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.

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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”
ūüôā

 

 

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Bot(x+ai) Рchat = future? 

You are right, computers aren’t all that smart, not yet. A¬†few¬†real world machine learning ¬† applications have made¬†a debut on our smartphones. For instance, your photos app¬†now recognises that you were¬†with a dog at the¬†park. Google photos and the iOS 10 photos both have similar search and classification features. Another example, is my SwiftKey keyboard;¬†it uses machine learning to vastly improve auto-completion, and next word prediction. So much so, that¬†many times it¬†completes literally whole sentences while¬†typing. Now, that’s pretty great and machine learning has come a long way. So what? we love asking this question and rightly so! Different tech companies¬†have slightly different bets¬†to answer this question. However, there seem to be some underlying themes. For example, Bots as a theme has begun gaining traction a lot recently. Especially since Facebook launched “chatbots” a few months ago.

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Notice the spike in Google Trends for Bots (in RED) in April 2016 when Facebook announced chat bots for developers

Google followed with Duo and Allo, and we know that WeChat has been doing this for a while too. Conversational UI, assistant, chat based commerce and all that is apparently the “next big thing”. But is it? What does experience tell us? ¬†well as Ben Evans nicely puts it in his blog –

Are assistants just a bunch of “if-else-then statements”? see original blog post here¬†(open in a new page)

From my experience of using a Facebook messenger chat bot, it would appear so, it is NOT intelligent. Period. Perhaps one day, it will get there. Oh yes, and there is the Uber integration. Have you heard of a newly launched platform that does not have a sexy means to call you an Uber? Alexa, call me an Uber, Google Home Call me an Uber, Facebook bot, yada yada… Enough with the Uber already. I quite like the concept of chat, don’t get me wrong but as Ben Evan’s blog nicely highlights, the magic dissipates as soon as the algorithm starts asking you too many questions. In the short term though, the fact that my Google photos can figure out my Christo Redeemer photos without me labelling them is definitely magic. It happens without me having to chat with anyone, or without providing any significant user input.

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Google magically finds my Christo Redeemer photos!

So, lets recap. Machine learning is great, but its not so great that it can converse with us and create magic yet.

I believe the real magic¬†is somewhere else and we should not get distracted by the user interface such as chat. As the title of this post suggests, we should rather take a real world problem, let’s say “making a shopping¬†list” and apply machine learning till the algorithm¬†matches or surpasses human abilities at solving for the task. For instance, looking through your regular shopping¬†lists and when you want stuff, can the algorithm automatically predict what you need every other week? That would be awesome. Finally, for gods sake do not chat with the user. Chat requires too much user input and my bet is on applications that make the input invisible real fast. Imagine that our machine learning shopping list app¬†just gently notifies the user his or her auto-populated shopping list. Yes, you can then send it straight to Amazon fresh and order stuff at the push of a button. Simple, right? I know!! I appreciate it is a very hard problem to solve – but in my book it would definitely be magic.¬†I am not the only one to say this, a lot of Silicon Valley pundits say that the next wave of startups would take a problem, and add AI. Thats what I find exciting about the future –

I am happy to be proven wrong, but hopefully we can do away with chatbots until they can truly become magical.

 

Ps. for any VC’s willing to fund my shopping list idea, do reach out at @abhinandanshah or the comments section ūüôā

For now, bot out…

5 tell-tale signs from iOS10 announcements @WWDC2016

Here is a summary of iOS10¬†features¬†apple announced today at WWDC2016. At Apple announcements, I¬†often¬†oscillate between * yawn, incremental updates * and * Hey cool!*. I was in the second camp today. This is a well known fact and Apple has proven it again; it is not always first to release a feature, however it is extremely smart at integrating new stuff¬†within it’s ecosystem. Kudos, Apple!

Let us look at 5 tell-tale signs, and my interpretation of what technology trends it bets on

  1. #SiriIsNowOpenForBusiness

sirifullmac2

Alexa, Google Home, and the annoying Siri that doesn’t even recognise you when you say “Hey Siri”. Assistants are a plenty these days. Okay, I know it maybe my accent, but there are lots of complaints about Siri! Today marks the day when Apple has finally opened up Siri to developers and yes to Mac devices. Every single app developer will now be able to add Siri integrations, how powerful is that? this move alone can potentially deal a huge blow to Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Plus, we are more closer to a phone these days than to a device that may or may not be sitting a corner of our house. Also, who wants to shell out another $200? Impeccable timing! I hope they fix “Hey Siri” too though.

Tech trend : assistants are here to say, and apple has announced its entry in-style. Combined power of apple developer ecosystem will really make it useful – well done, Apple!

