

CB: I am here to help (This is actually a standard beginning response by CB to every conversation that is started)

Me: I wanted to know how I can register for user authentication.

CB: I have found the following links that may be helpful: link-1, link-2     ( a sequence of hyperlinks)

Me (the hyperlinks were not helpful as I had already seen them under the FAQ): The website says that I will be auto-registered for authentication by March 2016. But this is August 2016. How will I be auto-registered now? What should I do?

CB: I have found the following links that may be helpful: link-1, link-2     ( a sequence of hyperlinks; the exact same answer as earlier)

Clearly, CB had no idea what I was talking about. The service provider had initiated some ad-hoc measures for some time to register users for authentication but had not updated whatever provided data to CB. The service provider had also failed to address the discrepancy in time. I understand that business requirements can lead to such temporary measures but it also means that the client support system must be accordingly updated. Otherwise, it makes little sense.  Apparently, CB also had no mechanism to learn about new business measures on its own either. Needless to say that I was not satisfied with the service. This example demonstrated to me not only some of the limits of chatbot technology but also the carelessness with which businesses go about buying and integrating chatbot technology thinking that it is a good alternative to manpower based customer interaction in order to cut cost and increase customer engagement. On the contrary, approaches like this result in customer dissatisfaction and duplication of work and efforts somewhere else. And this experience was with a well known service provider of citizen services!

Economic Cost of Badly Designed Software Systems

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles on July 18, 2016 at 10:47 PM

The goal of every design activity, whether in computing or in some other field, is to come up with a system that serves some economic purpose. So, there are software and hardware systems that fly an airplane, that run our cars and power grids etc. In the past, people were distantly connected with these systems. They were mostly passive users with these systems being used for very specific purposes. However, there has been growing emphasis on using these systems, especially software systems, in governance and delivery of public services to citizenry. A lot of these public services are routine in nature and not particularly associated with life threatening risks (unlike power grids, cars etc.). Perhaps this is one reason why so many software systems for the delivery of public services are so poorly designed. Not only the design itself can be poor, but also the testing and validation for these systems is taken very lightly. I also feel that the testing and validation of these systems have to sync with the general life style and attitudes of the citizenry they serve. However, this is perhaps asking for the famous Swiss chocolates when not even a basic candy is available. 😛

Software systems that are used in industrial systems undergo rigorous testing and validation and still they can fail, crash, malfunction and give erroneous results. Studies conducted on the economic cost of such badly designed systems have reported losses of billions of dollars (see here and here). However, if badly designed software is used to provide citizen services, I am not aware of any report that analyzes the associated economic loss. You may be wondering what triggered this post or this conclusion. Well, in India, the government has mandated booking of cooking gas via dedicated hotline numbers which connect to a software system that manages the booking request, generation of customer invoice etc. However, during a recent such exercise, my father received a SMS that the booking has been cancelled (with an even funnier reason stated in the SMS: “Reason: Cancelled Booking”). He did not apply for cancellation. So, he had to drive to the vendor to inquire about this because a number of these vendors are not responsive enough to answer such questions on phone. The vendor replied that it is a software glitch and the booking will be processed shortly; the SMS can be ignored. Not only all this put stress on a citizen but also resulted in precious petrol going down the drain. Now multiply this one incident with another one lakh (a hundred thousand; a very conservative estimate) such cases a month and you get the picture. By the way, there are around 15 crore (i.e. 15 million) consumers of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG, the primary cooking gas in India) (see here).

Apart from the economic cost (whether big or small), such incident create friction and distrust in the system. This is a bigger danger as it cannot be put in monetary terms. Citizens begin to suspect service providers and begin to complain. All of this can be avoided if these social software systems are properly designed and the service providers educated about their proper usage. Unfortunately, this last part seems to be the least of concerns for many people involved in such exercises.

Email Etiquette- So much for it!

In Education on June 6, 2016 at 11:32 PM

One can find hundreds of posts, articles etc. on email etiquette, especially for those looking for jobs. How to address a person, what to write in the body of the email, how to close an email etc. A lot of this advice assumes that  those who need it are individuals looking for  grant, scholarship, admission or jobs.

The problem with all this advice is that it is very one-sided. Very few posts would mention email communication from the other side: a professor, a hiring manager, a fund administrator etc. Many of these posts perhaps assume that these people do not need to be aware of any etiquette or that they can get away with anything since there are in a position of authority to accept or reject. They assume that most people need help because they are “seeking something”. So seekers need to be advised while those who, let’s just say “disburse” need no advice! This is really one-sided thinking and half-thought approach to understanding email etiquette.

