Thursday, October 21, 2010

Geeking out with Endhiran

I saw the Tamil movie "Endhiran" a couple of days back. I liked it a lot, mainly because of Rajnikanth's excellent acting, the screenplay's internal consistency, dialog, and, of course, the beauty and stylishness of the special effects. I want to see it again.
The movie is impressive because, after a long time, you can keep thinking about the technical discussions about AI and Robotics in the movie. There is a consistent theme to it.

Asimov's Laws
When Dr.Vasi appears before the approval board, one of them asks if the robot obeys Asimov's laws. I was wondering about this during most of the fights before that scene. If the robot obeys Asimov's laws, it will not be fighting at all.
Asimov's laws were used in many of his Robot series. I read them in the novel "I, Robot". There are three laws and the whole novel is a series of situations structured around the contradictions between the three laws.
The laws are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In the final story of "I, Robot", a man runs for political office. But there is a suspicion that he is not a human at all, that he is a robot. There is no real way to prove it - until a situation based on the First Law comes up. Robots cannot hurt humans - and therefore if the candidate hits a human, he cannot be a robot. How this resolves itself I cannot reveal. You can read the novel.
So, Chitti is created for military applications - and therefore he is designed without the three laws.
The whole movie, thus, can be seen as a demonstration of what happens when a robot is designed without the three laws. But I don't think Shankar had that angle in mind. Dr.Vasi is shown as a noble person, who wants to help his nation by creating fighting robots. But there is a problem there - when you create machines which cause harm, they can be used by your opponents too. The "flipping" of Chitti (or his clones) to the dark side is actually inevitable if you mass produce robots for fighting.
In fact, we see such a phenomenon CURRENTLY. In personal computers, the original Terminate and Save Routines (TSRs) were intended for background processing. They were quickly adapted as the early viruses. Now, the virtual world is awash with computer worms and viruses. We have no control over the malicious use of programming. There is an escalating fight between unethical and criminal hackers on the one side and government and private security agencies on the other.
There are other ethical arguments against using Robots in combat.

The Military Application of Robots
The original reason that militaries offered for using robots was mine-sweeping. Such robots will comply with Asimov's laws above. They won't harm humans. That was the original reason offered.
But, right now many militaries around the world are researching on robots for combat applications. The US military, right now, has drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) deployed in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These are armed with missiles and have caused much damage in both countries.
To keep in line with Geneva Conventions, the drones require human input before firing. There have already been ethical questions about such uses. Let me address one angle of the drone controversy:
When a country goes to war, the assumption is that there will be checks for deployment of their citizens - atleast in democracies. Because there will be a loss of life on THEIR side, the decision to go to war is not taken lightly by countries, in theory.
But if you deploy drones which are operated by civilian contractors sitting thousands of miles away, you have removed one major reason which may deter countries from launching agressive war. Without loss of life, and facing no pressure from their citizens, a democracy can sustain a war purely through money and technology.

For this problem, a few people have argued back and said that war is a bad choice, but once a war is launched, a country is justified in using its technical might to win.
Thus, robots for warfare is being increasing seen as a technically brilliant advancement. It is also seen as inevitable.
This means that we will likely see a new kind of "arms" race similar to the nuclear era. It is no surprise that terrorists will seek to use robots in combat too - after all the same argument about winning applies to them too.
It is in this context that Enthiran raises questions.

Enthiran and Military Robots
If you think about it, a humanoid robot is NOT necessary for the conventional military. A conventional military may use complex machines, with a narrow range of purposes. They don't need Chitti.
The movie shows arms dealers and terrorists interested in robots. To me, that seems completely natural and inevitable. In fact, because Dr.Vasi designed the robot without the in-built (non-overridable) three laws, the entire sequence of events, from the interest of arms dealers to the hostile takeover of Chitti by Dr.Bora is unavoidable.
There are no international laws currently in place to govern use of robots in combat. Let us say that a robot brigade in a future war with Pakistan malfunctions and ends up killing a lot of innocent civilians. Who do you blame? Who will be punished?

Some random notes
1. Neural Schema Architecture is a kind of AI architecture that supplies "schemas" for different behaviors. These are the ones that Dr.Vasi says cannot be shared until the patent is obtained.
2. An Inference Engine is the core of an "expert system". It has a rule list, and it takes actions based on applicable rules. It also has a knowledge base. A kind of Inference Engine called Fuzzy-Inference can make decisions in uncertain situations.
Dr.Bora calls Chitti "just an inference engine". What he is saying is that it just evaluates rules and takes actions. He seems to be saying it is not "intelligent". 3. Contrary to what the movie says, Dr.Bora did not provide a contradictory command to Chitti in the approval meeting. He asks Chitti to stab Dr.Vasi and the robot attempts to do it. That command does not seem to contradict any other command (unless I am missing something).
4. Dr.Vasi works on Chitti for 10 years. What was he doing at that time?
The major portion of his work would have been the representation of knowledge. In the initial scenes, Chitti is fed martial arts, dancing programs and so on. Creating the knowledge of such expertise and representing it in storage is a major problem for expert systems. That part of it is much more complex than creating the physical body.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An interview with my wife (on art)

