Why Google’s Mm…Hmm Moment Flatters To Deceive

Technology, Zeitgeist

ETAI2

Let’s admit it. Everybody seems to have had a reaction to the ‘Mm..hmm’ moment during the Google I/O 2018 event last month. The cheeky ‘mm…hmm’ semi-syllabic interjection (which was part of the Google Assistant’s purported phone call to fix an appointment with a salon) evoked titters from the crowd at the event; the kind you mostly hear at stand-up gigs.

This instant crowd reaction reminded some, of the January 2007 Macworld keynote where Steve Jobs had introduced the iPhone for the first time; and the awestruck crowd then had collectively GASPED when they saw the ‘pinch-zoom’ feature.

And therein lies the difference.

The pinch-zoom experience was a classic WYSIWYG promise which Apple completely delivered on.

The Google Duplex demonstration on the other hand, with due respect to Google’s outstanding research strength, has evoked a barrage of questions from people coming from a variety of perspectives.

Some people have questioned the authenticity of the call itself; some have raised moral issues around non-disclosure of the caller being a bot; some have pointed out how this would lead to clogging of phone lines at establishments, and therefore a non-starter in its practical application on ground; some have seen humour in bots on both sides (user and the business) conversing with each other; while some others are seeing doomsday with such interactions taking place between non-humans.

But all these arguments are taking a big leap of faith — that the technology that Google demonstrated, would deliver at multiple points of the value-chain right up to the last mile.

However, there are multiple reference points which suggest that WYG is going to be far from WYS.

COME ON, EVEN AUTO-CORRECT ISN’T THERE YET!

From the days of desktop word-processing, through T9 predictive text on numeric mobile keypads, to QWERTY touchscreen tapping, to Swype based keyboards, to speech-to-text dictation on contemporary OS keyboards – none of these popular input methods have delivered accuracy anywhere close to 100%. The users continue having to double-check for factual, and/or contextual accuracy, and worst of all, for grammar. (Yes, auto-corrects falling prey to the ‘your/you’re’ or ‘there/their’ homonym misuse is still a reality!)

And this is linear mono-directional word and sentence creation we’re talking about. Iterative interactions add to the complexity by providing additional context as well as noise with every exchange.  Now imagine a bot that negotiates & fixes appointments for you, committing your time and other resources, behind your back. Mm..hmm.

HOW DOES ALADDIN BRIEF HIS GENIE?

Yes, it is commendable that while the whole world has been busy working on chat-bot solutions to ease the communication overload on the businesses side — Google put the ‘digital assistant’ on the side of the user, and that too using a medium that’s still quite familiar to most people – the voice call.

But what remains unexplored is — how do users, in the first place, communicate the instructions to their digital assistants to fix that appointment. And these instructions would not be restricted to date and time input alone. You’ve got to provide ranges and boundaries on time slots, along with the order of preference, to equip your digital assistants for their mm…hmm embellished negotiations.

And that is not an easy task at all.

Calendars and scheduling applications have been in existence for decades, and yet there aren’t any killer apps in that category. There is a fundamental UX fail-zone that calendars, and schedulers never seem to get out of.

Yet, there are other services which have solved this in the context of their respective domains, significantly reducing friction on the users’ side. Interestingly, quite a few of them have gone on to become multi-billion-dollar businesses; aided in no small measure by how they handled the UX. Think cab-hailing, travels bookings, and restaurant table bookings etc.

Till the time Google (or any other service) doesn’t solve this first stage problem itself, it may unintentionally be nurturing the medium-term failure of this project. This is not to say that Google won’t be able solve it. In fact, if they do, that by itself would be a breakthrough worthy of its own mm…hmm equivalents.

BOTS ‘TALKING TO’ BOTS

A lot of people have had a field day conjuring hilarious satires and farcical scenarios where the users’ Google Assistants’ phone calls are received by the businesses’ equivalent voice bots. Some have pointed out that two computer systems talking to each other already have several ways of communicating: Through code, protocols, APIs, query languages etc. Getting them to make a ‘voice phone call’ to each other, doesn’t add any efficiencies to the interaction, except maybe get them to utter sweet nothings as well.

But the end result — getting computers to ‘talk’ to each other — isn’t the end objective. The end objective is helping users interact with establishments in the most efficient manner. Or is it?

Maybe, our A.I. scientists feel an even greater pressure to pay obeisance to their obsession for humanization of computers. But why the obsession?

That obsession is rooted in anthropomorphism: Giving human-like qualities to non-human entities such animals, machines, cars etc.

