Archive for the ‘Research and Development’ 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!

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.

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.

Chasing Numbers

In Education, Engineering Principles, Mathematics, Research and Development on September 28, 2014 at 8:35 PM

In his book The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and MisruleNicholas Eberstadt says, “Although he may not always recognize his bondage, modern man lives under a tyranny of numbers.” Other writers have also commented on how and why numbers alone cannot make us happy and how numbers can be both enlightening as well as confusing if not presented with the right kind of background information. This is very true with research literature, specially those pertaining to engineering and science disciplines where measurement plays a very important role in conveying one’s ideas to convince someone of their importance. I see this everyday when I read research papers. Sometimes I even see numbers and graphs which seemingly do not have any major relation to the central idea of the paper. Such numbers, graphs and tables are byproducts of primary measurement but are probably included with the hope that more numbers, graphs etc. make the papers not only look good but also appear convincing. Given the very short amount of time that most reviewers spend on a paper, it is only sometimes that one finds reviewers commenting on the unnecessary usage of such secondary artifacts. However, a cursory glance does make the paper look good and does give the impression that the authors have spent time analyzing their results (though this may not be the case).

When I see such papers I am reminded of Eberstadt’s statement. It makes me wonder if engineering and science people read papers and books from the field of social science or history or say English literature. Research is conducted even in these disciplines and data is also collected and analysed where needed. However, the force of the argument generally comes from rigorous analysis and reasoning. It is not always driven by the logic that since this paper achieves number X compared to number Y (where say Y is less than X), the proposed methodology is better than the one related to number Y. I have read Diffusion of Innovation by Everett M. Rogers and I have found it to be immensely enlightening. It not only uses numbers but also the force of reasoning. This is so strong that you begin to see what the author is trying to say. I wonder how, say a computer engineering scientist would review a sociology research paper.

Have you ever tried reviewing a paper or a book outside of your major discipline and trying to understand its logical progression?

Do you read User Guides?

In Design Methodologies, Education, Embedded Systems, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on May 14, 2014 at 6:32 PM

I am a member of LinkedIn and like many of you am also a member of quite a few LinkedIn groups. The good thing about LinkedIn groups is that the discussions remain professional in tone and content. This is why I like them compared to discussions on other social media platforms where they can vary in tone and content from the most professional to the most ridiculous. In a discussion on such a LinkedIn forum meant for engineers, someone admitted that very few engineers or users of tech tools read the user guides. This is not far from reality. I have seen this when I interacted with practicing engineers on a more regular basis than now. I also see it in academic life.

Personally, I find user guides of development boards, software and hardware tools extremely useful. Reading them once gives me enough confidence in extracting the best out of these tools. For instance, user guides of FPGA vendor providers are very helpful and I am more confident about my design after having referred to the user guide at least once though often these guides can be voluminous. I guess the verbosity of these guides is one main reason why people don’t feel like reading them. The other reason, I think, is the propensity of many practicing engineers, graduate students and others to get  their hands dirty as soon as possible. They want to write code, design a circuit, run simulations etc. without getting bored reading these guides. While this enthusiasm to start working is worth appreciation, ignoring the “reading” part leads to problems later on in the product development process, research methods and has the potential to creep into the results. Basically, this haste leaves one vulnerable to questioning at a later stage. Sometimes this can prove very costly as well especially if it is related to product development. Of course one can always talk about pressure for results from managers, supervisors, customers etc.; this is not a very good excuse. Good managers etc. also understand the importance of being abreast with background information.

Is this issue observed more in the engineering industry than say banking or insurance sectors or for that matter safety critical engineering domains? Perhaps. Engineers take great pride in fixing things. They can use patches for software, make new releases, change components or simply replace the product.  However, bankers and insurers cannot do much once money is gone. The fear of losing money is too great to sustain the dislike for reading guides, whitepapers etc. Similarly those involved with safety critical engineering domains are more mindful about liability issues that aversion to poring over thick user guides is probably a non-issue.

