3 Times Machine Learning gave me the goosebumps!

My kid loves a storybook by the name of “The Gruffalo…” A mouse walking through a jungle meets a series of predators. He escapes each and every one of them by making up stories of a non-existent creature called a “Gruffalo” and scares them away. There is a twist though – creature is for real!! The mouse manages to pretend his way and get out of the pickle – the little brat outsmarts his own creation 😅

I wonder sometimes if AI / ML is like a Gruffalo! Frankly most of the hype around it seems make-belief. The biggest disservice to the field of machine learning is actually this word called AI. It promotes fear that AI will trounce humans or will one day take over the world. We at least today seem to be far from such a dystopian scenario. Almost all science community agrees that we are far away from achieving AGI or Artifical general intelligence or what is also popularly referred to as the ‘singularity’.

Let us extend the Gruffalo metaphor a bit – while most agree about the wrongness of fear mongering on AI, we should be open to precaution. Perhaps the creature is not make belief after all! Very recently I have come across 3 things that have given me the creeps when it comes to what machine learning can become!!

1. Reinforcement learning agents learn how to use tools and form strategies without additional programming

Elon Musk’s Open AI just released a paper in which they describe a simulated training environment in which they make agents (RIL) play a game of hide and seek. The environment progressively introduces 6 strategies and counterstrategies. What they observed was incredible, they observed emergent complex tool usage. As an example, hiding agents using boxes to block doors so that they cannot be discovered by seeker agents. Seeking agents using ramps to jump over obstacles, hiders using ramps and hiding them in rooms to prevent them from being used for jumping over by seekers. If this type of “completely unprogrammed” behaviour is not intelligence then I don’t know what is! Please read a blog post by OpenAI here.

2. Google Duplex RNNs enable a natural sounding calling service for restaurant bookings etc was out of this world – borderline spooky as well.

https://youtu.be/ijwHj2HaOT0

This is the first time synthetic speech was indistinguishable from human speech. To use it, improvise it and do it at Google scale was simply an incredible feat for speech synthesis, natural language understanding and processing and apparently a factory of human agents as well 😄 jokes aside this really gave me goose bumps. Google uses RNNs for this. See conceptual architecture and the link to original Google blog here.

3. Breakthrough language model GPT 2 released recently by OpenAI achieves state of the art performance on many language processing benchmarks and performs rudimentary machine translation, comprehension and summaries

I don’t think people appreciate how much of a big deal this is. Basically you feed the model some seed and it generates many many paragraphs of coherent human like text on its own, replete with stories, meaning and full sense. If you read it you will not believe that an AI wrote it. I have previously written about how tech / social is being misused. You add this and you have a frankenstein-ish monster on your hands. This can be used to generate fake news en masse and it would be really hard to detect. It can be used to impersonate people, for identity theft and many more. On a positive side it will make bots, writing assistants translation, and knowledge systems remarkably useful and human like! For an AI that is the ultimate goal. See an example below from openAI original blog post.

SYSTEM PROMPT (HUMAN-WRITTEN)

In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.

MODEL COMPLETION (MACHINE-WRITTEN, 10 TRIES)

The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.

Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

While it is impossible to list down many incredible feats achieved in this path breaking tech, I wanted to cite a few examples that gave me the goose bumps. Perhaps if you are interested you should also check out DeepFakes and MuseNet and do share in comments what did you find exciting.

I believe we are looking at building blocks of higher intelligence getting better and better, you could say we are helping machines evolve faster in their own right – but most still believe we are far away from AGI, or singularity… But are we?

Ps. This blog post was written by a human, and if you don’t believe it, ask Gruffalo 😅

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Home is where the heart is…

Copyright to the original owner

Wow!! 2.5 years have passed and I haven’t written a thing.

Hey but many of you know what it’s like to have a 2 and a half year old right?

You’re completely exhausted. Practically dead, but it’s finally bedtime.

You lay down, pull up the covers, head hits the pillow.

