DNA Column : Education and skills in the times of Artificial Intelligence

I write for the dna on education, skills, and how the advances in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are going to wipe out entire job areas; and what skills do we need to combat this.


source: Here

One of the things that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, is the ability to make nuanced decisions, through a process of finding and selecting alternatives, and picking the ‘best’ one based on individual values and preferences. This is a process that has been refined through the entire span of our existence on this planet. Problem solving, decision making, reasoning and learning, are some of the crucial aspects of human intelligence. The more adept we are at these, the more we are considered as being intelligent.

Throughout our existence as a species, humanity has tried to make it’s life easier through inventions and innovations -from harnessing fire to exploring space. And, one question that has been at the core of all the innovations that we take for granted today is “How do we do this in an easier, less time-consuming manner. In other words, how do we increase productivity”.  While productivity deals with increased output per individual, it also means fewer human workers to produce the same output.  From the start of the industrial age, there have been questions asked about the use of machinery in improving productivity. The key question was, what happens to jobs? And, the simple answer to that is, jobs as we know them will go. But, there will be new jobs in new areas.  The trillion-dollar question is, will we have the education and skills to adequately deliver in these new jobs.

Currently, we see increasing calls for restrictions on immigration in industrial countries, to stem local job losses. The fact remains that even zero immigration may not increase the total number of jobs. Most of these jobs have gone to robots with the ability to learn rapidly, adapt to change, and work in extremely hostile conditions.  Rapid Machine Learning, sometimes also known as Artificial Intelligence, is the order of the day.    And there is the other aspect of it, robots do not need salaries, or benefits; pensions or health care; they don’t form unions or go on strikes; they do not work at cross purposes, as humans often do. There are factories in China that have replaced 90% of their human workers with robots, and seen productivity jump 250%; there are factory lines in India that are completely automated; there are entire IT departments, in large organisations,  that have been replaced with extremely sophisticated decision making algorithms; computers are able to glean through data to produce journalistic reports; robots have taken over mining; and medical robots are becoming more pervasive.

The increasing use of AI in its various avatars, has had, and will continue to have a massive impact on jobs, across sectors. For India, this poses a special challenge. 38% of India is under the age of 19, getting into the job market. Do they have the skills to cope with a world where AI is going to take over most of the jobs that exist? Do we know what those skills are?

Across the world, the job threats posed by AI, and robotics have been taken seriously. Leading economists from both the left and the right have begun talking about the prospect of a universal basic income, the amount paid to each adult as income. Bill Gates has spoken about the need for robot tax, that will not only slow down the rate of jobs disappearing, but also pay for jobs and training in new areas – caring for children, caring for senior citizens, are two examples that he states. While these may somewhat slowdown the march of AI and robotics, it is not going to stand in the way of repetitive functions being automated. While Amazon has rolled out self-service stores, there is a Silicon Valley robot that has learned to make burgers.   Even predictive jobs, those that look at past data and predict future outcomes, will be taken over by the machines, sooner rather than later. Therefore, the question is, what kind of jobs will exist in the future. Governments across the world have begun setting up cross disciplinary committees to understand the impact on their economies, to be able to prepare for this future. In India, this is the need of the hour, the focus on skills, training and retraining, that will create a flexible workforce that is mostly in demand.

While AI, today can perform increasingly complex tasks, one aspect of humanity eludes it. Boundless curiosity. The evolution of human civilisation has been about questioning commonly held beliefs of that era. It is asking how can things be better. And this arises out of observing the world, and how things work. unless you know how things work, and how people interact with them, you are not going to be able to make things better. So two sets of abilities and skills that educators have to focus on will be getting students to ask “Why is this so”, and “How can this be made better”. Every aspect of education has to get geared so that students learn to not only question, but find a systematic solution to the question.  For the Indian education system, that has for long learned by rote, it has to be a paradigm shift in terms of not only the methodology of teaching, but also the way outcomes are evaluated. Perfect reproduction of the text book in an answer paper, will no longer be sufficient; being able to think out of the box, will be the key. Teaching students to think without boundaries, needs to be the way forward – because the moment they think within the box, a robot will replace them.