2. #LockScreenHasBeenUnlocked

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Courtsey / thenextweb.com

The Home Screen finally looks alive. Apple has completely re-designed the way you interact with Home Screen. You can pick up the screen to wake the phone, and you can interact with notifications in a really¬†rich way. Swipe left and you can get to widgets and swipe right will get you to the camera. Simple but powerful features. I didn’t use widgets as much, now I might. Plus 3D touch an app and it gives you a widget like experience. This is really cool and feels like is designed to get adoption on both 3D touch and widgets which seem to have been¬†missing a trick so far. Imagine, you can order an Uber using Siri, and then track the status using the widget on your lock screen. Never need to open the app.

Tech trend : Our interactions will slowly become less cluttered,¬†notification fatigue will reduce, and lock-screen will become our favourite hangout. Major departure from “app as an interaction point”

3. #MapsThatDoMore

Apple has opened Apple Maps to developers. What else could it do? People were hardly ever using it (judging from a limited sample of observed behaviours). Google Maps is popular not just because of quality of maps, but also because of its rich information integrations. By opening it up to developer ecosystem, Apple has gone a step further. Google already does this to an extent, but with Apple’s OS integration, I place my bet on Maps that are actually useful beyond directions.

Tech trend :¬†Map as a platform will have amazing¬†business model implications; I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple Maps starts gaining traction. Not in a traditional way but as a “starting point of map-commerce apps” or M-apps ūüôā

 4. #HomeKitHasANewHome

Home App now becomes the new home of Home Kit. It cleverly uses Apple TV to detect a register on a shared network as proximity. Imagine your TV switches to your favourite channel when it detects you or better turns on that soccer game just for  you! Smart home is still quite elusive for most people, but apple seems to be setting itself up nicely as the home control devices become cheap, and more integrated, the IOT will really explode. I still think that this platform has a lot of room for disruptions by smaller players.

Tech trend : Apple and possibly Google will extend their App ecosystems to the internet of things, in order to play, all you will need to do is have an app on the app store and there, you have it. A refrigerator that orders milk when you run out. Machine payable web. Go figure. 

5. #MeTooUpdatesAreStillASnooze

Photos Рmajor progress in promoting privacy Рbut do users really care that you perform many billion computations to recognise that there is a lake and a mountain? Google has a way stronger lead Рapple really needs to do more here, but this is a welcome step.

OS X is now MacOS and Sierra Beta is here (Ok, some other time), WatchOS 3 is here, ok. Code playground is free and a lot of people will learn how to code now thanks to some emotionally charged appeals – super, Apple! Apple music is now more simple. Snooze.

Tech trend : Are you still there? check your iMessage with a bubble effect and an animated Mickey mouse. Just what I wanted after trying to to use SnapChat and failing spectacularly.

Thanks Apple… you have restored my faith in humanity again!

 

The story of joyous blackouts & mindfulness

I assume, few people in the developed world are familiar with the concept of a blackout – afterall, in 5 years that I have spent in London, I have not experienced a single one.

Human brain is quite the genius! Some sights and smells can magically trigger decades old memories in vivid detail; sort of like biological virtual reality!

So! Last Sunday, the smell of a burning candle magically took me deep down the memory lanecandles-209157_1920. I was a teenager in a typical suburban family. As some of you may know, this time of the year reckons start of the Monsoon season in western parts of India. Weather changes in a day, from scorching red hot sun to torrential thunderstorms. Many years ago, blackouts in parts of cities were common; especially as the distribution company sought to insure themselves from the storm. Such evenings would start with  a majestic roaring of the heavy dark clouds, and we knew that a thunderstorm followed by a blackout was on its way. The lights would go out like clockwork in a few minutes while me and my sister would race to see who lights the candles in the house. We also had a Kerosene lamp that would burn with a distinctive smell that I love till date! All of a sudden, the TV would stop, and all the background sounds of electric appliances would fall silent, all you could hear was nature – cracking bolts of thunder and the rain. I vividly remember that we stopped doing what we were doing and gathered around the kerosene lamp – just the 4 of us. Me, my sister and our parents.

We never truly appreciated it, but the time showed an unusual quality of slowing down on such joyous blackouts!

We would intently listen to stories, talk with each other like nothing else mattered. Thankfully, there were no cell phones at the time, even though I always thought ringing of our landline phone during a blackout was nothing short of a miracle. Not once do I remember complaining about the power cuts, unless of course it was during a cricket match! The blackouts lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, but when they were over, everyone went back to their business with a surreal sense of satisfaction!

