Artificial Intelligence – a misnomer and a hype ?

While I am writing this article for laymen who may not have the technical knowledge of machine learning and artificial intelligence, I must disclose at the very outset that I have been a researcher myself and used machine learning algorithms for my research which classified the satellite images for the land use – crops, urban land, forests, etc. I have also worked on other kinds of digital images including medical images to find objects. I also have some research publications in conferences and journals to my credit. So, that sets up the authority ! Now, in this blog article, I would argue that there is nothing called artificial intelligence and associating intelligence to a machine is at the most a branding or positioning strategy. I do not have any reservations if you use the word ‘machine intelligence’ but by using the adjective ‘artificial’, you are basically comparing the performance of a machine which just understands 1’s and 0’s to a human being whose brain is so mysterious that we still are not sure how it works. And it is not just the brain, we still do not understand the origin of life. We have not yet been able to document all the flora and fauna on this planet. We still do not know what is there in the interior of the earth. We still have not found the remains of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370. So, it is nothing short of arrogance to use the word ‘artificial intelligence’.

We see a lot of earth movers today by companies like JCB which can replace hundreds of thousands of manual labour. We see busses by companies like Volvo which have sensors and processors that make many decisions more efficiently than human beings. Do we call these machines intelligent? I do not think so. There are two main types of machine learning algorithms. The first type is know as supervised learning where we have some examples of input-output pairs. This is like the socialisation of a child after birth. We are showing the child something and telling what that must be called or how it must be used. By seeing, feeling and using it again and again, the child understands to differentiate between a tiger and a cow. Even after becoming an adult, if you show him or her some extinct animal, he or she will not be able to classify that animal or name it. Machines using supervised learning also suffer from the same disadvantage. But, human beings can come up with novel ways to handle such uncertainty. Machines cannot! The second type is known as unsupervised learning where we do not have examples but we try to find the structure inherent in the data. What is more intriguing though is to understand the source of this structure or pattern. To understand that source and to solve problems which are social, human being is an indispensable link. Machines can only understand numbers and to interpret these numbers as social constructs needs the inventor of these social constructs – The human being.┬á This is the reason there is only one kind of intelligence and that is human. At best, we can say that the intelligence in machines is nothing but glorified automation resulting from the programming of the machine by a human being.

I am definitely not undermining the utility of ‘artificial’ intelligence. All I am saying is that maybe we must use some other word. Machine learning seems to be apt. I also wish host a website where I will list the tasks that human beings can do and which machines cannot. These tasks can act a sort of challenges which machine learning researchers can use.

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IELTS Versus TOEFL ? Which one is better?

I recently took an IELTS test (basically a test of English). These English tests are required sometimes for a visa/immigration or higher studies, etc. By the way, running these standardised tests is very lucrative and they do not distinguish among countries based on purchasing power :). So, everyone ends up paying in dollars or pounds globally.

Now, coming back to this discussion of which is better: IELTS or TOEFL. Based on my experience, I would say TOEFL is a lot better than IELTS because it is conducted more professionally and offers you all the facilities online after you have written the test. Because writing test is one thing, sending those scores to others who evaluate you is another. With respect to the pattern of these two exams, they both test the same skills viz Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The only difference is that in IELTS, you get to write on a piece of paper and speak to a human being face to face. Whereas in TOEFL, you write on a computer and also speak to a computer. What matters is the score and I think computers can be more unbiased. I had a perfect score in IELTS listening and reading which were the objective parts of the examination whereas my writing and speaking scores were not so good because of the inherent subjectivity of the examiners. I wrote IELTS in India and the examiners were also from India. At the time of writing this article, I had not yet received the reviewed scores. Yes, there is an option to get your scores reviewed but you need to pay ­čÖé They however refund your amount if there is a change in the score.

Probably, it is not the money that bothers so much but the process itself. Requesting additional score reports, getting your scores reviewed, etc all need to be done in a very archaic manner. You need to get demand drafts from bank, print and fill an application form, then post it to the British Council. After it reaches them, they then take their own jolly time to do the needful. This can be very excruciating for the candidates. Compare it with TOEFL which is run by ETS. All these things can be done online including the payment. So, it is a quick and hassle free.

Also, the British Council online application for IELTS is a kind of sham I believe. You can actually send your IELTS scores to 4 recipients but during the application, this step is hidden deep beneath and appears only when you tick a particular option. This is a kind of fraud. I thought that they would give me this option to select the score recipients during or after the exam. But, NO! Once the application if filled online and paid for (They somehow accept online payment during application though), you cannot go back and select your score recipients for free. You now have to pay for every score recipient.

In all, I think TOEFL is better for the standardised English test especially for candidates writing it from India.