Loneliness of a Social Media Existence

For many people social media is a bubble where they become another entity – popular, liked, part of a larger community, considered a leader, considered important. And, it is not surprising that as the world becomes more complex, as each of us gets involved in our own jam packed lives, it is easier to connect with other human beings on the go, than face to face. Let us face it, it is easier to put a like on a post that says “lost my job, broke my leg, living on the streets” than to actually have a conversation with the person and figure out what is wrong and how you can help.  For many, the idea of ‘getting involved’ in other people’s messes is just not cool.


SO, while we are on the go, putting likes on posts; hearts on photographs; argue passionately about the state of the nation with friends and foes; and get involved in virtual activism for causes we believe in – and consider ourselves completely connected with the world at large, and the life of our friends, the truth is diametrically opposite.We have managed to isolate ourselves into a bubble of loneliness. For ultimately social networks are more networks than social, and human beings need other human beings more than they need likes.

A recent study shows that anyone using social media for more than two hours a day, faced the prospect of social isolation and loneliness. surprise, surprise. You talk to the phone screen the entire day, and then you figure nobody loves  you. They would love you if they knew you existed, but if you keep the black mirror between you an the universe, then you almost become part of the invisible people. People don’t notice other people who are peering into the mobile all the time; anymore than people peering into the mobile notice others.


Source : here 


Why do people feel isolated and lonely ? Well, the researchers have some theories.

First, you have less time for real-world interactions when you’re ogling your iPhone all day. Second, some aspects of social media can make people feel excluded, like seeing all your friends post pictures from a party you didn’t know about. And third, few of us share the ugly, boring, stressful parts of our lives. All those edited, curated pictures of traveling and brunching can spark feelings of envy and a distorted belief that everyone is living their best lives — except for you.

Sigh. At the risk of sounding old and unsympathetic, my two bits of advice.

  •  Get a life – get a hobby, even if it is only to post instagram pics and FB shares. And, make sure it is a hobby that needs practise outside a computer screen.
  • meet and have conversations with  people in your life. Not whatsapp chats or messenger chats – but real face to face chats. And, leave your phone inside, or shut off, when having this chat
  • Get some real sunshine. Go for a walk
  • Have times in the day that are mobile free
  • Read – you will never feel isolated
  • Meditate – you will never feel lonely

Election Silliness : Referendum on whether Pakistanis want to join India

It is election season, as it usually is the case in India.

Which means, we the people, are subject to full on rhetoric, revisionism, silliness, and of course, empty promises. And, this isn’t one party or the other. It is the whole blooming tribe (or as they would say in Hindi netaon ki jaati) that is trying to up the ante on being silly enough to make the headlines, get spoken up, rouse outrage, and then ride out the outrage, till the next outrage.  After all, as we all know, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Don’t believe me, search for articles on the Trump campaign. The more outrageous his statements, the firmer his base became.

Normally, i avoid the temptation to rant about election speeches. One expects them to be outlandish. I don’t even publicly laugh at acronyms; not because i am scared, i am not, but because it just helps make stuff like this the new norm. I have spent 20 years of my life dealing with management consultants of various shapes and forms – and acronyms,  are the norm. We laugh at work, we laugh in public life. And we move on. But, i digress. This isn’t about acronyms. But, this. This is just too much


Election rhetoric is quite one thing, and reality is quite another.

180 million people. many of whom loathe us, and want to destroy us.  Most of whom will not lift a finger to  help. They may like us as individuals, but not as India.  Parts of us may speak similar sounding languages. Parts of us may have common history. But, most of us don’t.

And, suggestions of a referendum, even as election rhetoric, is wrong. Think of all the soldiers who have died. Those who have been beheaded. Think of all the breach of promises. Think of 26/11. Think of the Bombay Blasts. Think of all the terror attacks. And, support of terror groups. And, think, if for 70 years Pakistan could have maintained hostilities against India, without the tacit support of the people.

Not that they are clamouring to join us, not that we have got a red carpet ready.

But, thoughts like these need to be countered, when they come up. Before they become the new normal.

Yes, he has the right to say what he wants. But, as Home Minister, he is also answerable to us, the people.

Seriously, there needs to be a Private Member’s bill that prevents the executive from campaigning for the 5 years that they are running the Government. Go do your work. Let the party campaign. Govern the nation, that is your job. not campaigning.



