Why we don’t have a science of consciousness yet

Neurons were first extensively illustrated by Cajal in ~1890. When he looked at a tissue of the brain, here’s what he painted:

Cajal_cortex_drawings.png

At that point in time, we didn’t know that galaxies other than the Milky Way existed. We didn’t even know that atoms consisted of electrons and protons.

Fast forward to today. We now know that our galaxy is simply one of the 100 billion galaxies out there. We have not only discovered protons but now know that they aren’t even fundamental particles, quarks are. We’ve imaged black holes, detected gravitational waves. We have an accurate account of the universe’s origin starting from the very first moments. In short, we’ve pretty much nailed our understanding of the physical universe since the time Cajal first looked at the brain. ...  Read the entire post →

How increased automation could lead to a happier and more egalitarian society

First, watch this video titled ‘Humans Need Not Apply’.

Now answer this question: =&0=&

The scenario of nobody having a job might seem fancy and theoretical at first, but it’s becoming more realistic with each passing day. Google, Uber, BMW, and a lot of other organizations are on track to release self driving vehicles as soon as next year. And as the video demonstrates so beautifully, this is not just happening to the transportation industry. Automation will impact every sphere of human activity – be it creative, mechanical, cognitive or managerial.

We live in a world of machine learning, APIs, exponentially improving technology, billion dollar disruptions. A lot of such innovations are about making humans redundant.

What will millions of jobless people do?

Taking transportation as an example again, as self-driving cars become commonplace we will rapidly have millions of jobless drivers who are unskilled. As manual labor gets replaced with automation and machines, such unskilled people would find it increasingly difficult find other jobs. Even if they get skilled, gradually automation will reduce the number of jobs available for skilled people. I concur with the video that this wave of people with no jobs will swell into a huge tsunami. Are governments prepared to handle this? In the short term, this will have a very real impact of worsening standard of living for a lot of people. They simply wouldn’t have any money to pay for even basic stuff.

What governments need to do?
Automation leads to concentration of wealth into certain corporations and individuals. A single innovation in automation by a specific company or individual can replace thousands and millions of jobs. Where income earlier used to go to many people doing the job, now the same (somewhat reduced) income will go to one company that developed that specific automation. This concentration of wealth will be sharper because of the network effects (the winner takes it all) and rich getting richer. Consider how Google is using technology to swell its cash reserves and revenues quarter after quarter. If earlier many thousands of cartographers used to get paid to map cities, now Google can just pay for fuel and have its self-driving car + maps software to automatically generate city maps at a detail no human cartographer can match.

Governments will eventually realize the irony of companies like Apple and Google having billions in cash reserves while millions being jobless due to no fault of their own and being unable to afford basic amenities of life. Governments could realize this fact by themselves or protests, activism or even vandalism can make them wake up to this fact.

Higher taxation and “Citizen wage”
As wealth gap increases (more so due to automation concentrating wealth in some hands), governments will have to step in to rectify the situation. I side with the (semi-popular) view of higher corporate and individual taxation. The taxes that are collected from wealthy firms will go back to individual citizens as a wage just for existing. Consider citizen wage like a basic income that everyone gets from the government. This re-distribution of wealth from wealthy corporations to individuals will be justified because lack of jobs is a situation that corporations created. Poverty is not a choice people opt for.

Will higher taxes stifle innovation?
The main argument about capitalism is that it promotes innovation. The lure of money leads people to compete, innovate and provide better services. If taxes are high, why would any corporation care to bring new products in the market? If a government guarantees a good standard of living to everyone for free, why would anyone do anything? Won’t this lead to a lazy, complacent society?

I doubt that people will get lazy. Individuals drive corporations and individuals are typically driven much more by non-monetary factors like satisfaction and having an impact on society. Think Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Page – are they doing this for money or they’re doing this for their own satisfaction? Imagine if everyone is satisfied with a basic standard of living, won’t people come together and still innovate because they like innovating? In fact, if we take money out of the equation and have some other metric to track individual and societal progress, it may increase overall happiness and accelerate the pace of innovation because everyone will be guaranteed a decent standard of living, so people can do what they’re best at without worrying about how they’re going to pay for dinner. Think of all the poets who are forced to drive taxis.