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Foibles of Democracy

Recently, I watched an interesting movie named ‘Newton’ which is also India’s official nomination for Oscars 2017.┬áIndeed┬áit has been said┬áthat democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to┬átime. India is the largest democracy in the world and we must be proud to be so by sustaining it through free and fair elections and absence of any military coup till date. However, my feelings that we have not done enough to deepen our democracy have come true after watching this movie. Good work by the team on this movie. Kudos to them.

We have started using ‘Electronic Voting Machines’ but the film rightly portrays that many of them do not know anything about the leaders contesting the elections. They are being told to press some ‘symbol’ in exchange for some petty cash or some liquor. The film has portrayed tribals who are unaware of the electoral process and they still look at their own laws as supreme. However, this ‘deepening’ of democracy is not required just for tribals and illiterates, it is also badly needed for the literates many of whom do not even exercise their right to vote or follow up with their elected leader for the betterment of their constituency. In fact, due to employment based migration, many of the voters do not even reside in the constituency.

Some organisations like Association for Democratic Reforms are doing a wonderful job by making necessary information available to the voters. They have also influenced and led many public interest litigations that have brought some welcome judgements from Supreme Court. But due to the sheer size of our democracy, we need more such organisations to work at all levels of our government to make our democracy more lively. One idea that I want to implement is make all the citizens aware of the major provisions of the Constitution of India through street plays and videos enacted in local languages. Another one relates to a web/mobile app for addressing public grievances.

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Is a degree certificate actually needed for employment ?

I think some of them would label me crazy for posing such a weird question. It is taken for granted that a bachelor’s, master’s or a doctoral degree or a certificate is a must to gain employment. We then have industry stalwarts complaining that a majority of undergraduates are not ’employable’. Most of you would agree with me that most of us take admissions into colleges to gain employment. There could be very few who do it just for the sake of gaining ‘knowledge’. Those few would have the luxury of their social capital or accumulated wealth from their past generations.

For those of us laymen who gain admissions into colleges for making a career out of it, the picture is not so rosy, at least in India. I recently read an article which said that more than 30000 Engineering seats in a particular State of India were vacant. Even the so called premier institutes of India which have some Is and Ts in their name also had to conduct multiple rounds for admission. This was bound to happen. There are many fake colleges in India also which are run like ‘family’ business ‘only’ with the intention of making money. Such institutes will vanish from the education domain in the future. Already, the Government of India is framing rules to make it compulsory for Engineering colleges to make sure that every admitted student gets an internship opportunity. They must extend it to an employment offer too.

Put yourself in an entrepreneur’s or employee’s shoes. Why would someone employ you? The answer is simple. Your skills and knowledge ! Someone must get convinced that you will add value (monetary and non-monetary) to the organisation. That is when they decide to employ you and pay you a salary. And by the way, they are not doing a favor to you. They are only increasing their wealth or intend to do so by employing you. The academic degree or certificate that you possess then acts only as a means to narrow down the sample candidates that the organisations like to interview. However, with the advent of internet, the sample space will increase and in fact, the whole universe is open to organisations from where they can employ. Work from home is also an option nowadays. Freelancing is becoming popular.

However, at present, organisations and companies still use academic degrees and certificates as an eligibility criteria for their employment. A better way would be to give everyone an opportunity who has the ability to add value to the company or organisation. That day is not far. I am currently working on an idea of edutainment television channel and a Teaching-Learning-Assessment platform that has the potential to be the next game-changing venture.

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Beyond the syllabus

I am studying around 100 words every day on a wonderful website While I was doing this, an obvious idea struck me. Why were we not equipped with a good vocabulary in our school. It is not just vocabulary. There are so many basic things just like vocabulary that we start chasing at not so apt age just to write some competitive exam. Weren’t these supposed to be implicit in our school study.

A good vocabulary is a prerequisite to forming meaningful sentences and meaningful sentences to form paragraphs and paragraphs to form a coherent article or book or thesis. When I tried to look at why we were not equipped with such a vocabulary or basics, the only answer that I could find is ‘Syllabus’. Our schools focus a lot on syllabus prescribed by some authority. Of course, this is needed to have an uniform evaluation across geographies. Examinations conducted by such authority to an extent act a measuring rod for future career opportunities too.

What is not right is an overemphasis on syllabus at the expense of such basic tools like a good vocabulary. School administrators need to understand that a good vocabulary in turn allows students to understand the syllabus well and also write better answers. I am just using one example of vocabulary but there could be many things like reading books, newspapers, math shortcuts, etc which can be a routine part of the school activities. It is high time that we go ‘beyond’ the syllabus.

