Takeaways from Alexa Dev Day, Bangalore
Voice-based interfaces are all in rage right now. On one side tech is being driven by Machine Learning. On the other side, speech-to-text, text-to-speech and Natural Language Understanding are complementing it from the perspective of user interfaces. This is not to say that keyboards and touchscreens are going to go away. It does suggest that there are many applications where sight and touch can be freed for parallel tasks while you converse with your apps using voice.
Some of the speech agents that power voice-based interfaces are Siri, Alexa and Cortana, just to name the well-known ones. Today I had the chance to attend Alexa Dev Day organized by Amazon Alexa team. Similar events are scheduled to happen all across the world in the coming weeks. The event hall was packed, mostly with developers, and mostly with those who already owned Echo devices. I found this to be the key differentiator with Alexa. Amazon has managed to get Echo devices into a number of homes and offices. Early adopters perhaps bought them for the novelty factor but thanks to them, basic uses cases have been shown to work. Now there's sufficient interest from developers to reach this bunch of Echo owners and beyond to interest them with innovative apps. Novelty therefore is moving from Echo hardware to apps powered by Alexa. I met someone trying to do railway ticket bookings with Alexa. A couple of guys from Sulekha are exploring voice-based hyperlocal searches. Another person is looking to give first-aid advice and emergency care.
What we commonly label as "disruptive" is often the result of breaking the status quo. Disruptions seem to have their cycles and a few important ones come to my mind. In 1800s, we invented steam engines, cracked the math of thermodynamics, giving way to a number of derived industries: factories, locomotives, mills, etc. The lifecycle of this innovation reached its destiny sixty years later with the first ever depression. People could have been smarter and learned their lesson. But they became smarter by inventing Electricity and Magnetism just eight decades later (1880s) than the invention of steam engines. That disrupted status quo and rapid electrification took place across the world. Another eight decades later (1960s) we got transistors, computers and the beginnings of the internet. Six decades since then (2020s), we are in the cusp of another cycle. The sure candidate for next disruption is AI along with bio/nano technology.
I notice a pattern here. All disruptions happen when the previous one is mastered, done and dusted. Today we are within arms length of reaching the limits of Moore’s Law. The situation is primed for the next disruption. Amidst the evolution on doubling computing power every year and a half, the silent winner has been an exponential increase of data over the same period. Every computerized establishment saved cost, did more of the same (old) business in the same business year. Well, we homo sapiens, are too smart to run same (old) businesses. We leveraged data for intelligence and built new markets, new products and new strategies. In the last 2-3 decades of the recent technological cycle, we have progressed enough on big data technologies to enable the next disruption.
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Until a few years ago, for many decades, telecom operators had been claiming that all they provided was a "dumb pipe". It was not their concern what those pipes carried; and they were not responsible for content that was served or consumed at both ends of the pipe. Their main goal was to ensure that the pipes had enough bandwidth to serve average and peak traffic requirements. All was well and good until over-the-top (OTT) content starting dominating the market. Such content bypassed legacy circuit-switched services and value-added services provided by the operators.
Indeed telecom operators started to lose both ends of the bargain. They now wanted control over the content and charge a premium but all they could collect from their customers was for bare bits and bytes. In a price-sensitive market, "unlimited plans" became the order of the day. When OTT content became predominant, operator revenues started to drop. Content also became rich in multimedia, particularly video that congested backhaul links. Operators couldn't afford to upgrade these backhauls. Yes, operators were providing dumb pipes but apparently even these had a hard time keeping up with demand.
Industry analysis and opinion
Smartphones play a vital role in our life; it is sort of panacea for us. It has achieved massive growth in the last decade. With such demand of the end product, it is obvious that the supply side has worked in overdrive. Semiconductor industry has seen massive growth due to smartphones. The number of OEMs increased to fulfil the volume demands, pulling more vendors into semiconductor industry to suffice the OEMs’ supply chain requirements.