September of this year was our tenth marriage anniversary. I interviewed my wife (she is an artist) for that occasion.
This is the second interview in this blog; it is mostly about art.
RA: Hello SS. Can we start the interview?
SS: Enna vachu edhuvum comedy keemadi panlaye?
RA: No, let us be professional here. You will discover how skilled I am at writing and interviewing. You have only seen the positive side of your husband. Now you will see how serious I am with a subject. I am relentless and ask very tough questions. Lying is useless; you may as well give up now.
SS: Is the interview about art or you?
RA: Yes. About art. I know. I am just warning you.
(In the meantime, my son wanders into the room; wants to be part of the interview process. We convince him to go play with toys - "choppu". He has a little set of small wooden cooking utensils.)

RA: You know, art has always interested me. If you think about it, I am an artist myself - I draw with words.
I guess you could say I paint colorful characters.
(pause again)
I outline the landscape of life with my words.
Do you notice how good I am with this?
SS: (silence)
RA: Anyway, my point is art is such a essential part of our lives. But many people are not aware of it. They only have contempt for people studying art.
I guess you could say the same thing about writers. I have gone through a lot of insults in my life for being a writer. The first time I wrote something about the neighborhood cat, my father laughed at the manuscript and threw it away.
SS: You know, if you just want to talk about yourself, I can go play with the kid.
RA: Ok. I guess my question is how did you become a drawer? What interested you in drawering?
SS: I am not a drawer. I am an artist.
RA: Whatever.
SS: I am not a full-fledged artist. I came to know I had a talent for it in school. But I only thought of it as a separate field you could specialize in after watching the "Art of Painting" show by Bob Ross in the WYBE channel, Philadelphia.
I also had access to the Free Library of Philadelphia close to our home, which had an extensive collection of books on art (even for a novice).
RA: Now, that would be after your marriage to me?
SS: Yes
RA: So you could say I had a part to play?
SS: No, Bob Ross did.
RA: Ok, so then you went to the Community College of Philadelphia. What options does a person studying art have in the USA?
SS: They start from High School, where they create a portfolio. The idea is to get a BFA degree which makes you employable in Graphic Design, Product Design, Printing, Textiles, Interior Design, Architecture, Photography, Web Design, Animation, and even into movie and advertising fields.
Usually you apply to a private art school. The best is Rhode Island School of Design. New York University is famous. The Pratt Institute. UPenn in Philadelphia has a good art department.
RA: What are the options in India?
SS: Government Arts College, Chennai is good. I think Art director Thottatharani, actor Siva Kumar and many others studied there. The "elite" schools in India (like the IITs) are the National Schools of Design. The Ahmedabad NSD is very famous.
Again, you get a BFA (4 year) degree and then you can do masters (MFA).
One big difference is that the Indian schools have an age bar. Generally after 27, you cannot get admitted to any of these.
RA: Back to Philly. What courses did you take in CCP?
SS: I started with basic drawing and design. I never planned to complete a diploma there. (The CCP provides an Associate in Art degree; it is equivalent to an art diploma).
I had several streams to specialize in - Printing, Art & Design, Photography or Architecture. You take a lot of common courses and then take a few specialized courses (for 65 credits). I specialized in Art & Design.
They teach you drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramic work, basic design, three dimensional design..
RA: Now, when you say design, you don't just mean graphic design.
SS: No. There is a separate stream called design. They teach you Fundamentals of Design, Color Theory, use of space. For example, when I say three dimensional design, it has nothing to do with computers or animation. We had to mold or cast and prepare models. That was 3D design.
Such a design course, with no reference to computers, gives you a very strong foundation for all design work, such as Interiors.
The computer is just a tool. Design has existed for a long time.
RA: You also had to take Art History courses...
SS: Yes. You remember the heavy text books.
RA: We had a fight over where to keep them.
SS: Art History is vital to students because it inspires you with art over time and different cultures.
RA: In other words, it lets you copy not just from current artists but also dead artists.
SS: What we create now will be history for future generations. Varalaaru migavum mukkiyam, Amaichare.
RA: What was the teaching like? You had been to college in India. Was it different?
SS: We had to do creative work all through the semester. It was very stimulating that way. Like anywhere, there were good teachers and bad teachers. But I always felt good at school.
RA: Ok, for people finishing art school, where do you like to work the most?
SS: Ad agencies. They are the ultimate prize in terms of work. Also Design firms that do graphic design. One of my friends is specializing in product photography.
RA: Now, let us get to the crux of this interview. Modern art. Why is it so weird? One of my classmates in college said it was a complete scam because you could hang a picture upside down and nobody would notice. Kamal Hassan makes fun of it in the movie "Kaadhala Kaadhala".
SS: Sometimes it creates magic. It has to do mostly with your subjective interpretation.
The important thing is there is no "message" in modern artwork. There can be focal points, but the artwork itself cannot be reduced to a single message. It is like poetry - you just understand something that makes a connection. I think it plays with the viewer's emotions. A landscape or a portrait is about the scene represented by the artist. In modern art, the viewer plays a major role.
Sometimes people confuse messages with symbols. When we say "symbolic" (in India) we generally mean in terms of "something that is a hidden hint for something else". In the West, they actually mean symbols, cultural, historical symbols.
RA: So, if you see a human being drawn in a weird way, it does not "symbolize" anything? Such as his mood, or his nature?
SS: It can, but such art is not really "modern". Such symbolism has existed throughout history.
If a human being is drawn in a different way, then whatever it means to the viewer is all that matters.
You should not ask an artist what she "intends to convey" in a painting. In art class, if we are asked to talk about the masters' paintings, we describe what we see - such as if it is an oil or watercolor and other obvious features. But we never were asked to talk about the "meaning" of the painting. That is wrong when it applies to any art, particularly to modern art.
RA: So, it is like hearing a Ilayaraaja song and asking for its "meaning"?
SS: Yes.
RA: My classmate Vijay and I had an argument about modern art in college. He said that the art that we see normally growing up, such as in magazines, the European paintings, Ravi Verma's paintings...they seem more "natural" than modern art.