Those who “disburse” are also equally in need. However, very little focus is given to this subject, perhaps because the thought is clouded by the idea of authority. One example of this is the countless email I keep receiving from a few companies asking me to help them find a recruit by telling my friends! On  the other hand, if you have ever tried communicating with the HR department of such companies as a prospective candidate, you would know that it is not all good on that side as well! Of course, I have the freedom to opt out of receiving such emails but that does not take away the hilarity and the irony evident in such hiring practices!

I do receive a lot of emails from students wanting to intern in my research group and often I find that they have done no research on my background or interests. I mostly do not reply to such emails because they show a lack of sincerity. Sometimes, I do reply advising the candidate on how to approach someone. A company, on the other hand, can be regarded as mostly faceless. So, I do not reply to them even when I know someone in that company. It is unfortunate that the dictum “easy to preach and hard to practice” is so common.

Many people and organizations do not seem to understand that communication is a two-way thing, that engagement with clients, prospective employees etc. requires effort and well thought mails, flyers, emails etc. Acting like a king who announces his desire and expects the peasantry to oblige passively is marvelously not a good management practice.

Bias in Peer Review of Research

In Education, Intellectual Property, Research and Development on June 30, 2015 at 6:38 PM

Reviewing research papers for conferences and journals is a part of my job. When I review journal papers, I get to see the comments of other reviewers when the review is complete and comments are sent out to the authors. In the last few months, I have seen review comments which were obviously influenced by the author’s affiliations and past work. I am not saying that the author had any role to play in it because I know it is not possible in those journals. To me, those reviewers sounded as if  they were fans of the authors. Sometimes they adopted a condescending  approach but their comments never reflected the depth of academic rigor. They were more like “Yeah, I know it is a difficult problem. But you guys are well known. So, let me just say yes to your work without concerning myself too much with all that you have stated”. Mind you that mostly it is the decision of the majority that actually counts in a review process. So, if you are reviewer who reviews papers based only on its content, quality, novelty and such other parameters, without caring for author affiliations etc., you might be surprised with such biased reviews. This is one way in which an undeserving paper  gets published successfully. I think that is one reason why most conferences (at least in my field) insist on a blind-review process. The author names and affiliations are not available to reviewers during the review process. This is an example where peer review fails. There are a number of studies and commentaries on the strengths and the weaknesses of peer review which I won’t go into in this post. You can read some sample examples here and here.

The kind of bias that I just mentioned is akin to the culture of fan following in entertainment industry or in sports. You are a fan of someone, you will always support him/her. I have not yet figured out why journals have not adopted a blind review process. I guess if they do, they can reduce the effect of such biased reviews. I am interested in knowing about the review process in your fields and your experiences as a writer, reviewer editor etc. Please feel free to comment.

Research Attitude- What is it?

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on May 31, 2015 at 1:24 PM

One of the tasks that a faculty member has to perform is to recruit new research students for his or her research group. At most of the institutions, it is entirely up to the faculty member to decide on who should be recruited. Of course, the application may be examined at the department or school level, but the principal responsibility is with the faculty member. In some institutions in some countries, entrance examinations are conducted which are followed by an interview before a student is admitted as a research candidate. I will not go into the pros and cons of these processes but will concentrate on a few characteristics that I think are very important for a student to be admitted as a research candidate. Everybody knows about grades, test scores, recommendations etc. So, I won’t talk about them. Instead I will focus on “research attitude”, which I learned more about (sometimes painfully) when I was involved in hiring students for my current research group. It is difficult to gauge attitude towards research based on grades, test scores etc. These can be used to gauge “potential for research” which I think is different from “research attitude“.

Students with good grades and recommendation letters tend to perform quite well during the discussions. They will talk about their past experiences with pride and would try to convince you on every issue or question that you may ask of them. Sometimes they would try to convince you so much that they tend to forget that the people they are talking to have already been through that process and have at least a couple of years of experience post-PhD. This, I usually treat as a symptom of over-confidence and lack of humility. It can also mean that they have a very high opinion of himself. While this might still be acceptable if they have to work alone, that is not the case these days. Research students typically work in a group and they need to interact with other members. This interaction will inevitably happen during the research program because no one knows everything. A student may need to seek assistance of another student to make progress on his research work. High degree of self-pride and lack of humility do not allow such interactions to be smooth. These characteristics also affect interactions with faculty members, especially those who are more gentle in approach to their students.

Another thing that I have noticed among such students is the lack of patience to study a subject matter in depth. They want to “finish research work” as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they forget or do not appreciate the fact that research work is not the same as doing some other task where all that matters at the end is the output (for instance designing an electric oven). A research work is not valued just based on its output but also based on the methodology, logic and reasoning used to arrive at that output. A lot of time and effort can be wasted when such students present their work to their research advisors.

Therefore, I think that patience, humility and willingness to learn are very important characteristics that a student should possess in order to perform good research.

P.S:This post contains only some of my ideas and in no way represents a comprehensive write up on this subject.

Presentation as a Sales Pitch?