Instantly the baby starts crying. @austen CEO, Lamda school

Not as bad for me now but its true! Babies are side projects that will test you to your physical, and psychological limit. Its one of those times in your life when you have new found appreciation for your parents. Thanks mom and dad for putting up with me!!

Hey and by the way it’s been 2.5 years since I moved back to India. The ride so far has been exhilarating, exhausting and simply humbling. I want to take you down to the moment I realised I was going back to India. It was actually one such sleepless night when Anik had been crying for more than 3 hours straight, there was nothing wrong with him, just a stressful night. If you don’t have kids, please remember this –

human brains are wired to respond to the cries of babies, unlike anything else. You cannot ignore it, the stress hormones will kick in. Just ride it out. People worry about labour ☺️ but with all due respect later part is harder.

Anyway the constant screaming was constantly making me think and introspect. I was quickly able to reach a conclusion that some unresolved thoughts in my mind were beginning to surface during that stressful situation.

Your mind races fast during such times – it runs multitude of scenarios like in a simulation. In a minute, you weigh your options. You think about what is important to you and what is not important to you.

there I had it!! I concluded that I would be a stronger person had I been with my family. I wanted the option of seeing my parents when I wanted. I wanted my son to truly have grandparents, cousins and an extended family and not speak with them on just FaceTime. I wanted to spend time with my parents and for Deepika to spend time with her mother, not when they are critically ill but when they were happy and fine. I have met so many people that live with regret of having prioritised their careers over their happiness or family. One of the mental models I follow in life is to ensure I live with no regrets (much as humanly possible), I was certainly not going to live with this one. Next morning I had a long discussion with Deepika, with my mentors and my trusted friends, and it was sealed. We were moving back. A lot of things transpired between now and then, finding roles, switching countries, houses, jobs, vehicles, you get the drift ☺️

Chapter 2 😬 I have lived most of my life in Pune, coming back shouldn’t have been very challenging but boy I was wrong. We were a family now. With home and office in 2 different parts of the city, and the terrible traffic meant that I had to move closer to work. Setup a new house, and everything. It all fell in place after some (actually lots of) effort. We even fell ill a lot during the first year or so but we made it alright. We are certainly happier – Anik has grandparents he can see whenever he wants, he has cousins, we have family get togethers, Deepika and I get to see old friends and yes the Sun makes a whole lot of difference ☀️!

Professionally this was a roller coaster but a really fun one. As I mentioned, the decision to move back was personal so I was bound to have fewer choices on the professional front that too self limited by a city. India is a wonderful place to work, it is the fastest growing economy in the world, and Pune was recently ranked as the most livable city in India. Minus traffic and some air / noise pollution woes it is a sunny “Paradiso”. Pune is home to one of the most iconic IT industry corridors in India. While I had the option to continue with Vodafone, I chose to go back to Barclays as I found a better fit and a greater challenge there. My Pune role has been a brilliant change – even though it was Barclays with a 8 year history I came from a commercial role to a tech role, I changed from a product owner to an engineering role. However my tech background and well established networks were immensely helpful. I have so far managed to build with support from our amazing leadership one of the best machine learning teams in Barclays and have also recently been working on building an India arm for our Barclays Ventures division. Its a big deal and my team and management has nothing but kind to me.

It’s been almost 3 years since I moved back I have also made 3-4 trips to London since but there is only positive reaffirmation.

My mind feels lighter, there are no regrets, no burden or as they say, home is where the heart is or in this case just a little left of center.

Copyright to the owner Mandira

Trojan Horse 3.0

A Trojan horse – usually an eavesdropping kind of a computer virus, or as some of you may know the mythological wooden horse with hidden warriors inside used by the Greek to end the siege of city of Troy. I think the brilliant metaphor continues to evolve and its latest incarnation is social media! Specifically, the rampant mis-information on social media.

