Categories
Tech and Culture

Artificial Intelligence in 2020

AI — Artificial Intelligence — is a fascinating term. It’s been part of our lives, in one form or the other, ever since we were born. It’s only in the last decade that the usage of the term has become so ‘daily’. Nary a day goes by where you don’t run into AI impacting one or the other aspects of our lives.

What was previously a thing of a future life is suddenly something that we use and interact with every day. Are our computers suddenly intelligent, more so than they were 20 years ago, or has the term’s definition merely been rebased to their current capabilities in order to influence our behavior?

AI suddenly became a thing of this century a few years ago — as my memory recalls — during a Facebook conference that had a session about how the company was using ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to make the platform safer for its users. It is hard to manually moderate all the content being liked and shared by billions of users (they’re not customers) every hour, and so the company desperately needed a way to automate a huge portion of that grunt, and often, mentally disturbing work. This is where AI suddenly became a thing that exists today, instead of an utopian future.

That is not to say that AI, the term, is merely cunning marketing. I mean, even though your chances of being taken seriously in the money markets are greatly improved if you throw in the term in your communications material, a lot of it has to do with the quantum jump in our computers’ capabilities. Moore’s law is real, after all.

I just came across two articles in this morning’s newspaper — one about YouTube finally reverting to using more humans for content moderation as a result of the automated systems (read algorithms) falsely flagging content that was safe and letting through questionable content. They reached the conclusion that the financial burden of investigating moderation appeals was higher than any cost-savings coming from automating the moderation process.

The second was an opinion piece about how AI has ‘disappointed’ us during the ongoing pandemic. The premise is that the current state of AI works incredibly well if humans intervene early on and help decipher it right from wrong, good from bad, or wanted from unwanted. What we call AI today is largely just an aspect of big data that combines with advances in computing technology to stimulate ‘machine learning’, and like us humans, learning requires an early intervention to prevent learning all the wrong things.

There was another interesting event that went ‘viral’ on Twitter this weekend. Apparently, in order to generate a thumbnail preview of any posted pictures, the website uses an algorithm to center it around a key ingredient. In the case of pictures with people, the idea is to center the thumbnail around a key person so that the thumbnail is more relevant and informative in the post. There was a snag, though. The algorithm always preferred a white person to represent this key person whenever there was another non-white person.

Clearly, the current state of AI is not there, yet, and often leads to results that are actually bad. Some of this AI is also generating our Internet search results and is creating even more division and sowing hatred among people. AI also has potential to change lives of people long-term as was evinced by the algorithmic generation of school-leaving results in the UK a while ago.

But, AI is cool, and just by making it a part of your business plan could make the difference between being able to launch that company or watching the idea of it slowly withering away. Investments are largely buzzword-driven.

So, what are we to do?

As with politics, the clear way to make long term positive impact is to educate others. Part of this involves also keeping up with the evolution of AI yourself. We could help others in understanding that computers aren’t autonomous and will only learn what they’re taught. And like everyone else, these teachers will often make mistakes. Fact check. Seek answers. Clarify.

Computers can be wrong.

Categories
Economy

Europe’s Corona Forbearance

I read an interesting view point (Archive) in today’s FT about the current economic measures in various EU countries and how they’re mostly geared towards ‘forbearance’ — furlough schemes, wage support, loans, etc. With impending national elections (Netherlands has its general elections in less than a year), no government wants to risk losing votes by enacting measures that do anything other than protect current jobs.

Even in The Netherlands, the government has gone out of its way to support airlines and banks, being as they are, some of the largest employers in the country that also support a farm of smaller businesses that depend on them for sustenance. This is even though people are increasingly banking cross-border with one of the many Fintech companies, or flying less.

While the re-election consequences are worth noting, perhaps governments ought to balance doing the right thing with doing the timely thing. Innovation budgets have been cut, and entrepreneurs are usually left to depend on private loans or crowdfunding, especially because the venture funding scene in Europe remains risk-averse. Just when the country needs to double down on innovation into new kinds of businesses and jobs, most of the financial firepower is being used to prop up failing companies.