Co-operation between countries
Countries are increasingly interdependent for their economies. Outsourcing of services and manufacturing has left many countries dependent on exports. What would happen when automation causes some countries to become self sufficient? Take India’s scenario – millions of young engineers are dependent on outsourcing of IT services and BPO, both of which are easy targets for automation. This would lead to disproportionate job losses in India. Same would happen to China if manufacturing cost due to automation gets cheaper than the human labor.

Even if one country recognises the inevitability of automation and gives its citizens a wage for existing, other governments might not be in agreement and their citizens will suffer (due to automation-led job losses). I’m not sure if any outside government would be concerned about loss of jobs in India due to automation. India would have to tackle this problem by itself. This tackling could happen in two ways: one is to recognise that automation is real and is here to stay. This means establishing “citizen wage” (just like other governments are doing). The other way for government would be to shut its door to all “imported” automation. This is a very real possibility – there are potentially hundreds of millions of jobs stake and some countries (like India) that are very labour driven could succumb to this. This “banning” of automation will make some countries go backward, become more and more inefficient and less productive, while other countries march forward, becoming more and more productive.

We will reach there

Automation is a strong force and I think the possibility of most human jobs getting automated is very real. This would lead to citizen wage, where people will work whatever they feel interested in, rather than being forced to work in order to survive. However, in the interim, as pointed out in this reddit thread, there will be chaos. In some countries, it might take vandalism and violence to drive home the point. Others might just handle this very smoothly. A perfect outcome requires individuals, corporations and governments work together and admit that basic human survival is at stake.

Sorry, your “cool” webapp is probably not going to make money

Sorry for crushing your dreams but your web app for tracking happiness levels (or for “social-aware” todo lists) is probably not going to make enough money to let you retire in Hawaii. Many programmers and web developers find making a web app very satisfying and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as you are doing it for fun, it is OK. But making web apps is the trivial part. After all, most web apps are nothing more than a slick interface for CRUD operations. The key to making money is to find a market where people are willing to pay for those simple CRUD operations.

The usual approach for making web apps (or “startup” as some would like to call it) is this:

  • Have a “cool” idea
  • Implement it in X number of hours
  • Try to justify its need by finding users who may use it

I am just making up a statistic here, but I have seen 9/10 efforts losing hope after the third step and the web app just languishes with the creator given up on it after initial euphoria.

That is a wrong approach.

If making money is the objective, I suggest going with the market-first approach (as opposed to idea-first approach). If you are confident that you will be able to make a good enough product/prototype, I suggest taking the following approach:

  • Find an industry (ideally, an old fashioned one) where people are making money
  • Find the single differentiator which will put your app apart in the already established industry (read or research what pain points are still not addressed by top 3 solutions)
  • Make a web app, market it, refine it based on feedback, monetize the app
  • Slowly incorporate all standard features expected out of a solution in that industry so you can shoot to be a market leader
  •  ...  Read the entire post →

    How to do research on a new idea/target industry using Twitter

    I just thought of sharing a technique I have been using lately for collecting knowledge on target industry or a new tool/startup idea

    For example, you have been trying to something in online backups (a purely hypothetical example).

    First, come up with top 3 relevant keywords that people search for while thinking of online backups. You may use Google insights for search.

    Here are the relevant keywords I found: “online backups”, “data backups”, “server backups”

    Now here is the juicy part. Go to Twitter search and for each of your keyword, search on following themes:

  • What people like: search combination of keyword with words “like”, “love”, “great”, “cool”, “:)”. Example – “online backup” “love”
  • What people dislike: search for “hate”, “sucks”, “:(“, “bad”, “worst”
  • What people want: search for “want”, “wish”, “if only”, “lacking”
  •  ...  Read the entire post →

    ContextSense on ReadWriteWeb

    ReadWriteWeb had a nice, long article written on Wingify’s ContextSense. Read the article titled Identify Any Website’s Sentiment with ContextSense.