Don’t worry I am not asking you to give up your WhatsApp! However with great power comes great responsibility according to Voltaire or Spiderman 🙂 depending on whose philosophy you follow. I strongly believe that Social media is being used as a Trojan horse to manipulate and literally hack into the minds of billions of people. We need to do something about it.  Social media is probably as profound an invention as the internet itself. However, I believe it is a huge contributor to some crises of our times. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of world-wide-web, highlights these challenges in 3 parts. First, we have lost control of our personal data (huge topic, not for now). Second, it’s too easy to spread misinformation (a.k.a. Trojan horse 3.0) and third,  political advertising needs transparency and understanding. In this blog post, I share my perspectives.

  1. People are the biggest subjects of mass internet adoption & social media

The first apparent signs were seen in Arab spring. People used social to rally public opinion and an uprising. We began to see fundamental impact in Tunisia and other places. Fast forward to today – Brexit is a reality, despite our utter disbelief. Donald Trump got elected on a super controversial and rather ingenious campaign. Most people are still gobsmacked by these results.  These movements have been enabled by social media. Can anyone predict what are the long-term consequences of these events? One thing is certain, the reductionist narratives are succeeding far more than they used to. Savvy people who know how to manipulate social media are grabbing power. The future,   to say the least looks very much on an edge. How did we let this happen?

2. Majority of people do not verify facts, and are prone to cognitive bias. We need to acknowledge this, without an excuse

Most people look at a headline online and assume it must be true. People look at an internet meme negatively associating someone with a crime, and over time, they think it must be true. We are not the most logical creatures we think we are, we are prone to errors of judgement all the time. Information bias, confirmation bias, belief bias, ambiguity bias, conjunction fallacy and more are known pitfalls of our own cognition. These make us an easy prey when we are faced with complex social decision. We favour simple looking options and complete information over complex options and incomplete information – often ignoring truth or facts in the process. Ironically, real world is often full of complex options and incomplete information. Consider Brexit. People were given simple options (In or out), and total but apparently complete mis-information i.e. we go out of EU and we get back £350m a week, we keep single market access, and we are in control of free movement – sounds awesome, right? well except it was not a fact. This red-bus photo or similar ones were distributed and seen millions of times, thanks to social media.

brexit-bus
Courtesy : mojoworking.eu
Reality however, turned out far more complex. We have heard ridiculous red, blue or white Brexit, hard-brexit, a “deep and special” partnership, god knows what this all means in future but people voted nonetheless!

 

 

 

3. There is no silver bullet to address the root cause, however we can make a good start with a transparency movement, and a sufficiently strong industry response to this phenomenon

With billions of people X times the content, it is literally impossible to police everything. I have seen algorithms and AI tasked with identifying “bad” stuff, but it is also well known that algorithms are probably even more biased than human beings and are prone to manipulation. Perhaps, a good start would be to start with a transparency movement – Google has made a good start by including a fact checker on some of its content.

google_fact_check
Courtesy : Thisinsider.com 
At least it will act as a warning sign to not take information at the face value – others should follow suit. In fact, I believe with Google and Facebook pretty much controlling most of the products in question, there should be a strong industry response translating in explicit features such as the one describe above, online ads reminding people, awareness campaigns and TV commercials.

 

Ultimately though, we do not believe everything a stranger tells us in the real world, we use discretion. Why should the virtual world be an exception?!

Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think in the comments section.

Smartphone is now officially boring. Wait, that can be a good thing!!

The rumour is true. When was the last time you got really excited watching a smartphone launch? I bet it was a long time ago. Even the once highly sought after leaks are all too lacklustre these days. I love to be on Twitter during a major launch event and watch some really funny mock-tweets. It has got to a point where people don’t even know the difference. They just love Apple and buy! see one of the Jimmy Kimmel creations below!