For nearly 100 years now, the animation industry has struck gold with anthropomorphism. Much before that, another industry had extensively used anthropomorphism to create persuasive stories & characters – religion!

With unprecedented computing resources at its disposal today, the A.I. industry sees itself at the same inflexion point that the animation industry was with Toy Story. And therefore the obsession.

BLIND-SIDED BY OBSESSION  

As some have pointed out, if you asked the A.I. inventors of today to make a kitchen appliance that would clean utensils, they would deep-dive into the global collective knowledge pool; summon all the computing resources they have; spend an eternity making a waterproof humanoid bot that would stand by the kitchen sink; and try to work exactly like humans to wash, lather, rinse and dry up the utensils — while all you needed was a dish-washer!

Or, if today’s inventors went back to Steve Jobs’ demo in 2007, they would rather fancy making a realistic robotic hand that could pinch-zoom!

The argument has been made several times over, that when the motor vehicle industry was at its first inflexion point, the inventors of the day, fortunately, were not attempting to mimic horses’ morphology — but making a paradigm jump with engines and pistons.

That’s where the inventors of today need to draw their inspiration from: First principles. Not human mimicry!

 

Advertisements

My childhood tryst with Nasbandi & a counterfeit Amitabh Bachchan

Education, Humour, Media & Entertainment

Of the many ‘firsts’ that leave an imprint on our lives, the ‘First movie viewed in a theatre’ may not make it to most people’s lists; which would include other honorable firsts, say for example, the first love, first car, first job and a host of other firsts.

But for me it was very different.

The first movie I viewed in theatre was a film called Nasbandi.

I was 6-years old.

This is my story.

THE SETTING: SIKKIM 

The year was 1978 and we were spending our summer break in Sikkim, visiting my uncle (now Late) working with the Border Roads Organization (BRO). For those who care to know, BRO is a quasi military service that, in difficult terrains, could hold more clout than, say, the Head Office (HO). So yeah, in the frontier areas too it’s possibly BROs before HOs!

Sikkim was fresh off the oven, having become a part of the Indian Union only a few years back. It had an ethnic mix of Nepalese, Sikkimese, Biharis, Marwaris etc. One would hear that till a few years back, people in Sikkim did not know about the existence of locks, as they didn’t have any need for them. Concepts of pelf and theft were alien to them. (Incidentally, all this is immaterial to the rest of the story.)

The people of the state were in thrall of a most majestic natural icon looming over the horizon, but visible only when the clouds or fog would clear up — the Kanchenjunga.

One of the daily morning activities that we kids gave ourselves was checking if Kanchenjunga was visible that day. Like little teachers we would seek to take attendance, and the indulgent peak would play hide ‘n seek to mark its presence. (Still immaterial to the story, but sounded cute, no?)

In pre-TV days, this was one way we made up our entertainment mix. Another part of the mix would come from a familiar source — cinema.

THE FIRST MOVIE IN A THEATRE

Over the years, whenever a discussion with friends veered towards ‘your first movie’, the answers would range from the iconic to the inspiring.

My wife, for example, watched Jai Santoshi Ma along with her family*, as her first movie. Now, this is how sanskari kids are brought up.

Some friends had started their cinematic tryst with Sholay. Some started off with Ben Hur or Star Wars. Some younger friends cite Hum Aapke Hain Koun or Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Even younger ones say Lagaan.

You get the point, right?

On the other hand, there’s something fundamentally awkward about Nasbandi being your first movie.

It’s like a permanent tattoo that still hurts. An invisible yet glaring tattoo in block letters, that says: ‘Meri pehli film Nasbandi thhi’ (My first film was Nasbandi)! And its impact — in the same league as that of Vijay’s tattoo in Deewar.

*Glad that my father-in-law asked me an easy set of questions from theology, human psychology, anthropology and mythology, before he agreed to let his daughter marry me! 

tumblr_mo28cnCzpB1rd8p0ro1_1280

Image: http://bombayfilm.blogspot.in/

THE MID-1970s & I.S. JOHAR 

Many of you would be aware of the socio-political environment in India in the mid-1970s. Emergency had been declared. The government of the day and it’s agencies went about enforcing their version of what  makes for good governance with unrestrained fervour.

Population control was one such mission that the government launched with the harmless sounding family planning (parivar niyojan) programme. Except that, the onus of planning wasn’t left to the family, but enforced by the strong arms of the government and the deft fingers of it’s healthcare workers!

Forced sterilization is said to have been the demonitization equivalent of the day, and therefore the resonance of nasbandi in note-bandi for some critics.

The 70s were also the time for humourist and film-maker I.S. Johar to carve a niche for himself in satire, and Nasbandi was his tongue-in-cheek satirical counterattack** to the forced sterilization programme.

