sharadsinha

Archive for the ‘Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy’ Category

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!

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.

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.

The Unlikely Places for Electronics Hardware Work

In Embedded Systems, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on June 28, 2014 at 11:27 PM

The world is always changing and big data is changing it in even newer ways. Till a few years ago, no one would have thought that data crunching companies and software companies would get involved in electronics hardware design work. However, that is the case today. Microsoft is building programmable chips and hardware to speed up its Bing search engine (see here  and here). Amazon just released its own smartphone (see here). Companies like Google and Facebook which would typically use custom off the shelf hardware to build their datacenters are now getting involved with real hardware design in order to make their datacenter more power efficient and increase their performance (see here and here). If one were to look at the career openings in these companies, one can find openings for people with electronics or computer hardware design.

On the other hand, if one were to look at companies like IBM, Cisco, Oracle etc. the number of openings in these areas are comparable to those at Google etc. It is no surprise that some industry watchers have begun to wonder if IBM is trying to become Google and Google trying to become IBM. There was a time when IBM did tremendous amount of computer hardware related work, but that is not the case today. A lot of its activities involve work with software.

While companies like Marvell, ST Microelectronics, Infineon etc. continue to work in the hardware domain and supply parts to different players in the electronics ecosystem, companies like Amazon etc. have emerged as the dark horses in this space. They may not be as diverse as Infineon etc. but they are very focused on what they want to do and what they want to offer. Their direction of work is very customer oriented and involves product design which many people like to get involved with.

On Mentors and Mentees

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on July 5, 2013 at 4:58 PM

The traditional Indian education system holds a teacher with the highest regard. A teacher is supposed to not only educate a student but also shape his/her character given  the fact that a significant amount of time is spent by a student in a school. A teacher with profound knowledge and insight and the ability to inspire students is referred to as “Guru”. Of course, times have changed and the education system (schools to universities) is as much a producer for economic forces as much a product of it. By economic forces, I don’t just mean the market forces but also any force that controls the funds and the resources to be allocated. While this interaction is important and probably unavoidable, it has also opened up the system to the vagaries and at times unreasonable demands of these forces on the education system. The effect can be seen on students as well as teachers. Probably, it is those genuinely interested in a well formed education system who experience more the push of those forces and the pull of their innate desire and commitment to the highest standards of teaching and mentorship. And the outcome is not always pleasant or holistically fruitful.

While the term “Guru” has religious origins, its use has permeated every sphere of knowledge and workmanship; now often used in a diluted sense to refer to someone who possesses exceptional knowledge and skills in a particular area.  The English word “Mentor” is the closest in meaning and spirit. A mentor these days faces the same challenges and being a really good mentor takes a lot of effort. But what exactly constitutes good mentorship? Well, there is no one single answer but an ensemble of insights, challenges and skills which forms the answer. Nature, a world renowned science journal, published an article  in 2007 on what all constitute true mentorship. It is based on an award program, named Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science, that it runs to recognize exceptional mentorship in the field of science. It is an excellent read for those interested in this subject. While it is based on inputs from people associated with science, they are so general that anyone in any other field will find them useful.

Weizmann Institute of Science: People-Driven not Number-Driven

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on September 27, 2012 at 11:58 PM

Prof. Daniel Zajfman , President of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science delivered a lecture on How Can a Small Institute for Scientific Research in a Small Country have a Global Impact?” in NTU today. It was a pleasure listening to his ideas of scientific pursuit, academic governance, state of education, research etc. He emphasized a lot on his policy of being “people-driven” in a research or an academic institution. This is in contrast to many other places which are “number driven” as he himself stated. Numbers which are derived from world rankings, amount of grant money, number of citations etc. The model that Weizmann follows puts its people and their ideas first. He was particular about these people being given the freedom to pursue their ideas. According to him, it is important to let his brilliant scientists choose what they think is the next most important thing in research instead of they being dictated by other agencies and other people. And he showed that his model or the model at Weizmann also works and it works extremely well. He showed that research commercialization can be a by product of independent research pursuit instead of research commercialization dictating research. The world has a place for different kinds of models of academic governance and models that are borne out of the culture and the human capital of a place or a country are the ones that can benefit that country/region the most in the long run and will probably contribute to the global advancement of knowledge on a larger scale. This is what he probably meant when he said that he was not in favor of exporting research institutions to other places (for instance a Weizmann campus in Singapore) though he was all for international collaboration. It is good to see that there still exist such places which operate in a different way and have protected their autonomy and freedom from the “market-driven” culture that is slowly permeating different fields in higher education.  It is difficult to argue which one is better because it is extremely complicated but it is good to see that there is space for all and that not everybody has begun to think alike.

Enterprise Collaboration for Research

In Education, Enterprise Collboration in Academia and Research, NTUGSC, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on August 26, 2012 at 12:07 AM

I had submitted a proposal,when I was the President of NTU Graduate Students’ Club(NTUGSC), to establish a campus wide knowledge exchange and research collaboration platform in Oct-Nov. 2011. With the support of Student Affairs Office (SAO) and  Center for IT Systems (CITS) at NTU and Cisco Systems (USA) Pte. Ltd., we just launched the pilot trial of NTU Collaboration platform which is a pilot implementation of Cisco’s WebEx social in NTU. The platform aims to promote innovation, interdisciplinary research, exchange of ideas etc. between students and faculty from different schools. Majority of the pilot users are drawn from the graduate student community. I have been responsible for framing end user requirements specification, promoting the significance of the platform to graduate student community and some associated staff with the help of NTU Graduate Students’ Club. NTUGSC, CITS and Cisco Systems have all been working together as a team to take this project forward. It is hoped that such a platform will increase interaction between students from different schools. We hope to see an increase in productivity in research, generation and sharing of knowledge, social and recreational engagement and the development of a “community feeling” among the students.

Debate in the British House of Commons on Quadratic Equations

In Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on March 28, 2011 at 5:08 PM

Quadratic equation is one of those equations which every student learns during his or her school days. The applications of this equation are numerous and varied and it shows up in different ways in different fields of study (see 1 and 2 for an interesting discourse). It is indeed remarkable and surprising at the same time to find that the British House of Commons debated quadratic equations in 2003 (record of this debate can be found here). The focus of this debate was mathematics education and it was rich in drawing on historical developments and highlighting the importance of mathematics for future technologies.