In all seriousness though, we all know that smartphones have transformed the world. Growth in smartphone base, number of apps, and the amount time people spend on the apps is just staggering. This is true despite seeming lack of innovation. I highly recommend reading this blog post. It highlights that Apple & Google are now unassailable until the next S curve is here. AR, VR, AI, voice and chatbot may all turn out to be a thing, but that may not affect the S Curve of the Smartphone. In fact, as the unit growth in smartphone continues, Apple and Google will focus more on improving software, experience and the ecosystem. The massively increased share of revenue via app stores, is certainly a leading indicator of this shift. The reason I say the slow innovation is a good thing is because I believe it is an opportunity for Enterprises. They can focus now more than ever to catch-up on the incredibly challenging task of gaining, keeping and transacting with customers on Mobile. In fact, I strongly believe that many enterprises need to re-think their very perspectives on this.

We need to stop thinking of Mobile as “an interface” and think of it as “the interface” and invest sufficiently, where it matters

Imagine, a fictitious sandwich company that wants to leverage mobile. Sounds like a great idea. You can build an app to enable ordering, delivery, streamline payments, click-to-buy and a host of other things. Alright, assume you have a great app and a fantastic user experience but think about it for a second. How many of us will care to download the Sandwich company app, and even if we did, how many will use it or keep it without deleting? With almost zero footprint of user’s attention, it is incredibly hard.  Even more so for a sandwich company! Business, technology and operational complexity even in a sandwich business is significant, and it would be foolish to suggest that there is one strategy. However I believe, as enterprises strive to leverage mobile they need to consider the following 3 key dimensions. Attention, interaction and transaction. If we consider economics of an app based commerce, we can assume for most businesses it means lower costs, increased margins and potentially great 1-1 customer experience. This is very foundation of e-commerce, so nothing new here; but apart from having a great product, I believe we need to incentivise customers along these dimensions.

Attention

Unless you are Snapchat and you can make a rainbow jump out of people’s mouth, there needs to be londonist32_4a compelling incentive for customers to even notice your app. Some offers are simply not good enough – for instance “a chance to win X” or “a chance to win trip to Y”. We can do better! something tangible, of real benefit to the customer.
Best fulfilled in context and instantly. For the sandwich company for example – 40% off your first purchase, or £5 credit on first usage. Nothing new here, most mobile native start-ups do this, so I wouldn’t dwell on it too much.

Interaction

How many times a day do you expect people to open the sandwich app? In order to continue to occupy people’s mind-space, we need to incentivise the customer regularly for visiting the app. I understand that this is easier said than done. Obviously some app categories don’t need this kind of interaction incentive. For instance, great content e.g. Netflix, ultimate productivity e.g. Dropbox, Social e.g. Instagram, to name a few.  So, interaction incentive is when you give something to the user for coming back to the app. Some games do this really well – every time you stop playing but come back to the game after some time, you get free virtual coins. 7bbe7d884987539834f8d9780cc1a3dd_send-me-a-candy-crush-meme-candy-crush_510-522Depending on the nature of business you can decide the frequency of your incentive. For instance, the sandwich company could do one of their best deals exclusively for app users every 2 weeks. Obviously all needs to make commercial sense – generally though customer retention cost is less than acquisition cost and there can always be limited number of deals. Oh and there is word-of-mouth! invite a friend and both get credit. Remember Uber? Virulence is an important feature that needs to be built in to the app. It is expensive though! You could build social invites too. We all hate random invitations on Facebook, something to keep in mind!

 

Transaction

This is the holy grail. Assume that customer downloads the app, interacts with it regularly to redeem your generous incentives. How do you ensure they transact? Well firstly, the sandwich better be good, the ordering, payment, click-to-collect all needs to “just work”. That often is not enough, we still need to incentivise. FreeCharge-Mobile-AppYou might think we’d be out of business after giving so much away in offers. However, with added volume of transactions, you will realise that it almost always makes commercial sense. Otherwise Starbucks wouldn’t do it – collecting stars on the app whilst having the ability to cut the queue is simply fantastic. So, how about an app exclusive loyalty program for our sandwich company? There can be a mix of options – coupons, points, virtual currency, or simply cashback. It is needless to say that apart from offering direct incentives, your app can just create magic through experience that cuts the time and effort it takes for customers to transact or reduces anxiety associated with the transaction. Invisible payments (Uber), cutting the queue (Starbucks), live waiting times (Citymapper), real time tracking (Dominos) are all fantastic examples.