In Education, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on March 25, 2015 at 5:19 PM

It is not uncommon to hear these days: “make your presentation to sell your ideas”, “a presentation is a sales pitch” etc. What was earlier confined mostly to marketing and sales departments is now making its way to other places as well, including academia. Imagine going to attend a talk titled “Truth and Lies About XX” and after spending some time there one realizes that the presentation has no relation to the title at all! The catchy title was just meant to attract people but it lacked substance. Over the past few years, I have come across quite a number of such presentations where the title and the content are very unrelated. The sad part is that most of these presenters walk away with impunity without any member of the audience ever making a remark with respect to the gap between the title and the content. I find this practice not only misleading but also unethical. Most of the time, people come to attend a presentation with a certain notion of it based on its synopsis, speaker’s bio-data  and the title. The title plays a very crucial role in creating excitement. However, I don’t think that it should go so far as to end up unrelated to the content.

I agree with the view that one needs to polish and shape one’s presentation to help the audience follow it; that one needs to choose words and phrases carefully to highlight the main points, one’s contributions etc. However, I don’t agree with a blatant disregard for the audience’s intellect that becomes visible when such titles are chosen. The presenters may say that it was unintentional and that they were only concerned with making it more fancy. However, the fact  that it was unintentional itself says that the presenters did not think deep enough about their target audience.

When people , who are not sales professionals, like engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers etc. try to become like them, they often forget that there are both good and bad salesmen. That is why they teach sales and marketing in business schools. If it were just a matter of catchy title and pompous claims, business schools would not need to teach the subject. In their effort to sell their ideas, the presenters also forget that the audience has its own mind. In most cases, it won’t simply buy whatever is presented to it no matter how charismatic or fancy the salesman is. Of course, if a presenter knows that a certain audience has a bias, he can use all the tricks to impress the people. In general, I don’t think it is a good idea to keep emphasizing the “sales pitch” version of non-sales related presentations. Instead, what should be emphasized more is to connect truthfully with the audience.

When Economic Forces Influence Universities

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on January 31, 2015 at 9:28 PM

That universities are being increasingly subjected to economic forces is no longer a surprising news. Many articles have been written about the utility of research done at universities, transforming them into products, restricting funding to research in areas of less economic importance etc. I won’t discuss these in this post as this subject is vast. However, I will highlight one important development that I learned about only recently. I was talking to a professor and we discussed faculty appointments, research areas at his university etc. It came to me as a surprise that most students in his department were opting for courses that led to jobs in companies in a few prominent industries in the region. As a result, the university and the department were increasingly more interested in hiring faculty who had experience in those subjects. This was not always the case with those students. Five to ten years ago, the student population was not skewed this way. As a result, the department had faculty in almost all areas of study/research. Now that the student population had become so skewed, a number of faculty members have very reduced teaching load. In effect, these faculty members are now becoming “surplus faculty”. Needless to say that their areas of research and scholarship are only remotely related or unrelated to areas in which students are getting placed. Consequently, there is little hiring of faculty members in these areas and it may also have an impact on the number of faculty members who get tenure. Is this good for education and research? What should a university do in such a case? I would say that such an effect of economic forces is not good for education and research. However, in a world that increasingly wants to relate every human activity to some sort of economic force, it can be difficult to make a convincing case for hiring/retaining scholars in those disciplines. As far as what a university should do is concerned, it is not an easy question to answer. It requires administration with vision, foresight and strength to deal with such a scenario. Whatever be the case, it seems that the concept of a university is undergoing evolution and there is a need to choose a path that is least damaging to all/most stakeholders.

Component Problems with Electronic Systems

In Education, Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles on December 30, 2014 at 9:37 PM

It is not surprising to find component problems with electronic systems. I was working with a Zedboard recently and it would just not boot from the supplied SD card. The serial driver was properly installed but the LED would not light up. The host PC’s operating system did not complain about any driver issues. Some members on the Zedboard forum complained about the micro-USB socket problem on the board. In any case, when working with a development or an evaluation board, it can become difficult to diagnose such issues. I tried different SD cards as well but to no use.  My laptop can recognize the SD card but Windows is unable to format it!

This experience makes me feel that it is relatively easier to simulate a design and test it for functional correctness. It is more frustrating when components on a board stop working and you do not know which one. For my case, the SD card could be corrupt, the SD card reader could be corrupt; according to forums, there may be issues with the serial port driver etc. It is not that it is difficult to diagnose the issue. It is just that you have try to isolate the problem by looking at different possible issues one by one. It wastes a lot of time especially when you expect a dev/eval board to be up and running quickly.

One board can take away so much time. Imagine if you have to do this for 20 such boards which is usually the case when such boards are procured for student laboratory exercises! Can’t there be a better way to know the status of components? Perhaps it is time to investigate this!