This makes me wonder if the next wave of innovative companies would come from the ‘lazier’ economies of the South. Their bailout and social schemes have been under immense scrutiny over the last couple decades, and the electorate has already hiked the route of disillusionment. They have nothing to gain by keeping failing jobs propped up. But, they stand to become even less competitive if they did not use the incoming sovereign bailout funds to invest in startups and new jobs.

The challenge is that any mis-step would have consequences for the next decade, and I really hope that all this leads to Europe coming out on top.

Categories
Tech and Culture

Self-Promoting Engineers

I recently signed up for a networking platform called ‘Lunchclub.ai’ that aims to be ‘an AI superconnector that makes introductions for 1:1 video meetings to advance your career’. It is an interesting idea, and so far I’ve met 3 people, one from near Milan, another from Berlin, and one from Stockholm (although he was Russian). It is nice to connect randomly with other entrepreneurs or interesting people for a quick video chat.

On my last meeting with the person from Stockholm, the conversation ended up being quite informal and friendly — we talked about cultural issues with being an expat and how it could be challenging to start with a new idea in those circumstances. Then, the other person pointed out how engineers lack the capability to upsell their work and qualifications. You could look at almost any other profession and clearly notice that selling oneself comes along with it. Except for engineering.

As an engineer, one is expected only to be good at their core competency and to be able to communicate with peers. That they are great at their work shouldn’t be something that needs to be advertised outside of the recruiting process.

It made me think. Some of the best engineers I have had the pleasure to learn from were also quite bad at promoting themselves. It is assumed that great engineers are constantly learning and evolving, and that the more years of experience they accumulate the better they get. Anything else is just unacceptable, and following this career path is barely meeting expectations. On the other hand, the engineers who plan and break away from this mould are often those that transition out from the engineering profession to a career built upon teaching or public speaking.

Good engineers are also almost always suffering from the burden of not being good enough. There is always something to learn, some way to improve, or just some people to look up to. And if you’re a software engineer, there is always another framework or architectural pattern that is in vogue that you haven’t even looked at. You slacker you!

This is quite a dichotomy — on one hand, engineers are expected to be great and to always be learning, while on the other hand, the ones that do learn the art of self-promotion are deemed to not be engaged with the profession full-time. There’s only enough time to either engage with your engineering craft or to tell the world how good you’re at it.

A lot of workplaces now promote public speaking for their engineers, but this is often limited to speaking to other engineers, and is, as such, used primarily as a recruitment tool — check out our infrastructure/team structure/methodology and be a part of something great. While it helps bring talent together, it seldom helps individual contributors in ways other than perhaps opening them up for recruitment by other similar teams.

There is a good balance to be obtained among shameless self-promotion and genuine marketing, but every engineer ought to be unashamed about telling the world how great they are, and also to publicly recognize that there is no shame in being an expert on whatever the pattern or framework of the month happens to be.

Categories
Life and Personal

On Short Vacations

Europe, at large, entered the Coronavirus lockdowns in the middle of April. While a sizable number of well-read people knew that it would be a long road ahead, full of uncertainties and challenges, for policymakers, that was the time to expedite short-term action to sustain the livelihoods of vulnerable sections of society. As a result, tourism was completely shut down. Anything that involved the coming together of people face to face was deemed necessary to be shutdown in order to stop the virus’ spread.

Now that the numbers are starting to decrease and the caseload becoming manageable, countries are in a hurry to kickstart business as usual. This is driven by the need to get the situation back to normalcy, both in economic as well as social terms. Humans are social animals, after all. Just like we crave food for sustenance, we also long for social contact and cultural experiences for our well-being.

So, as restaurants and cafes are starting to reopen, albeit with distancing measures, travel is also beginning to slowly come up to speed. Airlines have been operating within European borders. People are starting to drive to and from neighboring countries. Combined with distancing measures, this influx of neighbors has actually led to crowding that’s very difficult to manage.

While a lot could be said about why tourism these days is not the same as back in the day when people took longer vacations and when travel was more expensive, this is not the post for that.

I am more curious about how the current technological state-of-the-art could be used to make short-term/weekend tourism unnecessary. After all, what is tourism that only lasts a long weekend? Is a vacation away in a different continent any better than staying home if most of it is spent traveling and sleeping? Is there a way to do away with this kind of tourism and leverage technology instead?

