Tag Archives: Google

Har Gobind Khorana receiving NIH lecture award. (Image from the NIH)

Innovative Americans: South Asian Contributions

This article is intended as an appreciation and a tribute to America, our adopted country, for its unusual penchant for inventions and innovations which have left a deep impact worldwide and for the future.

I was suddenly given to ponder over which peoples’ innovations, thinking outside the box, had the greatest impact the world over and were most unique. I quickly realized that history is in the eyes of the beholder. 

To the ‘sophisticated’ among us, usually drenched in the Eurocentric classics, the world’s progress seems to have been greatly stunted after Greece and Rome.

Then there are the Anglophiles who think everything significant started in England: the parliamentary system running parallel with royalty, the English language which ‘civilized’ the world from Africa to India to the Americas to the computers, the steam engine, the railways, and the judicial system (innocent until proven guilty!). They also gave us cricket and possibly football (soccer) and tennis. Of course, they also invented color prejudice. 

The Chinese gave us paper, gunpowder, and noodles.

And we, Indians, did not stop after the Vedas. We gave the world Yoga and the all-important ‘zero’. If you are of the Hindutva bent of mind, you surely like to think Indians were into aviation and guided missiles several millennia before the Wright Brothers – our Puranas say so. Of course, Indians were pioneers in plastic surgery, as proudly proclaimed by our beloved PM Modi in a session of the Indian Science Congress, citing the example of Lord Ganesh’s replaced elephant head.

But to me, all this pales in comparison to the acumen for inventions and innovations of the Americans – ushering in a paradigm shift in the world we live in today. All this happened, more or less, within the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Americans’ penchant for inventions seems to defy all boundaries starting from Edison’s light bulb to the gramophone, airplanes, telephone, television, computers, and IT. The present addiction to the small screen seems to have originated in America. So also for the most part, big screen a la Hollywood was America’s gift to the world. And who else would have thought of a 102-story building all the way back in 1934? Or a glitzy gambling mecca in Las Vegas?  

Edison and his phonograph

Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company gave the world the concept of assembly–line manufacturing.  The result was the vision of a car for every family, which revolutionized our ideas of travel and transportation and ushered in the Automobile Age. The Automobile Age provided the inspiration for the development of high-speed motor travel along with a web of freeways for hundreds of miles, complete with road signs, motels, gas stations and, let us not forget, highway patrols.  

The computers and the revolution in communications and information technology are examples of American innovativeness – from the early days of Hollerith and card punching systems to the development of the microchip capable of storing tons of data in a thimble. Starting with the iconic IBM, American companies like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft have become household names. Developments seem to come by leaps and bounds, branching off in different directions from computers with immense computing power and the ability to store humongous quantities of information to small chips ushering in convenient desktops and laptops. 

Thanks to Google and other search engines, we have all the information we need with a click of a button, allowing us to dispense with big libraries and stacks of books and other documents. Word processing has spelled a death knell on the typists but opened up much for the rest of us. Everyone seems to have a little cell phone these days, even little kids and texting has become so common. Letter writing has given way to e-mail. 

Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter have become household names and have caused quite a dent in our daily lives.  Now we can order groceries and other merchandise through the computers and get delivered at our doorsteps. We were afforded added admiration for these developments in the recent lockdown for Covid-19 which has been with us for over a year now. Thanks to all the developments many could work on the computers from home avoiding a major calamity all over. One dreads to think where we would have been if the Covid-19 hit us twenty years earlier when much of these developments were not yet in place. Incidentally, the huge presence of persons of subcontinental origin in computer, information technology, and related industries cannot be missed. Many have made huge contributions in the field. And some have made it to the highest levels like Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and Arvind Krishna, the new CEO of IBM.

Sundar Pichai in Vietnam (Image by Nguyen Hung Vu under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

American universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia have been fountainheads of innovative thinking and have been at the forefront of pathbreaking research and developments. America outstrips all other nations by a huge margin when it comes to the number of Nobel Prize winners. Nobel Laureates of Indian origin, Har Gobind Khorana (Medicine), Subramanya Chandrasekhar (Physics), Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Chemistry), and Abhijit Banerjee (Economics) all did a major portion of their work while in this country and were US citizens. Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize also did a major part of his work in the US.