To sum up, I believe that whilst its not necessary to pester the users with deals & offers enterprises must make explicit effort to address the attention, interaction and transaction barriers when they think about their adoption and engagement strategy. While we hit the maturity curve of smartphone product lifecycle, it is now more important than ever for enterprises to catch-up.

A small disclaimer – I realise any generalising is dangerous & this may or may not apply for everyone. Thanks a lot for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section.

 

New beginnings

The force of change I have experienced over last few months is simply incredible. 

“You are crazy, Abhi!”, Andy said. Care to tell me why? I quipped. 

My ex-boss & a great mentor Andy (your identity is safe Andy!) was merely trying to tell me that what I was about to go through are usually the 3 most stressful events in one’s life. Of course they were.

  • Change of career (and an industry) – check
  • Go through having a baby – check
  • Move into a new home – had plans but thought better of it 😄

Andy was right, it has been stressful, but at the same time most wonderful and memorable few months. On November 25’th, Deepika and I were blessed with a baby boy. Anik our bundle of joy is the best thing to have happened to us. Although for now, he loves to party all night 🙂 talk about following his Dad’s footsteps!

 

I have been told its normal and like all other things it shall pass. In return, Deepika and I have high expectations of him. 

We would like Anik to invent the “warp drive”!! you know, humanity’s future is in the stars 😃

On the career front, I am very grateful to have had a long and successful career with Barclays. Over the years I made a few significant career moves. I had a chance to build some wonderful things for our customers,  as well as contribute to some really cutting edge innovations. I worked with many wonderful people and have grown tremendously as a professional. Moreover, I have been able to count on a few amazing mentors for a word of advise at every crucial step.  I have also made a few friends for life and have learnt many valuable lessons along the way. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back all over those years, I  feel a sense of pride and nostalgia. Barclays will always be near and dear to me.

My first 4 months with Vodafone have been amazing. 

An iconic brand sure, but what I didn’t appreciate was its amazing history with over 460+ million customers worldwide. The global scale is just mind-boggling. 

Also, with an ever increasing smartphone base, our mobile app is truly transforming how customers interact with Vodafone. At the outset, it feels like an exciting race between customer expectations and transformation of experience. In last 3 months I visited some Vodafone markets, and plan to visit more this year – very excited by how much opportunity the scale presents. Every country offers a case study for growth and a challenge in commercial strategy. In a nutshell, super interesting stuff!! Andressen Horowitz has a famous quote, “Software is eating the world” and now that has turned into “Mobile is eating the world”. With overwhelming evidence that it is true, obviously I am finding it super interesting being in the “kitchen” here at Vodafone, metaphorically speaking, of-course.

Until next post, I wish you all a wonderful 2017!

Curious case of chasing the sunshine, yet missing the rainbow…

Its been a good summer, wouldn’t you agree? Its funny how I have become obsessed about weather since I moved to London. I have always been amused by the amount of attention weather gets in casual conversations here, but I get it now. In fact, I enjoy moaning about grey days (a LOT) and raving about sunshine (about twice a year :)). Given enough time, I may even flock to the parks all packed with a picnic lunch, and braving the underground with my sunglasses on.

family-63376_1280
A Summer Day in London Parks

 

There are scientifically proven links between mood and weather. According to a study, about 27% of people hate summer!? It causes them irritability and general unhappiness. Wait, what? apparently they truly exist. BBC too, recently reported a project trying to measure link between pain and weather. In a nutshell, it is more than conceivable that weather does affect our thoughts. In fact, in some crazy unsubstantiated theories it is even believed that thoughts affect weather. I want to draw your attention to a certain dichotomy of human desires that is represented perfectly in how we perceive weather. On a cold, wet and grey afternoon, we long to see some sunshine whereas on a hot dry and bright summer day, we secretly desire a cold breeze of fresh air. To some extent, it is human nature – we cannot help it!