VR rings a bell. Surely, it would be great if we could live the moment in another city while not really going there. I think this would work for virtual travel to places that are otherwise bereft of experiences that trigger senses related to smell, taste, atmospheric changes, and other feelings that technology still cannot affect.

But, VR works great for creating entirely new kinds of experiences. It’s like video games. A holiday experience does not have to really replicate the real world — it is a kind of escape. It just so happens that traditionally a vacation involves secondary experiences related to lodging at a hotel, not having to cook, driving on new roads, etc. Instead of just changing a few hours of your daily life, a vacation is about making you live all your waking hours differently. And, since we are so busy, any respite from daily repetition is a good change.

Perhaps the answer is not in technology. Perhaps, it is about reconnecting with our cities and learning something new about it. Maybe, we ought to redefine a holiday getaway as more about the mind than physical presence. Instead of effecting a change in routine by forcing a physical movement, we should investigate the power of relaxation or indulging in exploration in our own vicinities.

This is something that has worked for me. Whereas previously we would often go on weekend getaways, the virus situation has forced us to spend more time in our city and nearby. Guess what! Even after having lived here for 10 years, we are still discovering nature so close to Amsterdam that we never knew existed. I often find myself exclaiming that this place looks like it belonged in a different continent.

Cycling has been wonderful, too. Weekends are now spent cycling to nearby nature parks rather than walking around in the city with other people at close proximity. Along with the health benefits, this helps in getting away from crowds, provides meditative effects, and also saves the planet from pollution that otherwise would have been released into the atmosphere. It’s a win-win.

So much of our holiday travel starts with anxiety around planning and delays and ends as such. Wouldn’t it be great if we focused more on well-being than checking off places to make it a vacation?

Categories
Life and Personal

Shopping for Produce in Corona-Times

I was just reading an editorial about how shopping preferences for nearly everything have shifted to online, and yet, it is not profitable for companies to deliver purchases, even if they add a hefty surcharge on top of the final bill.

For a lot of cutting-edge technophiles, this trend has been a long time coming. We’re used to finding wonderful deals, especially on technology gadgets online. The fact that physical retail was great for immediate gratification, while online brought you the best prices and selection has been long established.

This has not held true for perishable grocery purchases, though. While almost all chains in the country offer home delivery, it is often not free or has a terribly long delivery time. Some busy people have used these services to save time or even as much as a motivator to get healthy by buying less food.

Things changed when the Coronavirus struck. Suddenly, everyone was being told to minimize contact as much as possible, and so online ordering really took off. A lot of startups even came up to address this new market to deliver groceries. What was a non-revenue generating experimental business for a lot of grocery chains was now driving a lot of business.

It is an odd situation, though — people have much more time to do their shopping and yet here they are sitting at home ordering produce to be delivered.

Fortunately, in most of Europe, weekly markets are a very prominent feature of most cities and even villages. In Amsterdam, where we live, there is a weekly organic food market every Wednesday and a much bigger market that brings in all kinds of entrepreneurs on Saturdays. When the pandemic first took hold, the city had to put in place various measures that meant that only very few stalls selling produce and flowers were allowed.

This has eased quite a bit now and business seems to be back to normal, except better. It appears that a lot more people are now actually interested in buying farm fresh produce and understanding where their food is coming from.

I love buying nuts, flowers, fruits, and produce at these markets. And now with the pandemic, our visits to the grocery store is limited to things like sparkling water or chocolates. A few entrepreneurs have even become friendly enough to exchange pleasantries while there is a long line of customers waiting for their turn. Before the pandemic, there were hardly any lines to buy produce at these markets as they generally tend to be more expensive than chains.

What started as an exercise in helping small entrepreneurs and becoming healthy has actually also led to people now understanding more about their food supply chain. Turns out that some vegetables and fruits don’t grow year-round!

