Connections

A friend proudly posted on an online forum that he was able to fit in multiple activities in his life (including running a startup!), thanks to no cable TV, no YouTube, no tea breaks, no FB and no What’s App groups. His argument was that we all have a finite amount of time, and hence, need to ‘make time’ for what matters by giving up something else.

I agree with that last part, and have lived with that belief for as long as I can remember. Defining your priorities, and making time for them, is the only way this works. I’d also recommend improving efficiencies to get more return on investment for the time you do spend on your chosen pursuits. But I also fear that my friend, like many others, is missing out on a vital part of life.

There is a case to be made for widening your horizons and interacting with perspectives that are not like your own.

Most of today’s online technologies are designed to give you more of what you’ve already liked, or interacted with. But, it helps to push yourself out of your comfort zone and understand Life from the eyes of those who don’t think like you. And, that’s where ‘mass media’ can help.

The way things like newspapers and TV work is that someone else decides what constitutes “good content” for the large majority of us. That may not coincide with what we would like, or agree with, but that can be a good thing… at times.

Today, more than ever, we need to embrace diversity of thought in all spheres, from politics to society to technology. We need to seek out views that are significantly different from our own, whether through a thought-provoking Netflix documentary (on a subject we may know little of), or a feature in the local daily that proposes a view contrary to our own (closely-held) beliefs.

That’s how new connections will form. That’s how we will someday go past our predispositions. That’s how we will eventually stop judging or fearing those that do not resemble us, and truly begin to understand each other.

There are 7 billion of us, and every one has a unique world view, shaped by diverse, multi-cultural experiences. Let’s not allow easy access to the Internet to dumb it all down.

Engaging Smarter with AI

Last month, in suburban London, a delivery of a parcel was attempted by Amazon Prime.

The homeowner was out on a school run, but had a video doorbell from Nest Hello (Google) installed in the home. An Apple iPhone X received a live feed from the doorbell, and a 2–way chat soon transpired. It turned out that the homeowner’s Tesla was parked right outside, and was accessed via the Tesla app – thanks to its permanent cloud connectivity. The boot was remotely opened by the homeowner, who could see it live on the video stream. The delivery guy was able to leave the package inside, after which the car was remotely locked via the app, resulting in a successful delivery.

What is noteworthy about this story is that it involved four distinct services – Amazon, Google (Nest), Apple and Tesla – all of which were digital, but none were specifically designed to work together.

Yet, in many ways, we are probably in the first hour of the evolution of AI (think before the Internet happened).

Futurists like Kevin Kelly (Founding Editor of Wired) speak of a rapid “cognification” of the machines around us, giving them the ability to harness superhuman powers – minus the (human) distractions. But, they also augur that the most popular AI product that will be in use 20 years from now, hasn’t even been invented yet!

What is (or isn’t) AI?

The Merriam-Webster defines Artificial Intelligence as: “The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

We humans possess a number of cognitive abilities that help us learn new concepts, apply logic & reason, recognize patterns, comprehend ideas, solve problems, make decisions, and use language to communicate. We call this intelligence.

This “intelligence” enables us humans to think, to be self-aware, to experience Life.

And, human intelligence is not just linear and one-dimensional.

Howard Gardner in his ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ argued that there were a wide range of different abilities operating in the human mind. – ones that did not necessarily correlate with each other.

Gardner proposed that these distinct types of intelligences – including logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical and interpersonal – are what enabled people to become a plumber, farmer, physicist or teacher.

Modern machine capabilities typically classified as “AI” include successfully understanding human speech (as in voice-recognition), competing at the highest level in strategic game systems (such as Chess), and intelligent routing (as in Content Delivery networks or Military simulations).

But the scope of AI is disputed: As machines become increasingly capable, tasks considered as requiring “intelligence” are often removed from the definition, a phenomenon known as the AI effect. As a result, routine technologies like Optical Character Recognition (OCR) are frequently excluded from the definition.

In fact, we tend to think of AI as whatever hasn’t been done yet!

The fact is, AI is not just embedded inside Netflix algorithms or voice controlled ‘smart assistants’, it’s embedded in our lives.

The decades-old autopilot systems that fly our commercial airplanes is just one example of that. The humble “calculator” is already smarter than most of us in arithmetic, and the GPS chip in our phones is already better at spatial navigation than the average human – both being examples of machines exhibiting intelligence.

Growing significance of AI

Clearly, AI is relevant to any task requiring intelligence.

