AI in Cancer care and managing the great expectations around it

I woke up on Saturday morning and read this WSJ article IBM has a Watson Dilemma . As always when such articles get published, this was followed by a lot of criticism on twitter, linkedin etc – and I read most of them. And today morning, I saw this article on IBM blog site from Dr John Kelly titled Watson Health : Setting the record state .

I am very hesitant about expressing my personal opinion

Especially when my employer is the one being criticized. I am not an impartial party here at all – I am an executive at IBM ( Not a very senior one by any stretch – there are a couple of levels between me and the CEO) , I hold IBM stock , I am not a company spokes person, and till recently I managed a business of which Watson and Watson Health consulting services were a part of. Also, Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about my opinions on IBM Watson after an analyst wrote an article that I thought I should weigh in, in a personal capacity.

On the other hand, AI is a topic I have great interest and some expertise in (Again, I am not a hands on ML developer or anything like that today – though that might potentially be one option in future given my passion).

I lost my dear Aunt Geetha to cancer a few years ago – she was a second mom to me. I was at the hospital with her when she fought the deadly disease for her last few days (I was on vacation in Trivandrum) , and I spoke with several folks at the hospital whose dear ones were going through the same battle. So anything that helps fight cancer is a topic I have a deep interest in, and one where I will happily donate my time and money.

So for what little it is worth, here is my take and I am just going to address two specific issues

Is Marketing Hype the big culprit ?

I am not a marketer by trade, though I appreciate high quality professional marketing. When I am in a sales role, I prefer a soft selling approach – and that might be because I am an engineer first and foremost. So, I totally get it when IBM Marketing gets accused of going overboard by someone on social media. I have also been in this industry long enough to know that without massive awareness created by marketing, no young technology gets the air cover it needs to mature. I personally know of no client who has made an enterprise purchase only because they saw awesome vendor marketing. Marketing opens doors no doubt – but clients subject their purchasing decisions to an array or dimensions ( proof of concepts, risk management, analyst reports , references etc)  before someone signs a check.

What I readily agree is that marketing does contribute to setting big expectations for new technologies. And big expectations are good – as long as everyone gets the nuances that go with it. When it comes to finding good solutions for deadly diseases cancer, I doubt it helps to not have bold goals. I always encourage folks to ask good questions – and proceed with eyes open.

Is it bad that Watson agrees with doctors most of the time ?

To state the obvious, it would be terrible if Watson and doctors disagreed all the time. But is it bad if they agreed most of the time ? The WSJ article implies that since human doctors agree with Watson most of the time, they stop using it or at least limit its use.

There are commercial use cases that follow the same pattern as cancer diagnostics. For example, Watson can ingest training manuals of several machines and can have a Q&A with a mechanic or a customer who is faced with a live problem. An experienced mechanic usually agrees with Watson most of the time, and probably does not see much value. But think about the less experienced mechanic, or a customer who is not technical. The solution is of high value to them. The ideal situation is that the experienced mechanic continues to train Watson (via agreeing and correcting when wrong) and Watson helps several lesser experienced mechanics and customers from what it has learned. That is the incentive to have the experienced mechanic continue to use Watson.

Sitting outside the room where my Aunt was struggling with her fight, one thing was abundantly clear to me. In USA, we have several oncologists and specialist hospitals that are the envy of the world. That is not universally true. Even in the hospital I was at with my aunt in India, there were plenty of oncologists – but nowhere close the number that is needed to cover the sheer number of patients. They have very little time to keep up with the latest in cancer care – or to even spend enough time with one of their patients. They deal with patients who flock there (and several of them thankfully don’t have cancer and was sent there because of poor diagnosis where they initially went to ), and even if that process can be streamlined – they can save more lives.

Now think of all the hospitals in a country with a billion people – and several of the people not diagnosed or treated just because of poor access to specialists !

I also vividly remember the line in front of the radiologist’s office there in India – one very tired lady trying her best to read images and make notes while highly stressed out patients and their relatives started shouting around her. I felt terrible for the doctor and the people around her.  With advances in computer vision, this scenario can be improved exponentially.

It it bad that Watson cannot figure out great solutions for rare cases ?