DNA Column : Jallikattu Protests- Reading the subtext

I Write for the DNA today

To understand the issues surrounding Jallikattu, it helps to look at a changing India and the fault lines that arise from it.

The first thing we need to understand is that Urban India is made up of immigrants. Immigrants from rural to urban areas and one region to the other, where primarily the reasons to move are both, economic and social. While we follow the customs that our ancestors did, they are more in the nature of rituals than in the spirit of these customs. For example, Holi in the city is fun and about colours and water; however, in the rural scenario, it is far more than just a festival of colours. It is also a very important harvest festival where people thank the land for the bounty and celebrate a better tomorrow.

In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is the harvest festival which, in the cities, is often reduced to the food we cook – Pongal, a type of khichdi. And while we may carry forward traditions like tying sugarcane outside our homes and decorating pots and pans with haldi and kumkum, it really is not the same as in the villages. There, it is about genuine and heartfelt worship of the tools of the trade, the animals who help with the crop, and the land that gives the bounty. Mattu Pongal, during the Pongal festivities, is done to honour all farm animals, of which Jallikattu is also a part. Most of the festivities are built around thanksgiving and community congregation. Every region in India has its own set of harvest festivals. Most of these cut across community, caste, gender, and economic status – which means, everyone involved in the rural economy participates enthusiastically as equals. Is religion a part of it? Yes, but not in the way most city people understand religion. Rural India is far more fluid in the matters of religion and far stricter in terms of caste. Urban India is the other way around. Harvest festivals are when most of the differences are set aside and you celebrate as one. For long, the concept of village art, music, culture, sports, and dance were looked down upon with the underlying message that villages had to adopt the ways of the more ‘cultured’ urban dwellers. Less than 20 years ago, the joke, in rather poor taste, would be ‘the only culture in villages was agriculture’. However, with increasing education, prosperity, political participation and rural transformation, Rural India and rural culture is making its voice heard. It is partly in this context that we need to understand Jallikattu.For most commentators and activists (city-based), the choice is binary – between animal rights and cultural practice. For the rural economy though, it is far more multi-layered – economy, culture, tradition, achievement, aspiration, self-image, and a sense of community are all tied to the festivities.

(image from here)

The second equally important thing to understand is the concept of the Tamil identity which subsumes all other identities that one may have. It cuts across your birth area, religion, caste and education to make everyone in the state a Tamil first. To feel the sense of Tamil identity does not need you to be born a Tamilian, so it’s less about birth and about the emotion. There are enough and more non-Tamil borns who consider themselves (and are considered to be) Tamilians. Rajnikanth, MGR, Jayalalitha, Khushbhoo – just to name a few.It also cuts across religious lines and caste lines. I cannot quite recall any other group where the sense of identity is so strong and so pervasive.The last time the Tamil identity came into play in a big way was during the anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s. The consideration of the imposition of Hindi as a national language was enough for the Tamilians to believe there was a threat to their identity and culture. The Central Government of the day, capitulated. Needless to say, Hindi is one of the official languages not the national language.

The third thing to understand is that regional parties in India are going through a flux. Most of the issues are to do with succession. Be it Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or the Nationalist Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is no different. After the death of Jayalalithaa, the power seems to be split between Chief Minister Panneerselvam and Sasikala who was Amma’s companion and is now the General Secretary of AIADMK.The Jallikattu protests were vital in both, asserting the claims to protect the Dravidian identity (The D in both DMK and AIADMK stands for Dravidian) and the Tamil way of life. No political party in Tamil Nadu can stand against the assertion of the Tamil pride. And for parties like the DMK and AIADMK that are looking to revive their game and become relevant to a new Tamil Nadu, this was a Supreme Court-sent opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the protest, while claiming them as their own and the victory as its result.

The final thing to understand is that there will be organisations – NGOs or even the State – that will challenge local customs because they are no longer in sync with the law. Be it child marriage or animal cruelty, polygamy or devdasi cult, many practices were culturally acceptable once but legally challenged later. This will continue and it will step on the toes of the ‘customs’ – and the local custom will fight back. It is all a part of being a thriving Democratic Republic. If everyone agreed on everything, it would be a terribly boring place to live in. And whatever else you may say about India, we are not boring.

The recent capitulation by the Central Government by pushing through a hastily drafted ordinance and its request to the apex court not to rule on the validity of this ordinance, is the culmination of these four seemingly non-connected aspects.