High-profile examples of AI include autonomous vehicles (such as drones and self-driving cars), powering search engines (such as Google), and improving spam filtering or targeted advertisements.

In Medicine, AI is being applied to numerous high-cost problems, with initial findings suggesting that AI could save as much as $16 Billion. In 2016, a ground breaking study in California found that a mathematical formula, developed with the help of AI, correctly determined the accurate dose of immunosuppressant drugs to give to organ patients.

In Financial Services too, there are several use cases for AI. Banks use artificial intelligence systems to organize operations, maintain book-keeping, and invest in stocks. AI-based tools help read documents, process cheque payments and respond to customer requests. AI has also reduced fraud and financial crimes by monitoring behavioural patterns of users for any anomalies.

Today, AI can even analyze “silence patterns” on Customer Service calls to infer insights from excessive hold-times about system delays, outdated CRMs, etc.

Engaging smarter with AI

However, in our quest for providing more bells and whistles, we may sometimes lose sight of what truly matters. We need to connect the dots… across devices, channels and teams. We need to listen to our customers, our distributors, our employees. We need to move from proposition to purpose.

Does Customers + AI have to equal chatbots?! Or can we use AI-based tools to actually improve outcomes for our customers?

Here are just a few examples where intelligent use of AI can help improve Customer Experience, regardless of the underlying business:

  • Design more relevant products and services for your customers by listening to your customers and putting those insights to work
  • Continue conversation threads in CRM systems, regardless of their initial entry point, so you can provide contextual help
  • Predict a lapse or termination, and intervene with appropriate measures, before you lose the customer

Technologists argue that in the not-so-distant future, if a task needs to be done efficiently, it will most likely be done by robots (as in AI with bodies), while humans will focus on activities that are typically inefficient – think exploration, innovation, science and art.

Ultimately, our ability to deal with what comes next will depend on our willingness to embrace a co-existence with machines and their intelligence. Only then will they become our partners, not just tools.

This post first appeared on YourStory.

Building Organizations That Scale

Have you heard of the ‘King of Murud Janjira’? Nope?

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Janjira State was a princely state in India during the British Raj, located on the Konkan coast in the present-day Raigad district of Maharashtra.

Its rulers were a Sidi dynasty of Arab Abyssinian (Habesha) descent. The state included the towns of Murud and Shrivardhan, as well as the fortified island of Murud-Janjira, just off the coastal village of Murud, which was the capital and the residence of the rulers.

How about the ‘King of India’? Still no?

Yes, I know India is now a democratic nation and has a modern governing structure. But, what about in the days gone by? Sure, India had countless nawabs, princes and other rulers for its provinces and states. But, how did that benefit our resource-rich, culture-rich nation? History teaches us that we were repeatedly plundered by invaders across the world, and ruled by others for nearly 200 years with strategies like ‘divide-and-rule’.

Now, think about the way typical organizations are structured.

Departmental silos abound. Incentives are provided for individual achievement, or at most, a small team’s effort. If one business unit or region implements a novel idea, it is often regarded as unacceptable for others to simply copy-paste it and execute as-is. Basically, everyone agrees that  at least “some creativity” ought to be incorporated while adopting someone else’s idea in your unit, not just resorting to “shameless copying”!

In other words, every one wants to be the “King”, but of their own small kingdom.

Surely, such an organization will spend at least some of its energy fighting internal battles and motivating its employee base. Such an organization will find it difficult to standardize its operations, or achieve scale. Such an organization is likely to get overtaken by unforeseen threats, when it finds itself least prepared.

Think about that for a minute. If you are in a position of leadership or an entrepreneur, what kind of an organization are you building? If not, what kind of a leader are you following?

 

This post was inspired by a meeting with an industry leader of repute, who raised some interesting questions in a business review.

Service Standards in Public Service

I recently posted a tweet after a visit to the local post office:

A visit to the local #postoffice (to pick up a missed courier delivery) will put to rest any doubts you may have on how the #public #service machinery operates in #India in the year 2018!

I had purposely worded it in a way that did not make it too obvious if my “experience” was positive or negative. I wanted to see the kind of responses it elicits. And, it looked like my approach worked!

Here are some snippets from some of the comments that ensued…

“Similar sentiment when i went to cash out Kisan Vikas Patra”.

“Not sure if there is a sarcasm in your post. I have very good experience with Chennai Posts.”.

“… In South India, I would not trust large public hospitals, that are indeed one way ticket to hell or heaven. But I owe my life to three public hospitals in Delhi – Lohia, Safdarjung and AIIMS. BTW – private enterprises in the health care have no less horror stories to offer.”.