Ideally, I would love for AI to help us solve cases where humans have very limited options. I don’t think tech will solve this in near term. But that is not to say there is nothing tech can do today. It still can find useful information more quickly for a doctor than they can find manually, and WSJ article does talk about that.

There are several obstacles to getting AI to work as we need it to – and getting data organized for Ai to learn from is one big one. Even in areas where we have been at it for decades – like loading legacy data into a new ERP system, it takes a lot of effort . You can only imagine the additional complexity included in getting data in the form that an AI model needs to learn from. It is not an insurmountable problem, and newer approaches keep coming up and at some point it will become mainstream, and easy to estimate the effort.

That is where I see the true potential of AI , including Watson ! It helps take expertise from people and institutions that have it and move it places where no such thing exists. And if we can save one more life, or reduce the pain for one more patient, or reduce the grief of one more family who will lose a dear one- I think it is totally worthwhile. I sure hope we don’t give up on this journey !


The High Potentials

Ask any room full of corporate types “Please raise your hands if you think you are above average”, and I will bet you a venti coffee that more than half the hands will go up. I have also asked and have been asked this question myself. As soon as we raise hands, we also realize that we don’t really know what the average is and neither can we rationalize how most people raised their hands. The next thought is “I see that Joe raised his hand too and he is absolutely below average – so there are some people here who think too high of themselves”. Generally – the point is well made every time this exercise plays out – but the collective “we” still think pretty high of ourselves 🙂 . I think this is a good thing and even when misplaced , this element of confidence is what drives us all forward .

I don’t think anyone questions the idea that some amongst us have more potential than others – we just don’t agree easily by how much. We don’t (usually) hold a grudge against the ones who are unquestionably smarter than us – we generally admire them. However if we think they only have a marginal edge over us – there is a good chance that we don’t agree to treat them as a “high potential”.

At various points in my career across multiple companies , I have been tagged as a “Hi Po” . I have identified and groomed a bunch of HiPos myself . And I have listened to hundreds of colleagues tell me “there is no way that person is a HiPo” . And I have also fallen from grace as a HiPo from time to time – in cases where I agreed and in other cases where I disagreed with the assessment . My perspective has evolved on this topic along the way, and probably will change some more.

To begin with – I think organizations should rethink whether they have a logical way of identifying HiPos . This is one area where it’s a big mistake to lower the bar – even if that happens unconsciously. The obvious immediate risk is that you risk the business by giving critical role to someone not ready for it . Perhaps the greater risk is that other deserving candidates lose faith in the system and choose to put in less than their best , or worse – to jump ship !

Some critical questions could be raised on the people who make the decision and their process.

1. Are the people making the HiPo determination qualified to do so ? How were they selected ? Are they in tune with the market and what the future needs ?

2. How do they validate their decision ? Is the process audited from time to time and changes made ? Has bias crept in ? What happens when it is clear that a mistake has been made ? Is there an appeals process ?

3. Are candidates chosen because their peer group is pretty weak ? How do we know if they truly have high potential compared to the market ?

Sometimes it’s made pretty public on who are the high potentials in the team – and at other times it’s kept somewhat of a secret. Either way , over a period of time – everyone will come to know who these people are by looking at what assignments and promotions they get . In a transparent system – there is a good chance that others strive hard to be a HiPo . In an opaque system – there will just be a lot of frustration and corporate gossip. I have often felt that the reasons for lower transparency are in a large part because managers don’t want to deal with a large number of employees asking them why they were overlooked .

What if you think you truly have higher potential than the organization credits you with ? Everyone goes through this a few times in their career. Most of the time we attribute it to bad luck and try again and usually things even out for us over time. However , occasionally there is the case where you think you are repeatedly overlooked and less qualified people keep moving ahead of the pack.

Most of the time there is no sinister motive from managers and it is just a game of chance that didn’t do you any favors this time. But the true test of whether your organization is undervaluing you is to test yourself in open market.

A classic case in my industry is people who get stuck at a senior manager or an associate partner level and can’t seem to make it to partner level . They also see some others fly through the ranks and make partner at a relatively young age. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I think the partnership appointment process is a fair process in all the firms I know. I also know that a small percentage of people end up not getting through it for no fault of theirs. For such folks – my advice has always been “Go apply at another firm and see if they will hire you as a partner”. If you are a partner at one firm , there is a good chance you can make a lateral shift as partner elsewhere . But it’s an order of magnitude harder to do that if you are not yet at partner level . But it does happen from time to time – and unless you try , you won’t know if you were truly overlooked where you are or if you still have work to do . And the “still have work to do” might not be as big as you might think – usually it’s something as simple as signing up for a public speaking class. Or it might need you to build a better network – which is usually easier where you already work , compared to trying it in a new employer.