**(Note: Today, I see a parallel of that in the way a section of the contemporary crop of stand-up comedians responded to demonetization.) 

Much before Mithun Chakraborty and TLV Prasad institutionalized the Ooty-mein-shooty business template of churning out low-cost films shot in a single schedule in Mithun’s resorts in Ooty — I.S. Johar too had worked out his own cost-effective business model for making films.

He would hire ‘duplicates’ of top stars, give them names which sounded similar to the A-listers and make full length feature films with them. What the global millennials today call doppelgangers; is the cadre of professionals customarily called ‘duplicates’ in Indian cinema.

THE MOVIE

So, Nasbandi had Amitabh Bachchan’s duplicate — Anitabh Bachchan!

Pause.

Close your eyes.

Time to unpeel another layer from the onion bulb of my childhood psyche.

As if Nasbandi itself wasn’t bad enough, my first film also starred a counterfeit Amitabh Bachchan!

And a counterfeit Shashi Kapoor, and a counterfeit Shatrughan Sinha…

It was like, my cinema baptism was being done with gol gappe ka paani made with spurious ingredients from dubious sources.

[Digression: Okay, so my parents did make up for the spurious Amitabh experience with a follow up film a few weeks later with the real Amitabh Bachchan. However, that too was a film that I trust many die-hard Amitabh fans might not have seen — a film called Aalaap.]

I have no memories of the actual film Nasbandi. The only scene I remember well had the genius of the late Rajendranath, and it went something like this…

Rajendranath had been cornered by some policemen and taken to a ‘nasbandi kendra‘ (sterlization center). There he was required to drop his pants. And then his underpants.

In a madcap scene, (which in distant hindsight, combined Chaplin and cheer-haran) every time Rajendranath would drop his underpants, there was another layer of underpants beneath it. In a fast-forward sequence the above steps were repeated on loop, till the hospital staff finally gave up in the face of a mountain of underpants!

For a 5-6 year old THIS WAS IT! I’d been voluntarily enrolled to the Rajendranath Fan Club as a life-member on the spot.

Of course, when we went to watch the movie, I had NO IDEA, what nasbandi meant or the socio-political trends of the day, or the concept of satire.

It was Rajendranath’s underpants epic scene that made for some happy childhood memories!

Nasbandi

Image from: https://www.oldindianphotos.in/2013/11/bollywood-hindi-movie-record-covers.html

THE IMPACT

People say that Freud said that the roots of an adult person’s psychological issues can directly be traced back to childhood events.

Maybe that’s why, when I was coming of age, and went to a see a movie independently for the first time with friends (and not with family) I went for Dada Kondke’s ‘Andheri Raat Mein Diya Tere Haath Mein‘.

And till today, I can reel off Dada Kondke’s dialogues from the film, even though with the passing of years, the cringe-meter started registering higher & higher readings.

My love for cinema has acquired many hues over the years, but remained forever singed by the pre-Instagram filter: The 1978 Summer in Sikkim.

[Cover image: https://www.cinestaan.com/articles/2018/jan/22/10578/40-years-of-nasbandi-film-that-marked-a-high-point-of-is-johar-s-directorial-career]

How Vistara Handled An Accident And Gained A Lifelong Customer

Airlines, Travel

A little more than a year back (Aug 17, 2016) I was traveling with my family, including my old parents, from Mumbai to Delhi on an afternoon Vistara flight (UK 944).

While boarding the flight from the aerobridge at Terminal 2 in Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, my mother, a near octogenarian, tripped on the 5-inch level difference between the aerobridge floor and the aircraft door

As she fell, she hit her head against a side panel inside the aircraft and got a nasty gash, about an inch long,  just over her left eyebrow. Within seconds, the gash started bleeding profusely.

Even as the flight crew waiting for the incoming passengers rushed to her aid, I was angry.

Angry at everyone.

Angry at the attendant accompanying my mother for not having prevented this. Angry at my father walking just behind my mother, for not having warned her of the impending level difference in the floor, which he himself would have missed too! Angry at the airlines, the airport, the designers of the aerobridge, India’s aviation industry, everyone. And also angry at myself for seeing my mother fall down just a few paces ahead of me, and not being able to prevent it.

And while I was coping with this *why us* moment, something else was happening simultaneously, and which is why I’m writing this, albeit a year later.

As soon as my mother fell, the cabin crew and the ground staff all rushed to her aid.

Someone brought tissues, someone ice, and some others lots of more tissues.