Americans, I am sure, were the first to think of fast foods and franchises – MacDonald’s was such a seminal idea followed by other icons like Burger King and KFC. And who else could have thought of exploiting a commercial angle to amour and bring about Valentine’s day or to parental relationships, bringing about Father’s Day and Mother’s Day? Thank God (or whoever) that at least twice a year, the children are reminded of their parents. And with all that and their predilection to excessive usage of natural resources, they gave birth to the realization that our planet’s natural resources need to be protected and nurtured.  Thus was born the environmental protection laws, idea of recycling, discouraging the usage of fossil fuels and the penchant for clean air and clean water.   

And that brings me to my favorite: Sports.  Basketball and volleyball were both invented within American shores and are popular today the world over. So was baseball, their national pastime, which is slowly getting popular outside: in Japan, Korea, and Latin America. And American Football too was their invention; forget that it has some vague roots in the English game of rugby. Who else could have conceived of twenty-two huge fat men banging ‘systematically’ on each other in an effort to advance a funny-shaped ball to the end zone?  The game is interspersed with timeouts to accommodate the TV ads. But may be the biggest innovation in the game is the cheerleaders: skimpily yet colorfully dressed dancing girls dazzling the arenas and the TV screens. Many of my friends new to the country and to American Football got first attracted to the game because of these cheerleaders. And finally, how many of you are into WWF wrestling? I was once quite a fan and my young nephew in India, an otherwise intelligent man, is addicted to it. There is fighting, faking, shouting, drama – what not? It may be America’s greatest innovation of all.

Makes one really wonder what today’s world would have been like without the last one hundred and fifty years of American innovation.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.


 

A Tale of Two Valleys

Whew.

For the next year, my ability to Google will be ensured by the fact that roughly 200,000 people across 50 countries are working from home.

And, I can like your Facebook posts for, well, forever, because Mark Zuckerberg “guesses as much as 50 percent of the company’s 45,000-person workforce could be working entirely remotely in the next five to 10 years.”

These may be private sector decisions. But they impact the public’s understanding of immigrants and immigration. And that leads policymakers to value the Googler much more than the farmworker.

Look, as COVID-19 cases keep growing across California, the state’s tech industry and its nearly 1.8 million workers in 2018 — with over 805,000 of those jobs in San Francisco and San Jose — is doing fine. Their companies are growing, their bottom lines look great.

And, with the exception of those on the sector’s retail or gig front line, most are working from home.

The breathless media coverage leads us to think that this is the new reality for most workers. It is not.

Among U.S. workers, 11 percent are employed in the agricultural and food sectors — almost twice as many as those who work in tech. Of the approximately 22 million full- and part-time jobs in the ag and food sector, about 2.6 million are direct on-farm jobs, and nearly 13 million are jobs in food service, eating and drinking places.

These workers are not earning six-figure salaries. And they definitely are not working from home. (If they are working at all.)

In fact, go about two hours east of the work-from-home Silicon Valley and you find yourself in the hot fields of the Central Valley where more than 250 different crops, with an estimated value of $17 billion per year, are grown. In total, the Valley supplies 8% of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts, and other table foods.

Over 675,000 people work in the agricultural industry up and down the Central Valley.

In California, like across the country, these are the jobs that require workers to go to the “office.” But, for these workers, the office is a field, a farm, or a ranch where something needs to be planted or picked, cared for, or caught.

Everything surrounding these jobs puts people at risk. Sharing a ride to work, close quarters at the workplace, homes that do not afford any modicum of social distancing. As a result, the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the Central Valley could be as high as 17.7% — more than double the 7.8% statewide average over the last seven days.

While California works to get financial and medical resources directly to these agricultural communities, the federal government turns a blind eye. Under the CARES Act, both parents must have Social Security numbers for the family to receive relief. This makes entire families, including U.S. citizen children and spouses, ineligible for much-needed COVID-19 economic assistance.

This is a dynamic playing out in communities across the country. Immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizens among them, are going without any sort of relief.

These are trying times that require all of us to sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice is social distancing and working from home, while raising a family. For others, it is losing your job altogether.

And, for others, it is doing a job that is essential to the health of the country — but detrimental to your own health.

As we approach six months of this national crisis, it is easy to lose perspective and think that our own reality is the reality of others, to believe that our protection from COVID-19 is the same protection others have.

We begin to think COVID-19 is a disease “they” get. “They” did something to put themselves at risk. “They” were not healthy enough to fight off the disease. “They” live somewhere else, do something else.