A few OEMs made fortune in smartphone sales, with revenue exceeding billions cumulatively. Such capital inflow encouraged them to invest more money on product development, to fulfil the end users’ paradoxical requirement of more performance with more battery life (less power consumption) at a lower price. With cumulative silicon sales going into billions, the semiconductor industry responded positively, and focused on stretching the innovation into leading process nodes and other techniques to enhance performance.
Takeaways from a Singapore-India FinTech event at Bangalore
I have to start with a disclaimer that I'm no expert in the area of FinTech. What I'm going to share here are some things I picked up at an event today where experts discussed FinTech in very specific terms. The event brought together the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and FinTech Valley Vizag, along with Bangalore start-ups and corporate delegates. MAS is partnering with the Andhra Pradesh government on a number of tech initiatives and FinTech is one of them. While Singapore is becoming the FinTech hub in Asia, Vizag is making bold moves to become the FinTech hub of India.
Three things stood out for me at the event:
- Beyond Payments
- Government Policy
- Skilled Manpower
Image source: Kumar, M., 2013, ‘Digital Privacy, Internet Surveillance, and The PRISM – Enemies of the Internet’, The Hacker News; Security in a Serious Way.
The world we have built around us is due to human ingenuity as well as engineering skills. Tools play an important role in this. It's not an exaggeration to say that most engineers think about the tools at their disposal before starting to give form to their ideas. To sculpt something, you need first good chisel and hammer. To build a bridge, you need precision measuring instruments. To dig a tunnel, you need a boring machine. In today's digital economy, you need connected servers, software platforms and algorithms.
Tools improve both efficiency and effectiveness. The problem with the use of tools is the intent. A knife can be used to cut fruit or to kill your neighbour. A cook and an arsonist use fire in very different ways. Now imagine what will happen when a powerful tool is created with bad intent but the public is told that it is for their good. Aadhaar seems to be in this category.
Payments made easy
It was in December 2016 that the BHIM app was launched by our Prime Minister. BHIM couldn't have asked for better timing. It came at the heels of demonetization when all of India was focusing on cashless payments. Cash was in short supply and alternative means of payments were in demand. About two months later, YourStory carried a story about 27-year old Nikhil Kumar who had apparently built the BHIM app in just three weeks. A few days ago Nikhil Kumar spoke at a small gathering of enthusiasts at Thought Factory, Bangalore. I attended mostly to know about UPI and BHIM but also partly out of curiosity to see the man behind the app.
I am yet to install the BHIM app on my smartphone. While I'm not a Luddite who stands against the advance and adoption of technology, I'm certainly not an early adopter. Since I know the engineering side of things, experience tells me that early releases are prone to contain bugs. Particularly in today's world of MVP releases and lean/agile processes, no one waits for a well-tested product. First releases will certainly contain problems when test-driven methodologies are not followed; or test automation has been sidelined due to more pressing delivery deadlines. So I haven't been using BHIM but I certainly wanted to know what it was.
The use of pulsed RADAR for range and speed measurement
In college you study so many interesting subjects that it's really a pity that you don't have the opportunity to pursue most of them. You have only one life. You have to choose one discipline to focus on. In fact, to contribute most as an engineer, you have to concentrate on the important problems of your chosen discipline. But when you are starting your career, choosing a discipline is not easy. Often students will look at job availability, growth opportunities, pay scales, and so on. This is good strategy for the average student. But if you've proven yourself as among the best, it's more important to make this choice based on your passion. The question is really not to ask which is a good job but rather what you are passionate about. With passion, and a willingness to learn and work smart, you can be good at any job you choose.
I have always been a communications engineer but most of my career has been about software protocols for wireless communication systems. I never got a chance to work on RADAR, which we may consider as the grand daddy of intelligent wireless communication systems. While radio broadcasting came earlier, it did not have the intelligence that RADAR brought. With RADAR, one could sense the world around without having a line of sight. RADAR was extensively used during the Second World War. Some even attribute the victory of the Allies more to RADAR than the atomic bomb. RADAR in turn contributed to the development of many other technologies in areas of astronomy, medical technology and meteorology. Today RADAR has branched into Electronic Warfare (EW) and to win the battle in the domain of EM waves is as important as winning it with physical assets.