Spectre or spectacle or scenario?

This sentence in the FT article on the latest (and probably intentional, at least so far) and major design flaw in computer chips caught my attention:

But the inevitable trade off between efficiency and security has not always been made with perfect knowledge of the consequences. [Link]

What was amusing about this sentence was that it did not seem to recognise the fact that most of the things that have been happening around the world – not just in the world of computing – in the last three to four decades have been done without due (or any) regard for the consequences.

Examples: QE, or, financial de-regulation or algorithmic trading or dark pools or negative interest rates or Arctic drilling or fracking or smart phones or social media.


A distracted post

I saw the link to the story in FT Alphaville about smart phones and their impact on productivity.  We should not be surprised at all. The evidence is in front of our eyes, as we walk on the road, as we drive, etc. Almost everyone is distracted, to the detriment of not just productivity but of safety. The FT Alphaville story is here. The original blog post is here. The original post is worth reading for it teases out other dimensions of what it means to be part of the distracted generation.

Izabella Kaminska had written in 2014 about supermarkets, big data and manipulation of human preferences. That link appeared in the post above. I quickly glanced through it. Helps us to focus on how powerless we are and how little influence and control we have over our own lives and choices. It is as much a spiritual realisation as it is a consequence of modern technology! Humans have unleashed a Frankenstein monster on fellow humans. Quite likely they did not intend it that way since they are not in control themselves! So, who really drives this? Perhaps, no one. Once we set down on a path of ‘conquering’ everything that we viewed as obstacles, this ought to be a logical conclusion?

In case you are too distracted to read ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, please do watch Dan Ariely’s TED talk. I had posted that several times. But, worth reiterating.


Workplace automation – some links

On November 3, I had posted a small extract from a long article in ‘New Yorker’ on workplace automation. I am repeating it here.

This article on Fanuc, the Japanese robots manufacturer is equally important read.

Robots routinely crash – this is encouraging in a curious sort of way.

A socially aware techie?!:

Subbarao Kambhampati, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, said that although technology often benefited society, it did not always do so equitably. “Recent technological advances have been leading to a lot more concentration of wealth,” he said. “I certainly do worry about the effects of AI technologies on wealth concentration and inequality, and how to make the benefits more inclusive.” [Link]

The Guardian on the Alphabet’s ‘Urban Takeover’. This is unlikely to be socially beneficial.

The first time a prominent commentator has dared question the mindless expansion of the frontiers of technology. Lant Pritchett’s piece in ‘Ideas for India’ is worth a read. (ht: Amol Agrawal’s Mostly Economics).

Humans and Robots

In southern Denmark, the regional government hired a chief robotics officer, Poul Martin Møller, to help integrate more robots into the public sector, largely as a money-saving measure. He decided that the Danish hospital system, which was under pressure to reduce costs, could benefit from robotic orderlies. There were few medical-oriented robots on the market, though, so Møller and his team took small, mobile robots with movable arms, designed for use in warehouses, and refashioned them, so that they could carry supplies to doctors and nurses. The machines worked well, scuttling through surgery wings and psych wards like helpful crabs, never complaining or taking cigarette breaks. But Møller wasn’t prepared for the reaction of the hospital staff, who recognized their mechanical colleagues as potential replacements, and tried to sabotage them. Fecal matter and urine were left in charging stations. [Link]

It is a fairly long article but worth a read.

Bullet train and rail safety

About ten days ago, the Business Standard newspaper carried a brief story featuring four tweets by Mr. P. Chidambaram, the former Finance Minister, on the need for railway safetey and how money spent on bullet trains should be spent on railway safety. On the face of it, it is unexceptionable. But, it is unfortunate.

But, the truth is, as stated many a time in this blog, that the soft loan – very, very low interest rate for a long term – that is being extended by Japan is only for this project. The Government of India is not diverting funds for this. There will be some money that the Indian Government has to put in. But, it is a very small sum.

Check this out from the ‘Hindustan Times’:


To fund the ambitious Rs 1,10,000-crore project, a loan of Rs 88,000 crore will be taken from Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) will fund it at a low rate of interest of 0.1% per annum. This loan has to be repaid to Japan in 50 years, with 15 years grace period. [Link]

Ajit Ranade had written cogently and eloquently on why the project makes sense. He wishes the project Godspeed. He is quite right on this one. The project has much to commend for itself, inclding Rail Safety. Ranade writes [emphasis mine]:

The MAHSR is one of the crown jewels in the robust Indo-Japan relationship. Its concessional funding of $15 billion, at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent, is from Japan International Cooperation Agency, to be repaid over 50 years after an initial 15-year moratorium. This funding is specifically earmarked for MAHSR and is not fungible.