If you’re close to one of these markets, support them, and make sure to pay in cash 🙂

Categories
Software Engineering Tech and Culture

Working Remotely

Everyone is WFH – Working From Home these days. Even people that never were in favor of remote work for IT workers are now compelled to set up a special place in their homes for work to carry on uninterrupted. Just the other day, I got an IM from an ex-colleague, who vehemently opposed remote work, sort of lamenting to me as to how the entire world is now forced to work from home.

I started my professional career in the US in the IT consulting business. It wasn’t the ideal start to a career, mostly because when you’re working as a consultant, you don’t have an office — you go where the client goes. This also meant that I had a level of autonomy, especially considering my experience, that was not afforded to even seasoned permanent employees. For one, I could come in and leave the office anytime as long as I was able to commit to the project plan. This was just like being in grad school! It could also explain why I ultimately built a good framework around separating work-life from personal-life.

I still remember working remotely for about a month as I was recuperating from a foot surgery. It was quite a non-issue. My supervisor(s) had no problems with that even back in the day, and I was actually offered to apply for a preferential parking permit to avoid walking long distances whenever I returned.

Then, as I became more experienced, I was able to take on client calls from home or prioritize personal matters around professional work. It was all quite flexible and amazing. This was the business of consulting for IT departments to set up complex systems.

Even when I moved to pure software engineering (building products for end-users) as a consultant, I have memories of being allowed flexibility. Sadly, none of those companies are in business, still. It seemed that back in the day, even tech companies had a pretty good handle on work-life balance. Some of my colleagues even worked remotely on a full-time basis, just as long as they were able to negotiate it at some point. And a lot did. Surely, having geographically spread campuses with a more project-oriented focus helped. Perhaps it was also a cultural thing; who doesn’t remember going on long team lunches back then?!

And then, sometime around the early 10’s things changed. Agile and Scrum, in particular, were already on the rise, but now that companies were newer and budgets leaner, companies started trying to optimize their workplaces, both for usage as well as project management. Agile was the hot new buzzword. Gone were cubicles in exchange for ‘collaborative’ open spaces full of drawing boards, plants, and as little furniture as possible. My first open floor-plan office job was actually in 2010. Some people even shared a desk, if it were too big for one person.

This was also the time when, battered by the Great Recession, companies were trying to bring back a lot of operations that were outsourced until the late 00’s. People just have to be in the same room!

The thing is that none of the benefits of being in the same room supersede the efficiencies obtained by inculcating a more flexible and professional work ethic. A lot of this new-age ‘company is your family’ came about from Silicon Valley competing for talent by offering on-site catered lunches and laundromats and daycares and whatnot. Smaller startups were only able to preach the mantra of collaboration and agility. In all of this, though, the voice of many who wanted to focus mostly on productivity was silenced. Surely, they aren’t team-players and fully committed if they’d want to work from a beach, which is definitely what ‘working remotely’ implied!

In denser cities like Amsterdam and San Francisco, there was more incentive to build fancy office spaces — homes were smaller and didn’t provide enough separation between work and personal space. That, and most people are terrible at time management. The biggest complaint with remote work is that people don’t know when their work-day begins and when it ends. Either they’re working all the time, or can barely figure out a rhythm for working. Some people also miss the social aspect, although I am of the opinion that they mostly have customer-facing roles or have circular dependencies in order to contribute.

For the past 6 years, I have been working remotely. Interestingly, what should be natural for tech-workers is now seen as a privilege. I love it, and even though I wouldn’t call myself unsocial, I like that I get the change to pick between being social or being productive or both! When I started, I was actually in the midst of changing my lifestyle and getting healthier. I used to go on morning and lunch walks. I could take some calls and manage my emails while having a coffee with my newspaper. I could plan my lunch at an odd hour. All things that are relatively impossible in an office environment.

This brings me to a segue about the aforementioned colleague. I had a ton of discussions about his idea of a productive workspace. He wasn’t a full-time contributor, and only wanted to come to the office when he desired. His reason to want an office was also because he missed camaraderie at home. All very selfish reasons. And this has been my experience talking to a lot of opponents of remote work — they only hate it up until they have a personal need. At that point, privilege sets in. The whole teamwork seems to fall apart, both practically and theoretically. Think about it — how is it a team-building exercise if some people in your team would love to have some flexibility for a few days (for personal reasons) but your project planning requires them to be there in person for every working hour. That’s got to be demotivating.