There is also the part of being more self aware. We need to realize that some people are smarter than us and deserve more success than we do. What we should not accept is any systemic bias – like “it’s because I am a woman or Indian or because I chose to raise a family ” . Those need to be fought !

This was all about what could go wrong in choosing or being chosen as a HiPo . But what about the great case of being chosen as a HiPo ?

I can say with no hesitation that being selected is generally the easier part. The really hard part is to continue to stay as a HiPo and realize that potential ! It takes very little effort to derail

To begin with, you are in a hard spot – knowing your management rooting for you and having high expectations , while some of your overlooked peers may play passive aggressive with you and team.

Staying grounded and humble is the best strategy . You also need to develop thicker skin – it can get lonely for a little bit while you find your feet . Your tone of communication will be put to test – it’s very easy to be interpreted by others as condescending or patronizing . And you have to resist the temptation of staying YES to everything – you are a HiPo , not a superhero!

But the most important – and perhaps the most gratifying part – is to help others in their journey to be HiPos . As you get bigger roles that are a stretch – your success depends on building a motivating your team. The ones that blossom as HiPos are typically those that quickly realized they need more HiPos around them to hit it out of the park . And you need to be ver comfortable with the chance that one of your protégés might end up as your senior somewhere along the way .

India continues to amaze me in both its digital and analog flavors

Earlier this month, I took a few weeks vacation in India. Usually I visit India every year – some times multiple times a year. But this time I was there after two years and I had a few good surprises. I locked away my laptop before I left – which is perhaps the best decision I made in the last month !

Immigration at Chennai airport on way in, and Trivandrum airport on my way out were both a breeze. No more paper forms – everything is digital. I don’t know for sure if they upgraded baggage handling, but every time I was in a plane the bags came out super quick. Airports have great WiFi connections too . I was especially impressed with the Chennai airport – very clean , lot of shopping and eating choices as well . I might have over dosed on filter coffee the two days I spent in Chennai 🙂

We celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday while we were there. Since my sister and I both live here, we did have some worries on organizing a large party remotely. We had no reason to worry – we could do everything online from here and the hotel took care of everything at the highest standards. I remember how much we had to run around just ten years ago when we had his 60th birthday party.

My favorite mode of transportation within the city is the three wheeler auto rickshaw . It’s also a big thrill for my daughter 🙂 . This time however I found uber to be fairly mainstream and not much more expensive than the autorickshaw . Availability is still spotty , but it still was a very convenient and economical option . I was also surprised at how well google maps work there – even though a lot of roads are unmarked or terribly marked with conflicting names and multiple house numbers and all that .

It was a lot of fun taking an early morning walk through my old neighborhood . Especially nostalgic to visit the house I grew up in and see the tile of a German Shepherd that my parents gifted me for axing some test in middle school 🙂

Clean as ever and most of the historic buildings seem to be well preserved. Traffic seemed to be about ten times what it used to be in my childhood , but TRIVANDRUM is still thankfully sleepy compared to the big metros .

I spent a half day at the SCMS college delivering the keynote on AI at their international web services computing seminar. It was a great event and the next day I saw wide coverage in the prominent newspapers. Unfortunately what was attributed to me in some of the reporting had no relationship to what I actually said. Oh well 🙂

It was also a lot of fun to show my Alma Mater to my wife and daughter . My Grandfather , my father and I all attended the University of Kerala .

The food (especially fish and crab) was amazing as always – except for one incident of food poisoning that ruined a couple of days for me . And it happened at my favorite childhood fast food place . I don’t think I will ever eat there again. On the bright side, this time I ate more of mom’s cooking than restaurant food . So – No complaints !

One thing I am very careful when returning to India is the water I drink . This time I didn’t stick to bottled water – mostly because I liberally patronized the fresh juice vendors in every corner. Nothing beats the taste of fresh squeezed juice – with Musambi being my all time favorite. And it costs less than $1 !