SS: European paintings brought in realism around 16th century because they did a lot of research at the time of the Renaissance. The proportions that they drew in were based on real human proportions. Before that, drawings in Europe were religious themed mostly. They also showed very ideal figures. The figures' sizes were based on hierarchy in society (you can still see this in Mughal paintings).
They had something called a register where the focus or the top of the painting was Christ or the King. The knights followed and so on. Serfs were shown as small figures at the bottom.
Now, that CHANGED to realism in 16th century. Even that included symbolism and hierarchies.
That is, the paintings that we consider "normal" would not have been considered normal 500 years back. Not in India, not in Europe.
Art has always had different streams and evolutions. You cannot judge between the arts of different times or different cultures.
RA: I would say that applies to music and writing and so on.
SS: Yes.
RA: Thank you, SS, for your time. Now, one final question...
SS: Yes?
RA: Do you think I am the best person in the world ever?
SS: I will answer that on our 20th anniversary.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Incredible India advertisements

or the idea that the problem for tourists in India is Indians.

I have below two videos from the Incredible India series featuring Aamir Khan:

There was also a recent ad that shows tourists disgusted at a kid peeing in the road, and other such "bad behavior" deemed by the tourism ministry.

First of all, almost every Incredible India ad I have seen features white people only - either young white women or young white men. I saw one ad with a Japanese person. I can understand that Bollywood stars won't feature in anything without white people, but this is not a song and dance feature after all.
The Incredible India campaign is commissioned by the tourism ministry. Someone up there in the ministry is approving these; so we have to wonder about the attitudes expressed in these ads. I AM taking them seriously as attitudes in the ministry and among our elite.

Attitudes in the ad
1. Tourists are white people, period; "internal" tourism, which counts for majority of tourists do not count. The Japanese, Korean and other eastern people don't generally count (even though they form a good percent of tourism targets anywhere in the world).
Africans! Don't even dare to show Aamir Khan with an African person. Darkies don't count.
2. The ads seem to mainly teach behavior - in front of white tourists. You better not have your kid pee in the road because white people may be watching. Thus, the ads seem to be (incredibly) suggest that individual people and their behavior may be a problem - more than (for example) the absence of clean public toilets.
By making such a suggestion, the ads present another way for Indians to judge other Indians. We behave a certain way because we are a developing country - a country still in the "Third World".
3. The ads always show white people "repulsed" by the bad behavior of Indians (such as throwing a banana peel from the bus). In that way, it assumes that they are judges of such behavior. On the contrary, I have personally seen Western tourists misbehaving in THAT SAME WAY. The reason is, of course, not difficult to find out - trash cans do not magically show up for them to drop trash in. Toilets don't magically show up for them alone. Given the Indian public systems's constraints, they behave the same way. They are in no position to judge.