There are around 240 school days in a year and 5 words per day can equip a student with 1200 words in a year. I do not want to be an armchair scholar just harping on these things. So, I have gone ahead and started implementing this vocabulary activity in the school ( of which I am a director. Education is my life-mission and I would like to contribute something substantial to the way we educate during this life time.

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Changing the way we ‘school’ ourselves

In this article, I am not going to be as heretical as Ivan Illich whose book ‘Deschooling Society’ (1971) gives examples of the ineffectual nature of institutionalized education. Illich posited self-directed education, supported by social relations in informal arrangements. What I propose is something less extreme than Ivan. I propose that parents and students must have a choice not to be a part of this institutionalized education and still score ‘marks/grades/degree certificates’.

Home is considered as the first school and mother, the first teacher. Before the advent of ‘school’ as we know it today, pupils were ‘educated’ at home, in the fields, in the apprenticeship of someone in the family or close to the family. With the advent of modern schooling, education is said to be ‘outsourced’ from the precincts of the home and family. It is time now to bring back ‘education’ to home again.

In general, Governments all over the world have bureaucratized education by making it compulsory for students to enroll themselves in a ‘registered’ institution to be awarded a completion certificate. We must do away with such a requirement and make it optional to attend schools. All we need is an examination authority at provincial, national and international levels to administer exams and certify the students.

Some courses will need ‘on-hands’ practice and laboratory set up for which sufficient infrastructure can be set up. But, school for 6 days a week is definitely not a necessity. Some may quick to rebut that school provides an atmosphere for bonding but school is not the only place for bonding. Social bonding can happen with your neighbors, with your distant relatives and so on. So, this advantage of bonding is a kind of exaggerated. By making it optional for students to enroll into a school, we will be providing a freedom of choice to the parents and students. In fact, for some classes (or standards), the student may go to a school.

Self explanatory videos can come in handy to allow the students to learn at their own pace and in their comfort zone. Imagine how such videos will be a boon for the kids in our villages, the war torn Syria or conflict ridden Afghanistan.

We need a change of mindset and do away with such bureaucratization of education. Only then can the ‘Right to Education’ really become a right.

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Simplifying Knowledge

It is ironical that we are in the 21st century talking and experiencing artificial intelligence, supersonic jets, cryogenic engines, storing digital information in bacteria and yet our basics and school education is so far fetched from what it should have been. Do we have teachers with perspicuity of the basic concepts? ┬áLet me share with you two of my life experiences. The first one was during my engineering undergraduate degree. Yes, I am an electronics engineer and I am proud to say that I still do not understand perfectly how an amplifier works. I once asked the physical interpretation of Fourier Transform to my professor who happened to have done her PhD in an IIT (more about these institutes with I’s in another blog). Her answer: ‘You are confusing the whole class. Sit down!’.

Second example is that of this gentleman who belonged to some mathematics research institute and he is the recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (awarded to geniuses in basic sciences in India, very popular). He happened to have got this award for his work on complex numbers. After his seminar, I asked him the physical interpretation of complex numbers. My reasoning was if complex numbers are imaginary and not real, why do we worry about them (there is so much in the real world to work on !). His answer: “Your question does not deserve to be answered !”. My befitting response: I just walked away from that seminar room.

Fourier and Laplace did not start with a mathematical equation. They started to solve some problem and then once they found patterns in their solution, they could come up with an equation. Today, we forget the roots and all we have is their equation. Throughout my engineering (bachelors degree), I have just plugged in values in numerical problems and calculated the answers. This is more or less the same for every engineering undergraduate in India, at least the majority of them.

Common ! We can do better. We need to focus on the basic concepts right from school to the college and only then, our demographic dividend will produce higher yields. Unfortunately, demographic dividend in third world countries is restricted to providing mechanical skills which do not require the use of intelligence and such ‘intelligent’ work is left to those in the developed nations.

The way we have organized the knowledge is partly responsible for this fiasco. I hear many people saying that we are fortunate to be living in a world where we have internet and ‘google’. I think that this is not true. Ramanujan, J. C. Bose, Visveswariah were stalwarts in their fields in an age without internet and ‘google’. In fact, ‘google’ has blinded us and our information base today is restricted to what it shows in the first two pages of it’s search results. And, there are professionals (called SEO professionals) who are working hard to make sure that your website is listed on the first two pages). Thus, what we see in the first two pages of search results may many a times satiate our immediate need but never take it for the best response or answer to your question.

We need curated content and knowledge using the best of both artificial intelligence and human capabilities to create an organized knowledge base. Such a knowledge base will be valued more than the Facebook, YouTube, Google and Netflix put together. That is the future of ‘Knowledge Economy’.