Thanks to a lot of family events, I couldn’t catch up with several childhood friends this time – except four . And I am so grateful that I could hang out with them briefly, catching up , eating and singing

Thanks to these conversations – I have a new found appreciation of how the demonetization efforts of central government screwed over the small business owners in Kerala . It seems to have brought down consumer spending to an all time low and some people had to close down for good. I also learnt how terribly GST has been rolled out – a process disaster and a technical disaster to go with it.

Then there were the temple visits – including my firm favorite Sree Padmanabha Temple which is an architecture master piece, and thanks to recent discovery of treasures – it is also the richest religious institution in the world

It’s traditional practice to break coconuts in front of the Ganapathy temple and I did so . And in the process I aggravated a shoulder injury that I thought had gone away . A doctor visit , X-rays and 3 days of physiotherapy later – I am on the mend thankfully . I was quite impressed with the Ananthapuri hospital – very clean , and efficient and mostly digitized workflows. For the standard of care I received – it’s as good , if not better than what I would get back in US . And all of this cost me about $30. Several friends pointed out that this is still expensive for majority of Indians – but I think India is headed the right way on healthcare front if what I saw is mainstream experience .

As much as I enjoyed the visit, in a few days I started missing my fur kids Hobo and Ollie. And then I met my aunt’s adorable Pomeranian puppy Roxie – and I was in my happy place again 🙂

The last two days were spent at the beach with extended family from all over the globe for a reunion – and with monsoon in full swing. In my own very biased view – I think KERALA has the best beaches on the planet . Super clean , easily accessible, surrounded by greenery and relatively inexpensive to have a good time .

The reentry to work was rather abrupt – I landed on a Monday evening. I was up at 5AM answering calls from my boss and that afternoon had to fly to NY to meet my client . I woke up there in midtown with a craving for filter coffee the next morning . All I need was to take a ten minute walk to Saravana Bhavan on Lexington Ave to get my Indian Hangover taken care of . And that evening I checked out an Indo-Chinese place on the same street for dinner . It was almost like I was transported back to India !

The world is truly flat 🙂

Now I am back to what I do every time I come back from India – debating with myself whether I can retire there at least part time in future .

Buying GitHub – A very smart move by Microsoft !

I have been wanting to write this from the time I saw the first tweet on the topic few days ago. Lets just say life got in the way . Also, as always – this is just my personal point of view and not that of my employer.

For what its worth – the visual I had in my mind when I saw this news was of Satya Nadella typing “git init” on a black command line interface 🙂

As with all such news – the first two questions that came up were 1. Is it worth 7.5B dollars? and 2. Why Microsoft ?

$7.5B is a big amount to pay for any company, especially one that only generates $300M or so. So clearly MS was not buying this for revenue – or at least not just for revenue alone.

The most obvious reason is that this is a good way to get 28 million developers attracted to  Azure. It needs to be done with finesse as it will be a disaster if developers feel bad about it and leave in large numbers. Success of a platform is a function of the quality and quantity of developers building stuff on it. Given Satya has pivoted MS to be a cloud company, this is a very smart way to get access to several million developers in one shot.

Software development always was a social activity . When I started as a developer, Clearcase and Visual Sourcesafe were the primary options for repos. And between whiteboard and emails we used to resolve “contentious” issues. Github formalized the “dysfunctional family” nature of development teams to a sustainable method. Passive aggressive nature is now easier to demonstrate via pull requests than ” reply all” email threads 🙂 . I think GitHub also reminds us every day that software development is a journey, not a destination. Nothing ever is finished 🙂 . And special kudos for doing all this without spamming us with ads !

Its not a beginner’s tool kit – I still am afraid to do merges and I have been a developer a long time. But – despite its quirks, without GitHub I doubt software development ( definitely the open source side ) would not have made the kind of progress in the last decade.

Microsoft being a software powerhouse – and especially since they have found religion on open source – I generally think GitHub will only improve in functionality. And maybe even less scary to use for less experienced developers. And MS is very active on GitHub themselves – and most of us useVS Code and Typescript routinely. Their own products have also moved in many cases to opensource from .Net . No one will question the credentials in opensource for Friedman, the new CEO from MS for GitHub either. One of the first things he said was that investment in Atom will continue in parallel with VS Code, and that there won’t be ads in public repos – clearly showing empathy for developers who passionately love their tools.  So there is no shortage of authenticity and consequently MS can expect to get some respect from the dev community. I generally don’t expect to see mass defection of developers elsewhere.