Misguided Ads

More than anything, WHAT is the purpose of these ads? That is something I have a hard time figuring out - the ones that feature Aamir Khan and teach behavior - what exactly are they trying to do? They seem to take a sneering attitude at the guy spitting Paan, or the guy dropping a banana peel from a bus. But why is that a problem that the TOURISM ministry is concerned with? Are they going to provide decent public toilets throughout the country or trash cans in all public places? No. That is not their job. So why are they even preaching to people about this?
You could say the same thing about the eve teasing of the white women in the ad. What, is that exclusive to white women? Otherwise everything is fine with women in this country?

It seems suspiciously that the tourism ministry considers Indians in public places (behaving within the constraints and nature of our system) as a really bad nuisance.

But this fits in with my overall theme over the past couple of years - there is a tendency in India to blame people for systemic faults. These ads show that tendency.
Think about this for a minute - we all have heard of how Indians behave very well abroad, but not when they land in India. I have heard that from when I was young. The assumption is that the problem is with Indians. But in reality, the problem is with India, the system here - not with Indians. Like any other people around the world, Indians respond to incentives.
The proof of this, is that tourists or other people on business here from abroad (including white tourists) misbehave too! I have seen this personally in beach resorts. In fact they behave worse because they know that they are courted no matter what.
The ads show the thinking within the tourism ministry - and they are a pathetic lot.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Allahabad Verdict - Comments

Summary of Issues and Judgement
The court has weighed on a number of issues in five different CIVIL suits filed between 1949 and 1971. Of these, Suit-4 was filed by the Sunni Waqf Board. This is the only suit in which Muslims are the plaintiffs. In the rest of the suits, the Hindu parties are the plaintiffs.
The suits have nothing to do with the Masjid demolition - that is a criminal suit. Therefore the judgement has nothing to do with Sangh Parivar's acts.
The judgements were delivered by justices S.U.Khan, Sudhir Agarwal and Dharam Veer Sharma. Justice Khan's verdict is sympathetic to the Muslims; while the majority opinion (Agarwal and Sharma) is sympathetic to the Hindus.
The judgements have covered a lot of issues - but most notably the majority opinion says:
- that a temple may have existed in the site in which Babar or his commander built the mosque.
- that the mosque is not built by Sharia and therefore is not legitimate
- that Ram Janma Bhoomi as beleived by Hindus, is at the site in dispute

and then the judges proceeded to partition the site between the Hindus parties and the Muslim parties in detail.
Please note that the judges expressed the above opinions because the Suits asked for opinions on these, not because they wanted to. The judges did skip a couple of issues as irrelevant.
Contrary to media reports, the judges did not say explicitly that "Ram was born at the site". Justice Agarwal says:
"It is held that the place of birth, as believed and worshipped by Hindus, is the area covered under the central dome of the three-domed structure.."
Justice Sharma simply decided the issue in favor for the plaintiffs (Hindus).

My opinion
1. I think the court overstepped its authority when it partitioned the site. If two parties are fighting for a title, the court cannot just go in and partition the site of dispute - that is not what courts are for. That is an administrative or arbitration settlement. The court,if it could not establish title, should have just dismissed the suits and allowed it to be settled through arbitration.
This issue (if the court overstepped) will probably be decided by the Supreme Court.
Reading the judgements, it seems that the judges felt the need to defuse the situation, irrespective of their authority. But this sets up a bad model.
We repeatedly see in this case (from 1949) that people have taken the wrong approach in this dispute because of fear of public (read majority) opinion. After all one of the core reasons for the suits is that the sneaky installation of the deities was not reversed for fear of popular backlash.

2. From a purely moral perspective, the judges' decision does not make sense (even if they had the authority). For anyone reviewing the issue, it is obvious that the masjid had been target of Hindu mobilisation and attacks for some time. This was true in 1934 when it was damaged. This was also true in 1949 when the deities were sneaked in.
Now, the motives of the people who brought the deities is clear - they had a wedge issue that administrators will be afraid to deal with. Getting the deities in such a manner was a work of incitement.
60 years later, the court has rewarded the inciters.
Now, the court has argued that this is a matter of faith. But it is also clear that this was an act of minority-baiting. The court addressed the faith part, but not the "protection of weak" part. If the majority's faith is against a weaker party, it is the court's role to protect the weak - not emphasize the faith.
Even otherwise, this "faith" is more manufactured. We all know that.

3. I also think the court has set a bad precedent based on faith. Note this - the verdict basically says Muslims have no right to the mosque because Hindus believe it is Ram Janma Bhoomi and the Muslims have no title. They do not directly say that, but that is the implication of their findings on the issues.
That is a very dangerous precedent. It leaves religious parties to create many more wedge issues. There are plenty of temples and mosques out there without titles. They are all now vulnerable.

The court summaries are publicly available - reading them, I was surprised by the judges' complete denial of issues to the Muslim parties. Almost every issue is decided against the Muslim parties. I feel sorry for them.