    To quote:

    To test out ContextSense’s accuracy, we put in the URL for ReadWriteWeb.com (but of course). The end result was mostly on target, identifying our main concepts as a top ten list including things like software, Google, iPhone, news and media, commenting, semantic web, and more. The last three items in the list – AJAX, class libraries, and JavaScript – were off base. Perhaps that’s why they were greyed out while the rest of the list was in black, though. There isn’t any explanation as to what the shading means, but that’s a logical leap.

    The categories list was similar to the concepts list except it showed more of a drill-down as to what broader topics the concepts came from. For example, for “Semantic Web,” the associated category was “Reference > Knowledge Management > Knowledge Representation > Semantic Web.”

    The tool also ranked our site as “slightly positive,” which makes sense since we’re passionate about technology and don’t (often) post negative reviews – we tend to just skip product reviews for those sites and services we don’t think much of. ...  Read the entire post →

    Wingify in HT Mint

    HT Mint ran an article on Pluggd.in and Wingify was featured as one of the few startups that the blog helped (which was very true). To quote:

    Meanwhile, some very young firms have gained from Pluggd.In’s coverage. For six-month-old Wingify, a New Delhi-based firm that offers website optimization software, the biggest challenge was in getting early adopters. The firm is yet to launch its product, but was pleasantly surprised when, within three weeks of being featured on Pluggd.In, it got 10 early users and possibly its first customer. Pluggd.In had profiled the firm in July, says Paras Chopra, chief executive, Wingify. The start-up had approached Sinha for using its optimization software on his website.

    He used it, liked it and profiled it, says Chopra, adding that Sinha continues to use the software. The firm is now in talks with a Bangalore-based venture capital firm, which has a portfolio company looking for the kind of technology Wingify offers, said Chopra, adding that the talks are at an advanced stage.

    “Having early adopters is crucial for a firm like ours. We need validation, some early users, before we make an announcement to the world. A lot of positive things have happened to us since the coverage,” says Chopra.
     ...  Read the entire post →

    Digital Evolution Basics

    For those who are not aware of digital evolution, I am writing a quick short summary. Digital evolution means evolution of computer programs who compete for limited resources such as CPU and memory. In short, it goes something like this:

    – You define a universe, which is virtual memory (space) and CPU (time)
    – You create energy (CPU cycles)
    – You define an extremely limited instruction set for Virtual Machine (Physics). Instruction set being limited is important because you want to mimic physics, not chemistry or biology
    – You seed randomly generated programs of varying length
    – You start parallel execution the random programs
    – Each instruction eats up energy and at random times you feed energy into universe
    – At random times mis-execute program instructions
    – Run it for a long time and Voila! finally self replication gets evolved from very simple instructions
    – Then arms race gets started between programs and things get interesting

    Some people argue that digital evolution is not merely an emulation of real thing but is indeed a real manifestation of evolution and I tend to believe the same.

    To download the digital evolution simulator written by me in Python (called PyPond), head to: Download: Normal version or With graphics version (requires PyGame library)

    April Fools Pranks on the Internet

    I randomly stumbled across many interesting April Fools pranks on the Internet today. So, I thought of sharing them here:

    Enjoy! I will try to add more as I come across them. Do let me know if you any interesting pranks.

    Music Genres and Programming Languages

    Lately, I have been thinking that certain music genres correspond to the design, philosophy, practice and perception of certain programming languages. Let me know if you (dis)agree with me.

    • Pop is Java and .NET
    • Jazz is C and C++
    • Hip-Hop is PHP and Ruby on Rails
    • Electronica/Trance is Prolog, Lisp and other functional languages
    • Nursery Rhymes is Visual Basic
    • Classical is Fortran, Cobol and Assembly
    • World Music/Fusion is Clojure, Jython, etc.
    • Rock is definitely Python and Ruby

    Have I missed any major genres and programming languages?