There is one more aspect on the acquisition that interest me. MS had recently bought Linkedin. As someone who hires a lot of people every year – especially technical talent – I can’t help but admire the strategy from that perspective. When I hire an engineer, I check their linkedin profile, and I check GitHub to see their code. I can’t wait to see what integration will happen between the two.

Having the functionality of GitHub provides MS with a lot of product possibilities – from the obvious idea of integrating with their existing toolkit, but also perhaps using the same idea of collaborative development to non code scenarios. MS potentially can also give some turbo charge to GitHub Market place. I am very curious and will be watching the space closely.

With all the goodness comes plenty of headaches too. Facebook was cool till the Russia thing came up and questions started getting asked on what FB is actually responsible for. GitHub has 85 million repos. What will a big company like MS be held responsible for what gets developed there ? What about free and competitive software that potentially hurts MS revenue or worse perhaps invade someone’s privacy and security ? What about some country insisting on censoring ? Its a lot of headache if things go wrong – so I hope their business case tells them its net goodness despite the potential for problems.

So all in all – I think this was a very good move by MS.


Is the I in AI incremental and dumb ?

First, pls read this important blog from my friend Den Howlett of Diginomica . He raises several important questions and I thought I could share my personal point of view on those topics.

Terminology hell is absolutely real, and is a pain. But it’s not a show stopper

Den makes a valid criticism of loosely used terms like AI, ML, DL etc – and my favorite “transformation”. There is no defense there – people use these terms without knowing what they are talking about . Even today there are religious debates about the difference between reporting, BI and analytics . The question is – does it matter ?

I would suggest that it does matter – but perhaps not to the extent it gets bad press for .

You can’t stop people from using terms loosely . I don’t talk to my clients about “AI strategy” – I tell them what AI can and cannot do in the context of their business . Decision makers who are waiting for terminology to be consistently used before they move – well, the world will move on and they will just idle away to obsolescence . I have no sympathy for such people, assuming they even exist .

While knowing the exact cooking process of your favorite pasta dish , or the transmission design of your favorite car is pretty cool and intellectually satisfying – you don’t need to know any of it to enjoy eating pasta or driving that car . It’s high time we move the conversation to what AI can do, and with what trade offs – and away from how it is done and what is behind the curtains .

What exactly is intelligence ?

Thanks to science fiction and tech commentary (are they so different ?) , a lot of people do in fact think that AI means a computer that thinks and acts like a human being . This is – illogically in my opinion – often extended to if it is not totally human like, then AI is useless . Another version of this is the Pooh Poohing of “it’s not AI – it’s predictive analytics , stats and math” .

While all that makes interesting reading and none of it is actually false – it is also a low value discussion for a business decision maker .

AI – or any tech for that matter – doesn’t need to do everything a human can do for it to be extremely useful for a business.

For example – using visual recognition techniques , you can probably detect poor quality in a production line better than humans can. The machine won’t tire or get bored and once it gets smart – it can pass the smarts to another machine easily . A human cannot do that . On the other hand – a human can see more things and make more inferences based on other inputs like sounds and smells . So would you say the machine is useless or dumb because it can’t do what a human does ?

I often hear my fellow math geeks criticizing ML as “it’s all mostly just curve fitting”. They are not wrong at all – except , they don’t always immediately see the value of an abstract statistics concept being used to save or make money for a business. If the math geeks had a good way of translating concepts to business solutions in the past – instead of AI getting hyped , we would have seen math getting hyped as a topic.

Is it really transformative ?

Transformation – digital or otherwise – is one of the most debated terms. We will hear all kinds of criticism about “but they can’t do what uber does” or “that’s just cost cutting, not transformation” and so on . Again , all valid and there is no one playbook outside the power point and blogger world .

Incumbent large businesses all have baggage . If they can’t cut costs somewhere – they generally can’t invest meaningfully in other areas. That’s the world my clients live in – and consequently that’s the world I live in . But cost cutting is also used sometimes for pure bottom line reasons – which of course the transformation pundits think is uncool . I have no problems with any of this – decisions should be made by people who are in the hot chair , and they are the ones who live with the consequences . It’s a free country and all of us should feel free to air our difference of opinions too . Beyond that – I think it’s a world of diminishing returns to worry about “is this real transformation?”.