My own experiences with the Post Office, and the public service machinery in general, have been quite disappointing, to say the least. Of course, there are pockets of excellence in every field, and public services would not be an exception to that rule. But, public services, in general, are often characterized by poor pay and appalling work conditions (as compared to their private counterparts). The question is: Does that give them a license to lower their standards below acceptable levels?

Yes, I am also cognizant of the pathetic experiences I periodically encounter with private enterprise: The only consolation in those is that at least it is not my tax money at work. More importantly, when it comes to most private enterprise services, one has the ability to simply walk away and choose another service provider. Often, that is not an option when one encounters a public service.

As one commenter added, “Most of us in metro cities have better choices in almost every aspect of our life’s needs (education, health, food, transportation, communication, clothing, housing, etc.). Just consider the plight in hinterlands… Also, the ones which have no choice… Police, Civic Administration… May God Be With Them.”

Does it always have to be like that?

I think the key lies in understanding that the ones that need to use such services the most, are often the ones that have no other choice.

When designing a public service, bureaucrats, government officials and public servants would do well to remember that context, so that they can empathize with the “customer” needs that the service aims to ultimately address. The less privileged among us deserve a good standard of essential services. Public transport, education, healthcare and communication are all included in that list.

Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, captured it eloquently when he remarked, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.

Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Social Absurdities

When someone we know is admitted into a hospital, social norms dictate that we visit them while they are hospitalised. If unable to do so during that window, those of us who are closely related to the patient, are expected to pay a visit to them in their home, after they have been discharged. That’s the norm, isn’t it?

But, what happens if you’ve already paid a visit once, found that the patient was recovering well, and after a few days find out that he/she has taken a turn for the worse? Should you go again?

What happens if, after your visit, the patient has been sent home, only to be rushed back to the hospital after a day’s rest? Are you expected to re-visit?

What happens if the event in question is not an illness, but the birth of a child? As a mother, you may think that the last thing you want with a newborn is to attend to visitors. Should you extend that kindness to the mother currently in the hospital, and spare her your visit? By doing so, will you be remembered for your generosity of spirit, or for the fact that you did not bother to show up, despite being a close friend or relative?

If the event is, in fact, an illness, should the severity of the illness determine how many times you are expected to visit? Should a recurrence qualify in severity as much as the original ailment? How many visits are adequate?

Yes, there are those among us who are genuinely concerned about the patient in recovery, and would like to show up just to let them know that they are not alone, and that help is at hand. But, the bulk of visitors in any given hospital are there as a social formality, is it not?

Like the ‘hospital dilemma’, I find that many of the social norms we religiously follow, border on sheer absurdity!

We all do it, because every one else is doing it, and because every one expects us to.

Like complimenting the host for a yummy meal. If some do it as a social nicety, and others do it only when they really like the food, how does the host know which is which? Of what use is the compliment to you, if you yourself say such things all the time, without meaning it?

Are we becoming a society that almost never means what it says, or says what it means? What will the world look like if more and more of us head down that path? What will Truth mean in such a world?

I wonder.

Ignoring Great Advice

Jeff Haden writes a cogent piece on Inc. entitled ‘Why You So Often Ignore Great Advice‘. Here are some excerpts…

… people focus a lot less on the quality of advice, information, etc. than on the “quality” of the person who provides it. If Warren Buffett gives you a stock tip, you’ll listen; if the same advice comes from the guy who runs your local deli… probably not so much.

Most of the people you meet are not recognized as thought leaders and nor are they wildly successful. So you won’t automatically hang on their every word.

But you should always listen.

So strip away the framing you apply to the source. Strip away the setting or environment. Consider the advice, the information, or the opinion based solely on its merits. Sure, the quality of the source matters, but ultimately the quality of the information–and its relevance to your unique situation–matters a lot more.

It’s easy for most of us to get swayed by the opinions of those who are much more “experienced” than us, otherwise we run the risk of discounting their “learnings”. The fact remains we need to be objective and informed, and develop the ability to take all the available inputs, viewing them through the lens of relevance.

Thank you for the reminder, Jeff.

City of Joy

It’s been a while since I blogged. Moving to a new job has kept me busy, these past few months. It’s been a particularly demanding, challenging and exciting journey, but it hasn’t left me much time for anything else, including blogging. In August, I also moved my blogs to WordPress.com, and that migration took the good part of a precious weekend, but I digress. Before I joined my new employer, I took the opportunity to go on a trip to a city I’ve longed to see for more than a decade – Kolkata.