Well, more than we probably realize, “they” are putting food on our table. And, “they” are most likely to be people of color and/or immigrants.

This lack of perspective leads the nation down a slippery path where economic and social divisions widen, where moral leadership is replaced by transactional leadership, where the bottom line is more important than people.

It’s a dangerous path that leaves the least among us without support — left to fend for themselves without health care or financial relief.

There is still time for the country to get off this path, and for Congress to ensure that all of us can access the relief and support we need.

The fact is that the skilled farmworker, documented or not, putting food on our table is just as, if not more, important to our lives and livelihood as the skilled engineer putting Google on our screens.


Ali Noorani is President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, host of Only in America. And, terrible golfer.

Featured Image by Coolcaesar and licence here.

Original article can be found here.

On Tech, Was India Naive?

The Chinese government banned Facebook in 2009. And even Mark Zuckerberg — despite having a wife of Chinese origin; learning Mandarin; and doing public relations stunts such as jogging in the smog-filled streets of Beijing to say how much he loved China — was not able to have it change its policy. Zuckerberg even went to the extent of creating new tools to censor and suppress content — to please the communists.

But the Chinese were smarter than he was. They saw no advantages in letting a foreign company dominate their technology industry. China also blocked Google, Twitter, and Netflix, and tripped up companies such as Uber. Chinese technology companies are now among the most valuable few in the world. Facebook’s Chinese competitor, Tencent, eclipsed it in market capitalization in November 2017, passing the $500-billion mark. Its social media platform, WeChat, enables bill payment, ordering taxis, and booking hotels while chatting with friends. It is so far ahead in innovation that Facebook is desperately trying to copy its features in the payment system it added to WhatsApp. Other Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, and DJI, have also raced ahead. Huawei has become a global threat with its 5G technologies and deep government links.

The protectionism that economists have long decried — which favors domestic supplies of physical goods and services — supposedly limits competition, creates monopolies, raises costs, and stifles competitiveness and productivity. But that is not a problem in the technology world. Over the Internet, knowledge, and ideas spread instantaneously. Entrepreneurs in one country can easily learn about the innovations and business models of another country and duplicate them. Technologies are advancing on exponential curves and becoming faster and cheaper, making them affordable to every country. Technology companies that don’t innovate risk going out of business because local start-ups are constantly emerging to challenge them.

Chinese technology protectionism created a fertile ground for local start-ups by eliminating the threat of foreign predators. The government selected what companies it could best control and gave them the advantage.

China actually learned some of its tactics from Silicon Valley, which doesn’t believe in free markets either. The Valley’s moguls openly tout the need to build monopolies and gain an unfair competitive advantage by dumping capital. They take pride in their position in a global economy in which money is the ultimate weapon and winners take all. If tech companies cannot copy a technology, they buy the competitor.

And then there is data, the most valuable of all technical resources. Data analysis enables everything from micro-targeting of advertisements to voter suppression and population control. Mobile applications are the greatest spying devices ever invented, monitoring not only their users’ interests but also their locations, purchasing habits, connections, political opinions, and health.

That is why the top technology companies from both East and West, the monopolists and predators, see India as the juiciest of all spoils. It has a massive market ripe for the picking, and data gold mines. India has also been naïve in its data protection policies and support for domestic innovation; it bought the old propaganda about the need for open markets.

There are some big differences, though, between the Chinese and American companies that are vying for the Indian markets. The Chinese government largely controls the actions of its companies, feeds them resources and technologies it has stolen from the West. It gives them every unfair advantage so that it can steal more and subvert democracies. Silicon Valley companies want more data so that they can sell more products. They may show bad judgment and cross ethical lines, but they aren’t playing geopolitics or endangering the sovereignty of free nations.

This is why the Indian government’s decision to ban TikTok and other Chinese companies makes sense. What was long holding Indian entrepreneurs back was the lack of Internet connectivity and mobile phones. When these became pervasive, the foreign companies stepped in. Eliminating some of that competition will give Indian entrepreneurs a chance to build world-changing technologies. These will benefit not only India but also the rest of the world, which is desperately looking for an alternative to Chinese influence and domination.

This is not to say that, without broad data and privacy protection policies, Indian technology companies won’t abuse the data that they gather. Such policies are needed as well. But the day politicians talk of breaking up companies such as Inmobi or Jio because they have become global monopolies and gained too much power will be the day of recognition that India has taken strides forward. Right now, what the country has to worry about is the dire threat from the East.

Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program of Harvard Law School and the author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

This article was republished with permission from the author and can be originally found here.

A Faster, Cheaper Way to Send Money to India

Stanford Federal Credit Union, located in Northern California, offers a faster, cheaper way to send money abroad. Through a new partnership with TransferWise, customers can send money directly through Stanford FCU’s online or mobile banking. This simple process means the funds can arrive as soon as the same day. 

Stanford FCU’s international funds transfer process is also cheaper—there is a low transparent fee, and the real exchange rate is used with no mark up. All of this means more money gets to your loved ones.

You must be a member of Stanford FCU in order to use this international funds transfer, and new members can get up to $500 in bonuses just by opening a checking account with direct deposit and additional accounts. Stanford FCU is a $3 billion financial institution serving 73,000 members. 

There is no cost to become a member, and you can join online. You must have a U.S. address and picture ID.

Stanford FCU is a full-service financial institution serving employees of Stanford University, Google, Facebook, Visa, Amazon, SAP, Tesla, and 100 other innovative companies. Members enjoy low fees, low-rate auto and home loans, high-rate deposit accounts, and low-fee rewards credit cards. Deposits are federally insured by NCUA, Equal Housing Lender, NMLS #729643.

Learn more and join online at sfcu.org/love or call 888.723.7328.

 

Artificial Intelligence: Beyond the hype

To gauge by the news headlines, it would be easy to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) is about to take over the world. Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese venture capitalist, says that AI will soon create tens of trillions of dollars of wealth and claims China and the U.S. are the two AI superpowers.

There is no doubt that AI has incredible potential. But the technology is still in its infancy; there are no AI superpowers. The race to implement AI has hardly begun, particularly in business. As well, the most advanced AI tools are open source, which means that everyone has access to them.

Tech companies are generating hype with cool demonstrations of AI, such as Google’s AlphaGo Zero, which learned one of the world’s most difficult board games in three days and could easily defeat its top-ranked players. Several companies are claiming breakthroughs with self-driving vehicles. But don’t be fooled: The games are just special cases, and the self-driving cars are still on their training wheels.

AlphaGo, the original iteration of AlphaGo Zero, developed its intelligence through use of generative adversarial networks, a technology that pits two AI systems against each another to allow them to learn from each other. The trick was that before the networks battled each other, they received a lot of coaching. And, more importantly, their problems and outcomes were well defined.

Unlike board games and arcade games, business systems don’t have defined outcomes and rules. They work with very limited datasets, often disjointed and messy. The computers also don’t do critical business analysis; it’s the job of humans to comprehend information that the systems gather and to decide what to do with it. Humans can deal with uncertainty and doubt; AI cannot. Google’s Waymo self-driving cars have collectively driven over 9 million miles, yet are nowhere near ready for release. Tesla’s Autopilot, after gathering 1.5 billion miles’ worth of data, won’t even stop at traffic lights.

Today’s AI systems do their best to reproduce the functioning of the human brain’s neural networks, but their emulations are very limited. They use a technique called deep learning: After you tell an AI exactly what you want it to learn and provide it with clearly labeled examples, it analyzes the patterns in those data and stores them for future application. The accuracy of its patterns depends on completeness of data, so the more examples you give it, the more useful it becomes.

Herein lies a problem, though: An AI is only as good as the data it receives, and is able to interpret them only within the narrow confines of the supplied context. It doesn’t “understand” what it has analyzed, so it is unable to apply its analysis to scenarios in other contexts. And it can’t distinguish causation from correlation.

The larger issue with this form of AI is that what it has learned remains a mystery: a set of indefinable responses to data. Once a neural network has been trained, not even its designer knows exactly how it is doing what it does. They call this the black box of AI.

Businesses can’t afford to have their systems making unexplained decisions, as they have regulatory requirements and reputational concerns and must be able to understand, explain, and prove the logic behind every decision that they make.

Then there is the issue of reliability. Airlines are installing AI-based facial-recognition systems and China is basing its national surveillance systems on such systems. AI is being used for marketing and credit analysis and to control cars, drones, and robots. It is being trained to perform medical data analysis and assist or replace human doctors. The problem is that, in all such uses, AI can be fooled.

Google published a paper last December that showed that it could trick AI systems into recognizing a banana as a toaster. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science have just demonstrated that they could confuse almost any AI system without even using, as Google did, knowledge of what the system has used as a basis for learning. With AI, security and privacy are an afterthought, just as they were early in the development of computers and the Internet.