Why all the nostalgia? Because this story really makes me think about our present day surroundings and the concept of mindfulness. Let me explain. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnemann explains beautifully in his book “Thinking fast and slow” that the human brain has two distinctive personas. System 1 and system 2. System 1 performs instinctive or well learnt behaviours without spending much mental energy; for instance, driving – you really don‚Äôt have to calculate the angle of incidence of an approaching vehicle to figure out that there will be a collision – you just know! On the contrary system 2 is about applying a conscious deeper mental effort, for instance if I ask you to calculate the time it will take for an object to fall from the Eiffel Tower – you will think. This often involves storing some information in your temporary memory and then manipulating it in order to come to a result. A lot of studies have been carried out on system 1 and system 2. Any details though would be way out of scope of this already long post. The crux of it is that your brain has a really finite “slow-thinking” capacity, and the more you exhaust it the more likely you are to make cognitive judgement errors (remember that impulsive buy that you knew was wrong). Okay! There is that, now Google mindfulness. By definition, it asks us to step back and reflect – to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings. I have a theory (based on the story above) that it has become increasingly challenging for us to practice mindfulness because of the information overload. Think about it, you have everything literally screaming for your attention. You wake up and you need to decide whether you want a skinny cappuccino or a latte, you need to open that dreadful device (I am telling you it is the worst offender in this context) your cell phone! You have a thousand notifications waiting from ten thousand apps that you have to think about, respond to. Imagine how much precious and finite mental energy those WhatsApp chats and meaningless Facebook scroll down gestures take. Then you come to work and are overloaded with a further army of attention seekers. E-mails, messengers, meetings (yes!). You come home and are faced with the same dilemma, with 30 news channels and you need to spend precious slow-thinking time wondering what to watch. Don‚Äôt even get me started on Netflix. Do you get the point?

buddha-199462_1280Naturally, I feel like we had more mental capacity to practice mindfulness before the advent of satellite television, and modern technology including cell phones. Yes, it does come down to judicious use of your technology – so that you use the technology and the technology doesn’t use you. Nevertheless  a lot of things can actually help. Meditation, Yoga,  learning to switch off before you hit the bed, and more generally switching off push notifications on your mobile as soon as you think they are becoming a useless distraction. Breaks from the hustle bustle of your city and routine are welcome too of course.

After all we need to be mindful that, the best things about life are our memories and experiences and they are almost always not digital!

A blackout, anyone?

@abhinandanshah

3 reasons we are unknowingly addicted to social media 

The biggest source of courage for the fearful is someone else’s fear. (Source : Narcos, Netflix)

Now that I have your attention, let me give 3 actual reasons.

# 1 By the way if it wasn’t clear, first reason is human beings are not as rational as you think they are, they easily fall to cognitive bias 

Ok let’s draw a parallel. Did you know what is common between Gambling and Facebook? In gambling, you play a hand, and almost immediately you have a random set of results, this result “always” has a possibility of you winning. Best thing is, sometimes you might even win big. However those who play long enough realise that most people lose more than they win. People are still willing to put more bets, making gambling dangerously addictive. Facebook and some other social networks on the other hand, rely on a different kind of reward – Social validity and likeability. Studies after studies have proven that what matter to us the most is our relationships, the closeness, and quality of our relationships. The busy lives we lead often mean we cannot give enough time to many of those relationships that matter. We came up with a solution, we digitised it. Whatsapp, Facebook have become more like religions. You upload a picture or a status update on Facebook. The network effect ensures that a set of random outcomes start showing immediately. People “like” you and people comment. The odds of that happening are easily higher than you winning on a slot machine. It’s harder to be liked in real life than on Facebook, and many have found a convenient shortcut. I’m just saying! 

#2 social networks are skilfully designed as habit forming products

A business insider article cites this book and explains further. The book “how to build habit forming products” explains how Facebook or the likes thereof create associations with human behaviour. Facebook has created association with boredom. Whoever gets bored can alleviate the itch by scrolling through their newsfeed. There you are, Hooked. Every now and then, when you feel bored you come back, you like, you scroll and you comment. When you invest that effort, you “load a trigger”, the trigger fires when someone else likes, comments and you receive an external trigger and “pop”! that push notification takes you straight in! Isn’t that really smart and habit forming? you bet!

#3 studies have proven that social networks can be somewhat as addictive as substance abuse  – it’s worth clarifying that they are also different in many ways

Researcher Turel explains further. The Facebook “addicts” showed greater activation of their amygdala and striatum, brain regions that are involved in impulsive behavior. But unlike in the brains of cocaine addicts, for instance, the Facebook users showed no quieting of the brain systems responsible for inhibition in the prefrontal cortex.

That could be because Facebook “addiction” is fundamentally unlike substance addiction, or it could be that the study only looked at people whose daily lives weren’t much impaired by their desire to be on Facebook. 

Trick as usual folks is moderation.