Some techniques that are now under the umbrella of AI have also been used for a long time in areas like predictive maintenance with varying levels of success. With advances in math and computer science , as well as cost decreases in hardware – the value add is much more now . But can we claim it as AI success ? One of the most useful features in our digital life is the battery charge indicator on our devices including electric cars. Some of those devices use machine learning to determine how much charge is left – and that logic also falls under the umbrella of AI . Can we call it transformative ?

In my business, we use a Watson based solution to scan through contracts to check for compliance . Previously it needed a senior person to read through every page and now the senior person only needs to read the contracts the system flags for review . It is transformational for me and my colleagues – but will it pass an AI or transformation sniff test for someone who doesn’t have to deal with contracts frequently ?

Is AI any better than a decision tree or a rules engine?

To begin with – AI is not a “cure all” thing.

It will peacefully co-exist with whatever else is out there today and add value to it . Rules engine is a perfectly fine approach – and often the only choice in some situations.

For example – when you swipe your credit card at a merchant , you need a decision in a few seconds . Most payments companies use sophisticated rules engines (some of them implemented as decision trees) to make that decision in near real time . There is nothing wrong with this . But the credit and risk modeling that happens behind the scenes that eventually is the input to rules design is often a machine learning model . So can we call this AI now ?

When we get into debates of “Is AI performing better than rules engine” we should ask the question – what is the right tool for the problem ? For example – if the rules are static for a long time, there is no reason to try to replace it with AI . If the rules need to evolve with time and manually keeping them updated is a problem – AI may be the solution . The reality is – most of the time they will co-exist.

Is ML and DL limited because of training needs ?

Of course it is – and especially so if you are on the bandwagon of anything less than artificial general intelligence is low value .

It’s absolutely true that AI systems based on ML and DL need a lot of training data and human input and time to learn . Machines are nowhere close to human brain in making what are obvious connections .

When my daughter visited the Phoenix zoo for the first time – she recognized animals from the couple of pictures she had seen in story books . A Deep learning system would not have made that connection . The difference is – a DL system can keep learning and practicing and can make sense of subtle changes in images that humans probably won’t catch – like a variation in a medical image. So the use of “limited” in this context, ironically, is limited 🙂

Is there value in AI in the world or ERP ?

The four examples provided by Sven in that blog are good and practical . But perhaps they don’t come across as sexy AI use cases on first glance for people who don’t use such systems every day . Ironically – it’s the non-frequent users of enterprise systems that often find the most value in AI . Learning how to navigate a purchase order screen in SAP is a complex task . Someone who wants to place an order twice an year should not have to go through that pain – a conversational interface is awesome for them , as is a natural language search for example . Ask any of those users if this is incremental value or transformational . My bet is that they will respond it’s transformational . We can of course argue that it is not because of AI and it’s because ERP set the bar low originally 🙂

SAP spent a lot of time on getting database and UI right and are a little late into AI . But they are a large company with great business knowledge and tech competence . I fully expect a lot of AI driven functionality across their suite to come up in near future .

What about ethics ?

If there is one area of AI that constantly gives me grief – it is the topic of ethics . I have written and spoken a lot on this topic (and will continue to do so) and I don’t think we have done enough to address this .

So what’s the net net

1. People who don’t take the time to understand the basics of the topic say irresponsible things . They deserve to be called out and criticized in public by sharp observers like Dennis

2. The terminology hell is real. But it is not as big a deal as it is made out to be . And we can help keep it minimized by not feeding it

3. Business world should shift thinking to applied AI and not get worked up about when AGI will come . There are plenty of deep specialists who will take care of research and so on and we should support them

4. Techniques that get bundled under the umbrella term of AI are mostly solid and have been around for a while . Advances in math, science etc have made it more realistic to use them in day to day business . We should worry about whether we can apply those techniques to better our business and stop debating whether it’s attributed to AI or not

5. AI has plenty of limitations and is way too narrow to make comparisons to human brain . But in those narrow fields it often can be more efficient than humans .