Kolkata is a city unlike any other in India, or so I’d heard until I actually saw it for myself. Now, I know it to indeed be so. I chose the last week of June – one of its hottest and most humid – not by choice, but because I was in between jobs and that was the only window I had. Yes, I’d done a fair bit of research online, and also spoken to my “bong” friends who were very generous with their long lists of things that should be ‘must-see’ on my agenda. But, I also wanted to keep it free flowing… experience Kolkata as it happens to me.

And, as it turned out, that was a wonderful idea!

I hailed a non-airconditioned yellow ambassador taxi from the airport, since that was the most classical way to traverse the city of joy. I’d chosen to stay on Sudder Street, since it was very popular with foreigners who backpacked across India, and also close to the famous Park Street. Sudder Street, and its adjoining New Market, were a full-blown sensory experience, giving me the chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city in all its glory. Most places I wanted to see were a short taxi ride away, which was convenient since it saved me a lot of time.

Over the course of the next four days, I did almost everything I wanted to do on my list – circumnavigate the famous Maidan, go to the Indian Museum, visit the Victoria Memorial monument, photograph St. Paul’s Cathedral, go up and down the legendary Park Street several times, ride the Kolkata Metro, spend some hours in the tranquil surroundings of the South Park Street Cemetery, drive over the Howrah and the Vidyasagar bridges, visit the old Howrah town, drive past Eden Gardens, experience the sprawling Science City on the outskirts, saw several street arguments, visit the glamorous and upmarket stretches of Salt Lake City, and of course use every opportunity to take in some Bengali food, including eating at Peter Cat (where my wife had enjoyed several meals as a youngster!).

In the end, the only things left unchecked on my list were a tram ride and a trip to see Mother Teresa’s home – these would have to wait until my next visit. Of course, there would be many more visits to come…

Kolkata touched me in a way that most cities haven’t, and I was glad that I was able to take this opportunity to experience it in a way that most tourists don’t. Kolkata has an uncanny ability to assimilate you into its culture. Once you’ve made it your own, so as to say, it’s almost impossible to see it like an “outsider” does. Most folks I know would have a love/hate relationship with the city – they would either think I’m nuts to think of Kolkata in these terms, or simply “get it”.

Vir Sanghvi described this sentiment beautifully when he wrote: “That’s why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.

Face Book

Facebook has more than 800 million users worldwide, and is likely to hit the 1 Billion target in a few months time. How many Facebook “types” do you know of? And, which type are you?!

I can think of the following…

TV addicts – Those who never post, only come to watch the show
Lurkers – Again, hardly posting, but eager to comment on (or like) others’ posts
Faceless – Haven’t even got their profile pic up yet!
Super active – A tweet or an FB post every few minutes
Battle pickers – No matter what the topic, they have to pick a battle online
Forward addicts – Treasurehouse of interesting videos and funny pics
Shutter happy – Come back from any outing with 233 pics of the event!
Friend gatherers – Ahem, more than 500 pals on your FB list?!
WTF – They post alright, but you just can’t relate to them no more… 

Did I miss anything?

World’s Biggest Challenge

Hypothes.is – a brilliant, new startup – is attempting to solve what it calls “the world’s biggest challenge”!

Frustrated by the media?  Disillusioned by our seeming inability to come to grips with difficult issues?  Us too.  We think improving the credibility of the information we encounter is key to solving this problem.  In fact, we think it’s humanity’s biggest challenge.

Hypothes.is will be a distributed, open-source platform for the collaborative evaluation of information. It will enable sentence-level critique of written words combined with a sophisticated yet easy-to-use model of community peer-review. It will work wherever you are – as an overlay on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and regulations, software code and more – without requiring participation of the underlying site

Hypothes.is is a non-profit effort built on strong principles, and a clear vision of what it wants to achieve.  When I first discovered it via Twitter, I was stunned by its clarity on the subject, from the concept video by its founder – Dan Whaley – to the FAQs that ask hard-hitting questions and answer them.

The project has been self-funded till now, but to deliver a working prototype, Hypothes.is has joined hands with Kickstart to help raise $100,000 via crowdsourcing.  Your pledged amount will not be charged unless they hit the goal.

Every dollar counts, and all of us will benefit from it. I’ve pledged my support, and hope you do too.

Update:
As on 13 Nov, 2011, Hypothes.is has raised over $230k from donors across the world!