Undoubtedly, there is a weather system at our workplaces too – right? While leaders do not have the ability to control the weather system outside in the park, they can definitely influence the one at work. A team or an organisation goes through a rough patch every now and then. This winter (sometimes long) can be taxing for your teams. As a leader, you need to provide your team with the warmth of positive affirmation of their accomplishments and you need to provide them with the shelter and safety of your trust. If a leader is trusted, people are rarely insecure with the rough weather. There are times when a team or an organisation is going through a growth spurt, or a “spring”. You must invest more in the team during this period – not only hiring but developing people, skills and their careers. If your best talent feels appreciated, you can be assured of good returns during the “fall”. When success comes, it may feel like “summer” and its time for leaders to reflect on what worked best, and what did not. Leaders should think about how to incorporate this into their plans for next set of seasons. In summary, a great leader can actually be a weather master, allowing positive impact of all situations. John Ruskin puts it beautifully –

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

John Ruskin

In my experience, we chase sunshine all our lives but we often forget how beautiful a rainbow is. With the right attitude, we can create the perfect golden sunshine on one side and refreshing rain playing like a joyful child on the other, perhaps that is where amazing colours of life come from?

rainbow-436171_1920

Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Do we need a JFK moment in our Space exploration?

May 25th 1961 or precisely 55 years, 3 months and 7 days ago;  in a historic address to the US Congress, President John F Kennedy set an unprecedented goal for a nation. A goal that would challenge, push to the limit and test the very spirit and ambition of mankind. An ambition that not only made the manned lunar missions possible but also unleashed a number of tech advances taken for granted today.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish..”

– US President John F Kennedy

Laptops, virtual reality, 3D graphics, modern solar cells, global positioning system – all were a result of this space race. Many decades later, humanity has made great progress in space. However as a space faring civilisation our accomplishments are relatively modest. Modern day visionaries like Elon Musk are working on grand ambitions to get colonies on Mars. Even though the path to get there is laced with failure.  Only today I learnt of Space X’s Falcon vehicle being destroyed, incinerating a new Facebook built satellite with it.

I think funding is a fundamental issue. No country is spending a huge amount of money on Space exploration and with the exception of SpaceX the private space exploration is still very nascent.

Screenshot_2016_09_01_23_57_14@2x
National Space Budgets
I wonder why. See the chart here from Wiki. It is astounding – even NASA, the largest in the pack spends less than 1% of US GDP on space. In comparison, venture capital backed companies received a total of $68 Billion in funding in 2015 in the US alone and… wait for it… the US military defence budget was a whopping $600 Billion in 2015!! That is inconceivable to me. I guess in today’s capitalist world, space exploration does not yield a sufficient ROI. What about second and third order ROI of a much aggressive space exploration policy? JFK had the vision to see these, why don’t we?

I believe as a civilisation we need to set ourselves much bolder goals, and a much stronger vision. We should colonise planets, send out manned deep space missions and invest heavily in space propulsion technology. I know there are many problems on earth, almost too many. It is hard to divert precious time and resources to something that may not have immediate value or applications. However time is witness – inward looking civilisations – however advanced for their time hdbee5e8b800eff204250eb94e59e3aa3ave perished in history books. We have got to be different, we have got to work together and inspire the new generation of scientists, engineers and young citizens. I do believe though that in order for this status-quo to change, we probably need a turning point – it may not be a far fetched imagination that our civilisation will not set our differences aside unless we face a more fundamental reality of our existence in the Universe.

 Lets hope that reality unites us sooner than later. Thanks for reading, and in words of Spock – 

“Live Long… and Prosper”
🙂