6. If we should focus on one area to debate and raise awareness, I propose we do it on the topic of ethics/laws/privacy . That’s where all the goodness can erode very fast

Why I support Red For Ed

Public School teachers in Arizona are on strike today and tomorrow and my daughter has to stay home . This obviously creates some challenges for my wife and me . I am not a fan of my kiddo missing classes – but I readily support this strike !

To get the gravity of the issue – and how long this issue has been left unresolved , look at the picture below that I got from my twitter feed today

First and foremost – the person who has influenced me the most in my life is my late paternal grandfather , who was a history professor . He and many other teachers gave me a launchpad , and I will be forever grateful for that . I want my daughter and other kids to get a similar high quality education .

In 2004, we bought a house in South Phoenix . In 2005 we had our daughter and we quickly realized the local schools were not going to give her an ideal start in life . We moved to Chandler and have been there for the last 13 years . We love the school and support the school and it’s teachers any way we can . And we are one of several families who appreciate and hence contribute to the school system in various ways , financial and otherwise .

Unfortunately our school and a few others are the exception to the rule . Arizona is pretty much bottom of the list nationwide on quality of education . Not surprisingly, the teacher pay for our teachers is not anywhere close to the national median either .

These teachers deserve a lot more . They are not just underpaid – they are quite overworked too . For the type of pay they get – we won’t get the teaching talent to make a difference. That affects my daughter and kids like her . That is not going to prepare these kids for a bright future and it’s short changing the future of our wonderful state .

Teacher pay is not the only issue to tackle here – the school buildings are crumbling , and text books and computers need refreshes .

Legislators and the administration have chocked the public school system for a long time . Educators – and students – have suffered the injustice for too long . The walkout is not a knee jerk reaction . It’s the result of long term neglect .

These teachers have families too and bills to pay . If the government doesn’t show the required compassion, between the pressure from parents and their need to pay bills – they may return to teach against their will and principles . I hope that is not how this ends.

I am absolutely disappointed by some of the commentary I saw online this morning calling for the striking teachers to be fired , accusing that they are looking to be paid like doctors , that public schools should be shut down for good and so on . This is a state that has a business friendly tax structure with plenty of tax cuts . It should be balanced by doing what’s right for the school system .

By all means if the teachers don’t have the right background and skills , let’s address that . I am all for higher quality of teachers – but then let’s treat them fairly . And let’s proactively do this without forcing strikes and loss of school days .

Parents like my wife and I – this is a major difficulty when you have to disrupt work to make arrangements for day care etc , and often at unaffordable costs . It’s natural for parents to feel angry and frustrated – especially since many of us help teachers with volunteer hours , supplies and so on . All I request of them is to show that same support for a bit longer to let the teachers get a fair deal , and direct your anger and frustration at the government we elected . Call your legislators, the administration and anyone else who can help, and voice your support .

I will finish with a question to the teachers – did you think through all this while you voted for your favorite legislators last time ? If you did not – it might be good to introspect and act accordingly next time .

The future isn’t all what it used to be anymore

This is really difficult for me to say since optimism about technology making our future better is what has kept me going all my adult life. It’s why after a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA , I chose to be a programmer . It’s also why despite multiple leadership opportunities on sales and general management, I continue to be a hands on technologist .

It’s not that I have become pessimistic suddenly about technology’s power to transform society today – nothing could be farther from truth . It’s just that I have a lot more pessimism about the humans who use and control the technologies that will impact us .

I have been quite an active participant on social media – especially thanks to the easy access via my iPhone . Between Twitter , LinkedIn and Facebook – I have more than twenty three thousand or so connections (including some duplication for sure). On twitter – I only follow about 150 people, mostly because I can’t keep up with a larger feed . I strongly believed that this network has given me mostly net goodness.

I have thought a lot about what is my primary principle for social media . I think the honest answer is convenience !

I do 90% or more of all my social media activities on the apps on my phone . At some point, I started accepting vast majority of connection requests without too much due diligence – clearly not a smart idea and I am slowly cleaning it up now. I haven’t fiddled with ALL the privacy controls on each platform . It’s not that I was fully ignorant of what these platforms did with my data – just that I didn’t think of it more than as a nuisance with a bunch of merchants trying to sell me stuff non stop . I have often discussed with friends from my line of work how some of these targeting algorithms could be optimized to make it less annoying .