Japan is an acknowledged world leader in high-speed rail technology, whose focus is on reliability and safety. Their approach is integrating transport and development, not merely to achieve high-speed connection.

The project envisages technology and skill transfer, indigenous manufacturing and employment. Don’t forget that Japan had a major role to play in India becoming a hub of small-car manufacturing in the world. That’s the story of Maruti Suzuki.

Japan also was instrumental in the setting up of Delhi Metro. It may be useful to note that the Tokyo metro system is one of the world’s most sophisticated, with 158 lines criss-crossing 2,200 stations serving 40 million passenger rides daily. All this with a near-zero accident rate. Hence the safety aspect of MAHSR has the Shinkansen mindset and approach behind it.

Just as the Indian Space Research Organisation inspires, so would the Bullet Train project, both on safety and on technological excellence and even punctuality. Certain discontinuous opportunistic leapfrogging is necessary from time to time. That is what this project would do.

As for safety in Indian Railways, read what Sunil Jain wrote in ‘Financial Express’ after the Elphinstone Road tragedy [Emphasis mine]:

And Suresh Prabhu lost his job as Railway minister following the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailment – while the poor man had done well to focus on eliminating unmanned railway crossings where 60% of fatalities used to occur in the past, when push came to shove, he hadn’t managed to stop the derailments. But how could he? In 2012, the Anil Kakodkar panel said India needed Rs 1 lakh crore for fixing safety and said it wasn’t safe to use the 52kg/m tracks or the 43,000 ICF coaches – this got highlighted in all the recent accidents – but the Railways is too broke, so we fix what we can (albeit at a faster pace under Prabhu) and leave the rest to God.

As a former Finance Minister, Mr. Chidambaram should come out in support of the Delhi Metro fare hike and oppose the politically motivated resistance to it. See here.

On reading this blog post, my friend shared this news-story from February 2012 with me. All parties oppose what they propose! Neither the Congress nor the BJP is an exception.

Automation and Greg Ip

I could not stop thinking if Greg Ip connected what ​Jon Hilsenrath wrote in ​July 2016 and this piece that he had written and saw the linkages, if any. Well, there is a link.

How is it possible to document the social and economic ills as well as he did in June 2016 and not see the connection between technology and that?
How can one deliberately stay at the aggregate level and not talk about who wins and who loses and whether that would have social or economic consequences or both?

I think the piece by Jon Hilsenrath of July 2016 is freely accessible. Greg Ip’s piece could be behind a paywall. If so, apologies.

When I shared this story and the thoughts above, my batch-mate, Subramanian Sharma sent me this riveting and frightening story. The event happened in 2008 but the story was written in May 2017. I could access it. So, I think you should be able to, too.

Localisation vs. Globalisation

An interesting article (could be behind a paywall) from Gillian Tett in the FT on how executives had already been turning away from globalisation, well before Donald Trump arrived at the White House. It is not too hard to fathom the reasons: they went for cost savings. They had dried up. So, they return. Technology has also made local manufacturing competitive, perhaps. I do not know. I am guessing. More interesting for me was the question of what it meant for the balance between capital and labour.

Globalisation – whether jobs went or work went overseas – expanded the global supply of labour. That, in part, contributed to the withering of labour bargaining power in the West and kept a lid on wage growth. This was true from the Eighties and more so in the new millennium, after the entry of China into the WTO in 2001.

Now, the big question is if the ‘reversal’ of the trend would restore the balance between capital and labour. If one may hazard a guess, it does not seem like it because this reversal is being driven by the same profit consideration too that drove globalisation.

Nothing wrong about the motivation at all except that the fruits of such business decisions were shared in blatantly lopsided fashion. Now, technology – robotics and AI – might end up postponing (or, denying) the reversal of the capital vs. labour imbalance that began in the 1980s.

One thought that the global crisis of 2008 would force a re-examination of many undesirable trends that had taken roots in the previous quarter century: leveraging, financialisation, executive compensation and the erosion of social compacts of business. That has not happened yet. One hopes (in vain) read some good news from Gillian Tett on these.