And now that offices have *had* to close down, I feel that the empty promises of more collaborative workspaces are coming to the fore. Apple is releasing more stable updates, companies are still working and building, and people are still working hard. Some so much that they’re now complaining of corona-fatigue. Instead of countless meetings in a conference room, people are now tired of video calls. Things are normal. The only people disadvantaged seem to be those that prioritized proximity to the office to comfort when picking a place to live. Now they’re left with a tiny apartment in a wonderfully central location, but no workspace.

It is clear that working remotely is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Until the virus situation is eased enough to allow executives to regularly work from an office, it is fair to assume that very few people in the non-essential IT workers category would like to subject themselves to viral exposure. That could take a few months, if not years. And none of that would slow down the progress of technology.

So, was I right in embracing and pushing for a remote-friendly autonomous culture at all my previous workplaces? You bet I was.

Categories
Life and Personal

My Regular Cycling Rides

I have always had a bicycle. Well, always except my time in college and when I lived in the US. Now that I live in The Netherlands, a country renowned for its cycling infrastructure, it is something that I enjoy not just for short commutes, but also as a way to spend leisure time.

While I have mostly rented or used the popular OV-Fiets bike share program to go on weekend trips around the country, I decided to get my own bicycle this past April. I figured that it would be nice to have a better quality bicycle at my disposal than the ones that are available through bike-share or rental programs. For a brief while, I even thought about getting one of the more in-vogue electric bicycles — wouldn’t it be fun to spend the same amount of effort to travel even faster — so I thought. Well, it isn’t, because the bicycles I explored either had really bad range or suffered from quality issues. I thought — if I only get a range of 50-60kms per charge, I could pedal that much on my own without an electrical assist. And so, I got a cheap(er) Dutch ‘transport’ bicycle with 3 gears and a pedal brake.

Now, while everyone is deciding to buy a bicycle to eschew public transportation, it also means that I could no longer take a bicycle on the train every weekend and ride somewhere new. I am now literally confined to a radius around home, unless I want to buy a mask and risk getting a Coronavirus infection. Luckily, Amsterdam is surrounded by nature in every direction. And so, over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find a regular rhythm, more so because summers are especially tragic when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet 🙂

It’s almost become therapeutic now. Also amazing is that I could take multiple different routes to get to the same spot. I don’t even need a map anymore. Often times, I run into the same people cycling after work or just exercising. It has become a nice new habit.

There are two expansive golf courses near where I ride. There is also a great amount of flora and fauna — I speed past wild berries and lots of birds. Being summer, the grounds are often full of families grilling and just having a grand time.

These wind-turbines are massive structures!

The thing about cycling in The Netherlands is that the whole country is a natural park. Even along cycle paths, you would find benches and rest areas with amazing views of waterways, nature, or just other cyclists merrily enjoying the planet. Even industrial areas have features.

One of the highlights of my routine has been the occasional chocolate aroma that blows from the nearby chocolate factory when the timing and the wind-direction is just right. Talk about adding flavor to life!

Categories
Economy Tech and Culture

Small Business Ad-Spend

The world has been going through a tumultuous era. Not only is it ravaged by the Coronavirus, the subsequent financial and social implications have driven people crazy and longing for a change. Various simmering issues have come to a steady boil in what doesn’t seem like ready to subside anytime soon — racial inequality, financial inequity, a reckoning with the colonial past in western democracies, to name a few.

Big changes are underfoot.

As companies face slowing market conditions, compounded by the social upheaval, they’re also having to face pressure from their customers on standing up to divisive voices in the society. Companies are investigating their ad-spend on platforms that provide micro-targeting, but that in these times also tend to place this advertising side-by-side with content that aims to break the social order.

By last count, a lot of big name companies have already pulled their ad-spending from various platforms owned by Facebook and Google. That said, there are very few, if any, other places for them to reach their customers. So much so that Facebook’s CEO even boasted that these advertisers would be back ‘soon enough’ with their money as they realize that there is no other way.