One can also argue that  the presentation style of many user guides is quite boring. I agree when you compare with things that provide “instant thrill” thus leading to a desire to know more. User guides do not provide that thrill but writing code, experimenting with a development board etc. does give a lot of thrill to many engineers. Nevertheless, when it comes to getting a job done properly, there is no other choice but to sweat it out! 🙂

Communication Skills for User Interaction

In Design Methodologies, Engineering Principles, Research and Development on April 12, 2014 at 9:06 PM

I recently used the IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system of an organization tasked with issuing identity cards to citizens. An IVR system is supposed to improve customer experience besides helping the organization in managing complaints,requests etc. Therefore,it plays a very important role. An IVR system comprises one or multiple menus which are read out to a caller who then has to select one of the options. Interestingly, sometimes there are just so many options that one just loses tracks. It also happens when the “menu items” do not sound similar to what the called user has in mind. So what do you do? You just navigate to the one that sounds closest  to what you had in mind and hope that it will solve your problem or you wait for the option to talk to a staff on the other side!

The IVR system that I referred to earlier had peculiar issues. If you selected the option that said something similar to “I would like to know if I need to reapply”, you would expect it to prompt you to give some information based on which you would be told “whether or not” you should reapply. However, this IVR system would give the response similar to “Please do not reapply as it is not desirable to have two identity numbers”. Now how on earth is that helpful?

The IVR system of a prominent smartphone company would give some even more hilarious responses. When you call the number hoping to find a relevant menu or speak to someone, it would tell you something similar to “Please visit our website to resolve your issue”. Now imagine that for some reason you do not have access to internet, then is that response of any help? Absolutely not.

This begs the question about the people (engineers, manager, UI guys etc.) involved in designing IVR systems. Do they really understand how people use a language to communicate? Do they spend some time understanding the common phrases that people use to refer to their issues and then distill a subset that they can use in their system? Do they spend time brainstorming proper responses to different kinds of questions? A good IVR system is not just a software development exercise. It involves understanding about communication and is affected by the communication skills of the team doing the design. Similarly, an IVR system with multiple menus and sub-menus can get difficult to navigate especially for old people. Does the design team understand who the end users are and what kind of communication skills they have? I think these are important questions that should be considered. An IVR system is supposed to provide an easy solution to a user. It should be simple, straight and elegant.

Technology Innovation and Unemployment

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Research and Development on September 30, 2013 at 12:48 AM

Automation has increased productivity in many areas. If you look at the assembly line or shop floor of a car manufacturer, you will see automation in its full might. Though you will still find a certain number of workers, their number is far less compared to pre-automation days. You may have also come across call center staff who deal with queries related to insurance, bank related tasks etc. Most of these queries are routine in nature and it is the same kind of information that the staff has to provide to the callers. There is recent news that companies like IPsoft are providing artificial intelligence based virtual call center staff to handle such queries. This is expected to reduce the number of people required in BPOs and call centers. 

An aprocryphal tale is about a conversation between Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther. The former was the head of Ford Motor Company while the latter controlled its union. When Ford asked Reuther how he would make robots pay union dues, Reuther asked in return if Ford could make his robots buy cars. Ford got the point that any increase in productivity has to be met with an increase in the number of consumers. Ford raised the salary of his staff so that they could afford to buy cars. 

Do you think that an increasing rate of technological innovation can lead to rise in unemployment? If you believe in this, you probably believe in Luddite Fallacy. I would rather suggest to be open to debates on this issue. This issue is far from resolved and new insights keep coming now and then. Two opposing views on this issue can be found here and here published in The Economist and Forbes respectively.

Given the fact that many engineers work on systems which are meant to increase productivity, provide better services, it is only relevant to have a look at an aspect of economics and social change that they are seldom concerned with. It is not so much about questioning what they do rather it is more about understanding the mysterious ways in which the world moves!