Then this Cambridge Analytica thing came out ( and the continuing conversations about the Russian influence on elections) , and yesterday night I read Zuckerberg’s response on Facebook . It’s extremely depressing to say the least .

The irony is that yesterday night is when I reinstalled the FB app back on my phone after a month away from it – and the first thing I noticed was Mark Z response ! I did go and tighten privacy controls as soon as I read it !

I work in analytics and AI – and have a special interest in getting insights from unstructured data . That means I do know how easy it is for FB and others to gain a very deep level of understanding of our lives . I also don’t think that privacy controls by themselves are of significant benefit . When you have a lot of data from a lot of people – you don’t need every last bit from every individual to get the deep insights. I will spare the tech aspects here – but suffice to say , these platforms have disproportionate power even if we assume they are all angels . We also know by now that they and the people they give access to our data are not exactly angel like .

I do value the ability to stay connected with friends and family . I also enjoy the vacation pictures and puppy videos . So the only solution I can think of is to significantly reduce what I discuss on FB etc. I didn’t miss Facebook when I stayed away for a month . So I also wonder if I could just get out of it for good and be done with it . I know I am not alone on these thoughts .

There is an interesting cross cultural aspect to consider too . I have spent a lot of time in Europe thanks to my work . There is no comparison between US and EU when it comes to privacy . If I lived in Europe for longer , I seriously wonder if I would have traded privacy for convenience . Plus the government wouldn’t have allowed a lot of what FB etc has gotten away with in US . Given its global reach , I do expect FB to get hauled up in EU at some point soon .

Then there was the poor woman cyclist who was killed by an autonomous Uber car in Tempe , AZ . It’s not very far from where I live – so this hit home harder than usual . Tempe police has released a preliminary report and video (Its disturbing – so not linking it here) . I really wish the lady was way more careful about crossing the road at night . Such a tragic end ! I am not at all a legal expert – but it’s quite possible in my view that law might blame the lady and not hold Uber responsible for this accident .

I have a big interest in the topic of man and machine working together, and have written and spoken about it a lot . A critical question here is whether a machine should be held to a significantly higher standard than a human in similar situation . Several of my friends think a machine should be held only to the same standards as humans.

For at least two reasons , I actually think machines should be held to significantly higher standards than humans

1. A machine is more efficient than humans and can keep getting even more efficient in lesser time than humans by comparison . So the flaws in those machines are also amplified several fold more thanks to mass production of machines . We can’t risk the world being full of half baked machines , irrespective of benefits in cost and convenience . No price is too high when it comes to protecting human life

2. A Machine can make faster decisions than humans and use more sources of information than a human can to make those decisions . At the same poor visibility , a human driver probably will have made the same mistake the autonomous car did – and that’s a fair argument. But vision is not the only sensory option for the car – motion detection , heat detection etc are all options and there are plenty of sensors/actuators/radar/lidar on such cars. And the cost is also declining pretty fast. So I think it’s a false equivalency to say a human driver would have made the same error and hence the machine should get a pass .

And in the video – it looks like the driver sitting there didn’t notice anything till last second , arguably because of the trust in the machine to do a good job . This trust is what worries me . In the situation where there is a passenger in front of car is straightforward – the car should break . It could get much worse in cases where the decision is a choice between two bad options like hitting one person or hitting another via swerving. If the straightforward option itself is not reliable , how would we expect the machine to react in more complex situations ?

I think Uber did the responsible thing by pulling the self driving cars off the street . They are also apparently fully cooperating with the investigation . I also think AZ authorities are correct in not making any snap judgements on tightening regulations.

This should wake us all up – testing autonomous systems is quite hard to begin with . And it needs a lot of inter disciplinary research investment to get better and more consistent . We are not exactly short on money or talent to get it done – we just need to put safety as a bigger priority than it is now . I love capitalism as much as the next person – but commercial greed just cannot be allowed to over rule safety under the branding of capitalism

I absolutely think our future is still about technology doing good things to improve our quality of life, including social media and self driving vehicles . But it’s high time we took a long and hard look at what are the top priorities in our quest to get there . Better , faster , cheaper is not enough – we need to add SAFER as a first rate citizen into the value proposition and it should not be negotiable !