The protests to hold Jallikattu have been going on for a few years. This year’s demonstrations have been as much about Jallikattu as they have been about the other things. There has been an underlying sense of resentment in the state towards the way the ‘North’ has been treating them.The North is a combination of the Centre, the Supreme Court, the media, and anything else that is not from Tamil Nadu. Be it the Kaveri water dispute, the treatment of the refugees from Sri Lanka, or the reaction to the Chennai floods, or the Hindi used in government advertising — it has all been building up for a while. It has been seen as a gradual whittling away of federalism and the Tamil identity and culture. The last rebuff from the Supreme Court on Jallikattu was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Centre and the State reacted and peaceful protests by Tamilians across the state have led to an ordinance that overturns a Supreme Court ruling on the game.

The question is what happens the next time a community decides it is going to use state/ cultural/ regional/ tribal/ caste pride to protest a law which it believes is against their culture. And protests to carry on their way of life? The best Jallikattu analogy here would be that individual sub-cultures can be like raging bulls, the one who wins would steer the bull his way, not one who gets steered by the bull. Because if you get steered by a raging bull, it is going to gore you sooner or later. It is a lesson India learned after Rajiv Gandhi yielded on Shah Bano. One can only hope that we don’t have to learn the same lesson all over again.

Review : Politics of the Womb by Pinki Virani

I wrote this for She the People, earlier this week

Many years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s, dystopian novel, Handmaid’s Tale. Set around a plausible tomorrow, it looks at a world where fertility has plummeted, and there are a special category of women   who are kept especially for reproductive purposes. As I read the “Politics of the Womb” by Pinki Virani a frightening today began to emerge. Where there are women, whose only value to the world seems to be the eggs that she produces, the uterus that she has, and the womb that she rents.

A riot, in very slow motion, is being engineered on the woman inside her body; to take her apart, part by profitable part.

The slow rampage is in the name of God – for hers is the womb and she shall conceive.

In the name of science – for hers is the hostile uterus and medical evaluation must arbitrate. ……The world over, the combined might of religion and science has converged to martial many a uterus with a child. At any cost; to the woman, to her baby.

The opening lines of Pinki Virani’s long hard look at the surrogacy industry, hits you in the gut, and pulls you into a narrative structure that takes you into the universe of uterus pimp; the woman (who is the walking uterus; IVF clinics that charge, and charge, and charge;  the desperate, would be,  parents who want to have a biological child; and the mad rush for designer babies. Politics of the Womb – The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy and Modified Babies is both a behind the scenes look at the new industry that seems to have grown without regulation;  the ethics of such work; and a normative framework for regulation. It is also a manifesto of the rights of the unborn child. Someone has to speak for the child, and Ms Virani makes a very strong case for children born of IVF.


The books looks at how expensive  IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) treatment  is being pushed as the first option, on desperate parents, when there are a gamut of other options, that could spare the prospective parents both an expensive bill, as well as physical and mental trauma. There is between 72-80% failure rate per IVF cycle. Less than a third of people who start the IVF treatment, come away with a baby. The costs-  financial, physical and emotional – are seldom publicized or discussed. And, all this in the backdrop of an  industry that sells a myth of fertility, and downplays the medical risks both to the mother and those that may occur to the child. Virani  looks at the data surrounding IVF and birth defects, that leads to children being born autistic, and  with mental retardation. The risk of babies conceived through Ivf or Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is 37% higher than babies conceived naturally. “Collateral damage” says a doctor, on the side effects, and birth defects.

Virani’s anger against the commoditization of the uterus, and its commercialization, is palpable. When she quotes doctors, involved in the baby making business,  she lets their callousness and utter disregard for the woman’s body, and the reproductive process , stay there unvarnished. “What is a uterus, it is like a room. Repaint, redecorate any number of times”’, Virani quotes a doctor saying.

Surrogacy is in the news of late, because of the bill being discussed in Parliament, as well as the Government’s banning of commercial surrogacy. In light of the high pitched conversations around this topic, it might be worthwhile to read the “Politics of the Womb” to look at the issue in a holistic manner.


(Politics of the Womb; The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy & Modified Babies; by Pinki Virani; Viking; Rs 599; Pages 304)