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Education as a Source of Mobility

‘God has made us equal’ but unfortunately, we all do not live an equal and decent quality of life. Some do not even have two full meals a day while some have ten to fifteen chefs preparing food for a family of three. It is not my intention to get into inequality in this article. Equal or unequal, we have to be smart enough to identify that the problem of inequality exists and definitely, socialism or communism is not a solution. ‘All isms are lethal’ :).

Caste in India is an ascribed status (something given to you by birth). You are born as a Brahmin and die as a Brahmin. You are born as a Dalit and die as a Dalit unless you ‘sanskritize’ your family. Class which is also a social status can be categorized as low, middle and upper at a broad level though there can be fine distinctions like upper middle class, ultra low and ultra high class. Class is not ascribed. It can be achieved ! And that is good news.

So, how can you achieve or earn this status for yourself which also means earning a decent way of living for you, your family and the generations to come? You will be the pariah to liberate your lineage from the clutches of poverty. One the most realistic and secular way of achieving it is through education and there are umpteen number of examples that I have come across to prove the same.

Upward social mobility, that is moving yourself up the social ladder in terms of class status can be more certain through ‘proper’ education. While you could give examples of those who did not ‘educate’ but still became successful through hard work, fate or a mix of both but those cases are very uncertain and random. Success through education is a given. That is the beauty of education.

Education is a means of mobility open to all – rich, poor, colored, white, low caste, untouchable, men, women, transgender, etc. And education is going to play a very important role in the future meritocratic society and knowledge economy. Having said this, there is a lot to make ‘good’ education accessible to all and reduce the effects of social capital on the kind of education that one can have.

My life-endeavor is towards a goal to make ‘world class’ education available to all and create a service which will be the ‘netflix’, ‘facebook’, ‘youtube’ and ‘google’ of education.

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When is the ideal time to start preparing for UPSC Civil Services Examination

There could be many models where people have succeeded in cracking the civil services examination. Some may attempt this exam immediately after their undergraduate degree, some may work for some years or go for higher studies (post graduate degree) and some others may attempt it while in the final year of their undergraduate degree.

Based on my experience, I will tell you what is the best option based on various scenarios. Most of us would agree that degree colleges and what we study there has very little to do with what we actually do at work. So, the skills that we learn from the trade by being a part of some organisation is what will help us earn our bread (make our living). Campus placements are usually a good gateway to enter some organisation for work experience. Such a work experience also provides exposure to a lot of worldly things. Moreover, it gives you financial independence that can be a very important factor for your success in Civil Services Examination. I personally feel that after your undergraduate degree, you must not depend on your parents for the finances.

Two years of work experience will provide you with enough skills and also savings to sustain the next two years without work. During these years of work experience, you must also develop suitable contacts so that you can switch to work if you do not succeed in Civil Services Examination. The other option in case of failure in Civil Services Examination is a Master’s degree on fellowship through which you can specialize and enter a workplace with added value.

But while you are working for these two years, you must also make sure that you spend an hour or two every day polishing the general skills that are required to succeed in Civil Services Examination. These skills could be your ability to comprehend the national and international events, your ability to write fast enough to complete all questions, your answer writing ability, your handwriting and more.


Having a back up plan is of utmost importance as far as UPSC Civil Services Examination is concerned. I will delve upon it in some other post.


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Tips and Tricks to clear UPSC Civil Services Examination

UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) may be an inefficient and irrational body but one thing that is commendable is that it is NON CORRUPT as far as I know. There are no question paper leakages. You cannot BRIBE a UPSC member and become an IAS officer.

But people have made use of the loopholes in the system and have become officers. UPSC officially does not acknowledge these loopholes but makes changes in the system (after many years). For example, Mains examination answer sheets used to be posted to evaluators at one point of time. Some have misused this loophole. UPSC now gets the answersheets evaluated in its premises under its supervision.

Another loophole is taking some literature subjects as optional papers in Mains examination. There is always a soft corner as the evaluators belong to that particular state and usually they award marks very liberally. Sometimes, you can get 100 marks more compared to other optional subjects and 100 marks is heaven as far as UPSC Mains Examination is concerned. These 100 marks will decide where you stand in the final merit list.

What I am trying to say here is that you must keep ‘rationality’ aside when choosing optional subjects. Just because you are an electrical engineer, do not take Electrical Engineering as your optional subject. Just because Mathematics is interesting to you, do not take Mathematics as optional subject. There are exceptions but very few. Choose only SCORING subjects and safe papers.

Many literature subjects and humanities subjects are scoring. By ‘Safe’, I mean they ask questions which are directly mentioned in the syllabus. More about it in the future posts.

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