Buried in these news, I found myself fascinated by the revelation that about 70% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes not by way of these Cokes and Unilevers, but from the multitudes of local and small businesses spread throughout the globe. It makes perfect sense in hindsight — if you’re big, you could possible afford spending on TV ads or billboards, but if you have that tiny neighborhood café that derives a lot of seasonal tourist-dependent revenue, your best bet is a Facebook (Instagram) ad campaign.

Perhaps then, the next ad-tech business the world needs is something that helps these small businesses reach their target demographic in a more ESG-friendly manner. A platform that doesn’t mine all the data there is, but provides genuine value. This platform would be made for small business by small business with only one goal — make the world a nicer place.

Now the question — who’s up for this?

Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

I Miss Emails

Every now and then I search my email for an obscure keyword or phrase that was at one time relevant to my interests — ‘AIIM’ when I worked as a records management consultant, or ‘dinner’ to look back at when we planned for such things by email. I even have chains going back 15 years where people are discussing something forwarded by someone and that resulted in a never-ending sequence of Reply-All’s.

In a way, I miss that.

These days, people send quick instant messages through one of the dozens of ‘social media’ apps that nearly everyone is assumed to be a member of. Can’t remember the contact details of that colleague from 10 years ago? Search on LinkedIn. What about that classmate in grad school? Chances are that they’re on Facebook.

On the other hand, it is almost foolhardy to assume that the person you used to email years ago is still using that same email address — their job might have changed, or they could’ve switched to that awesome new email service that has better spam detection, or perhaps they just wanted to build a new identity as ‘cool_ece_95@yahoo.com’ is just not cool anymore. Foolhardy because composing emails takes a bit of effort and time. You don’t want to waste that effort on thoughtfully writing something when you’re not even sure if it would land in the right inbox. Sending a quick, and abrupt, ‘hey’ in an instant message has no baggage.

Some of my earliest emails with family members are full of pictures, address changes, various forwards, and even videos and recipes. Almost all emails are more than a couple sentences long. They have nice salutations. On the contrary, instant messages are spread around various apps — iMessages for some, WhatsApp for others, LinkedIn for a few friends and even family, and so on.

Whereas my emails are easily searchable, finding the right message or the context it was sent in is terribly hard on almost every messaging app. Searching messages is consistently a terrible experience. It’s like the services were designed to be ephemeral and impersonal. Whereas emails are blocks of conversation, messages are just blocks of sentences punctuated by an image or two, or by a totally different context with its own punctuations.

Emails are fun to read; instant messages are just blobs of stuff.

In other words, most of my instant message conversations are a bad example of object oriented programming. The conversations are just a set of base classes, then subclassed, then extended, sometimes composited. What was supposed to be quick and convenient has turned into something unwieldy and, as a result, not worth archiving and preserving.

My old emails, though, are wonderful memories.

Categories
Politics Tech and Culture

A Technology Proposal for Amsterdam’s New 1.5m Society

The city of Amsterdam recently invited (archive) proposals from residents and companies to help it plan the path ahead in the new normal — a 1.5m society. The goal was to invite creative ideas to help businesses deal with the changes while making sure that they stay in business. The odd thing about pitching ideas is that we’re in an unprecedented situation — there’s no collection of best practices or historical lessons that could be tweaked and turned into something applicable for the modern world.

At the same time, while many ideas would possibly revolve around an app for this, or an app for that, a delivery platform, or a new social networking app for business, I am not sure that’s the right way forward. Not after all the inequities proliferated by ‘big-tech’ in the last decade. The last thing anyone wants is one corporation being the gatekeeper of all physical commerce.

So, is the solution to instead trust the Government? I think, fundamentally, smaller government at the city level is a lot more trustworthy than national policy making. We do, after all, depend on the city to read our grievances when it comes to parking spaces or for sanitation of waste collection. Amsterdam is in a unique situation where it has a woman mayor and where a lot of the infrastructure surrounding business activities is already digitalized.

The proposal I submitted is below. I am not uniquely qualified or even have the organizational structure to action on it, but I do believe that something like this is the way forward in the near short term without succumbing to mission creep.

PS: I know there are grammatical errors :o) I typed it up at the last minute this morning.