Leading AI companies have handed over the keys to their kingdoms by making their tools open source. Software used to be considered a trade secret, but developers realized that having others look at and build on their code could lead to great improvements in it. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have released their AI code to the public for free to explore, adapt, and improve. China’s Baidu has also made its self-driving software, Apollo, available as open source.

Software’s real value lies in its implementation: what you do with it. Just as China built its tech companies and India created a $160 billion IT services industry on top of tools created by Silicon Valley, anyone can use openly available AI tools to build sophisticated applications. Innovation has now globalized, creating a level playing field—especially in AI.


Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. He is the co-author of Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back.

This article first appeared in Fortune magazine.

 

We Did Not Agree to Sell Our Souls to Facebook and Google

“Cars will soon have the Internet on the dashboard. I worry that this will distract me from my texting,” joked the satirist Andy Borowitz in a biting takedown of humankind being overrun by technology. Technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa talks to Chidanand Rajghatta about his latest book Your Happiness Was Hacked and the problem of too much tech

You were among the early proponents of deleting apps such as WhatsApp from phones over privacy issues. Is it fair to identify it as a culprit in spreading social disharmony in India? After all, even phones and emails can spread rumours.

In India, in particular, WhatsApp is a threat not only to privacy and happiness, but to democracy itself. With the introduction of the groups feature, WhatsApp made its technology the most effective way of spreading misinformation and hatred. If anyone makes a public speech that stirs communal disharmony, they would be held criminally liable. Yet, on WhatsApp, they are protected by the so-called end-to-end encryption. This is not a misuse of technology, it works exactly as designed. All that WhatsApp’s owner, Facebook, cares about is getting information about its users and selling ads. It has no conscience and will do anything it can to keep its users addicted to its technology. The end-to-end encryption doesn’t protect WhatsApp users from being spied on by Facebook, by the way.

How did you go from technology evangelist to technology sceptic?

In my last book, Driver in the Driverless Car, I posited that we finally have the ability to solve the grand challenges of humanity, everything from shortages of food and energy to education and health. Yet if we make the wrong choices and don’t share the technology in an equitable way or become too dependent on technology, we could end up destroying humanity itself. When writing this, I thought that the dangers were at least a decade or two away. I never imagined that social media would so rapidly facilitate genocide in Myanmar, the rise of demagogues in the US and Europe, and cause depression and suicide in the US. Yet, these are the things that my friends in Silicon Valley have enabled.

Is bailing out/unplugging/disconnecting even for a few hours (except during sleep) even feasible?

The answer is different for every one of us. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But everyone should answer these questions: Does it make you happier or sadder? Do you need to use it as part of your life or work? Does it warp your sense of time and place in unhealthy ways? Does it change your behaviour? Is your use of it hurting those around you? If you stopped using it, would you really miss it?

Are there good, peer-reviewed and peer-accepted studies to show that technology makes us sadder?

For the book, we reviewed hundreds of studies done by academics all over the world. There are conflicting findings, particularly in studies that companies such as Facebook have funded. We tried to present a balanced picture and share our own experiences.

Are those who feel that technology has enriched and enhanced their lives fooling themselves?

No, technology has enriched and enhanced our lives. Imagine what life was like before we could instantly communicate with each other and share photographs with family members. It becomes a problem when you have too much of it. It becomes like an addiction to alcohol or tobacco — moderate usage will not do much harm, but when you go overboard, it will kill you. In the US, for example, children are generally addicted to technology from an early age. If you look at the data, you see that teenage suicide rates are up and depression has become an epidemic. This is the problem — too much of a good thing.

The last thing I am suggesting is turning our backs to technology. I would have a hard time living without it. Yet, I have learned the damage that it is doing to me and have to work hard on living a balanced life. It is all about doing things sensibly, we can’t run from technology or switch it off for too long! It is the addiction and overdose that is doing the harm. It is tearing families and societies apart now because of the way it is being used.

Didn’t we give up privacy the moment we signed up for a cellphone with a signal and an internet connection with an IP address?

No, we did not agree to sell our souls to Facebook and Google and to let them know our innermost thoughts. These companies have gone much too far. I would choose to pay a small fee to both companies every month if they stopped spying on me and compromising my privacy. I don’t want them knowing what I say to my children or my wife.

This article is reprinted here with the author’s written permission.