A crew member was holding my mother’s forehead, wiping the oozing blood. Another brought water for her to drink. Some others took charge of managing the rest of the passengers whose entry into the plane had been interrupted by this commotion.

Someone took her to the nearest business class seat. More water to drink, and some juice too. And a discussion ensued on how to handle her for the rest of the journey.

The bleeding eased up, nearly stopped, with at least one member of the crew cleaning her wound non-stop. However, they conferred that even though the bleeding had stopped, as it was a fresh open wound, it would start bleeding again when in flight due to the lower air pressure.  So the passenger was not fit to fly.

Now what?

They suggested that while the rest of the family should continue with the journey to Delhi, I should get off the flight with my mother so that she could be attended to, and that we would be put on the next flight to Delhi later that evening.

There was no other choice.

So mother and I made our way back out of the aerobridge, but this time she was on a wheelchair, and a member of the ground staff was holding her head and her hand all this while. The on-duty airport doctor was summoned to the head of the aerobridge itself, while the farther flanks of the aerobridge pulled back from the aircraft, which soon began its push back on the tarmac.

The doctor came and concluded that since the gash was fairly big, it definitely needed stitches, which would require a visit to a hospital. At this stage, in my mind, I’m shadow working out  logistics of the hospital trip.

Also at this point, I hear Pooja instruct Sunil, “You will take them to the Seven Hills Hospital in Andheri East.” Then I hear Pooja call up another colleague giving instructions on withdrawing some imprest cash. Then I hear her talking to another colleague on organizing tickets for our evening flight. All this while walking with us towards the exit.

Remember, this was not a normal arrival flow exit. Entries had to be made in the security registers, gates opened etc.

Soon we were in the pre-paid cab, that Sunil had hailed for us. He himself sat in the front seat, talking to my mother all this while, comforting her.

At the hospital, he ran from one wing to another finding out whether we should go to casualty or OPD.

At the casualty, mom goes through basic tests to assess any non-apparent damage, and gets half a dozen stitches under local anesthesia. The stitched-up wound is now hidden under fresh dressing.

Sunil meanwhile goes and gets water, juice and biscuits for mom and me.

While he’s gone, I try and settle the hospital bill. But before I could, Sunil is back and insists he will pay as he’s been instructed by Pooja to do so.

Work over at the hospital, Sunil now organizes a cab that takes us back to the airport.

At the airport it’s already evening, and as we arrive there’s Pooja and another staffer Tarun waiting outside for us.

We’re fast-tracked inside. Another of their colleagues hands over lounge passes for the two of us, so that mom can have a proper meal and rest before the flight.

We’ve been upgraded to business class, so that mom can pass the rest of the journey more comfortably. And right till we are settled in our aircraft seats, there’s someone from Vistara who’s constantly been with us.

And it just occurred to me then, that I hadn’t held my mother’s hand even once from the time she fell down earlier that day. I hadn’t been given an opportunity to do anything for my mother for the last few hours. It was one Vistara staffer or the other who’d been with mom all through. I was just walking along!

Sitting in the ample space of the business class seats, I realized how my anger of a few hours ago was long gone.

IMG_20160817_182642

I had witnessed a few hours of empathy laced human behaviour of the highest order. I was trying to count the number of times I thought these fine Vistara staffers didn’t really need to go beyond reasonable limits of their professional duty. But each time, they did!

Ironically, I also said to myself, we were fortunate that this happened in Vistara. What if this had happened in one of those airlines that prided themselves on ‘fastest aircraft turnaround times’. We would have been big liabilities for them, spoiling their single-minded pursuit of being ‘on time’.

Much of what I’m writing now, more than a year later, was etched forever in my mind in those few hours.

Back home, the rigour of daily lives took over, and life went on.

Until, one read of the recent few incidents involving passengers and airline staff, and memories of that one day rushed back.

And then a couple of weeks back when I was traveling Mumbai-Delhi (UK 996) with my dad, I saw Pooja at the airport again. I instinctively went up to her and thanked her profusely for that one day, and what she and her team had done.

Incidentally, when we landed in Delhi, I bumped into Tarun as well, and I went up to and thanked him too. He said he remembered that incident very well. He however had to excuse himself as he was getting frantic calls as a flight from Amritsar had been cancelled and he was helping handle the impact it had on affected passengers and their schedules. Yet another day for them to be playing unsung, unrecognized heroes.

In the intervening one year, Vistara has become my first choice as an airline, and I try to fly with them as far as possible.

As for my parents… They now travel Vistara ONLY.

I can’t trust any other airline with their well being. 

 

IMG_20170612_085328

June 2017: Mom and dad being helped by Vistara ground staff in Mumbai (UK 994)