Monthly Archives: August 2017

Rains, Floods, Disasters and Technology

Yesterday¬†Mumbai had a harrowing night with the downpour of 300 mm of rains in one day. Many office goers stayed back at their offices and others who braved the waterlogged streets to head home were helped by local residents and Ganpati mandals and gurudwaras and mosques, with offers of food/water and shelter. Each and every time, Mumbaikars respond to calamities, with a great display of collective humane behaviour that shows the city’s citizen resilience towards facing problems.

There are reports today of the good presence of the city police on the roads through the night and their work in keeping the traffic situation in control despite very slow movement of vehicles through waist deep waters at many places. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the Mumbai Police twitter handle during the entire ordeal was really good and has been much appreciated by the users.

What does this episode of natural disaster teach us to do better next time?

1. Mumbai has more than 4700 CCTV cameras across the city. Whatever are the informative images from these cameras could be linked to the Mumbai Police twitter ¬†handle so that situational information of what’s happening further up the road, is better communicated to the road users.

2. Electronic Board displays on roads could be increased in number substantially-again for better information dissemination.

3. Motorists typically rely on google maps to show them the fastest possible route to their destination. But in disaster times, such routes could be impassable. And they have no way of knowing that. Police can use GIS maps integrated with CCTV network as one very useful tool to periodically update and inform road users of the state of road and traffic conditions. A single map based view of the city with the ability to choose what geospecific information you want to see could be a great boon to the information hungry citizen stuck in a disaster situation. Currently, for the road users, there is no aggregation of the ground information on a map of the city. Further, traffic policemen can take photographs/videos of the traffic congestion at waterlogged sites on the roads not covered by CCTV cameras, thereby fixing lat-longs of such sites across the city on the map and giving a holistic view of the water logging and traffic congestion problem across the city. . Motorists and home goers viewing the state of road traffic on the map can then take informed decisions for travel. For the police on the road, this information can empower their man on the ground to take measures on the basis of the larger picture on the map to divert traffic away from waterlogged cul de sacs in his local area.
4. GIS map-based visual information on the Police website can additionally be used to display information on food/water/shelter sites across the city. Such information of voluntary efforts by citizens was seen to circulate on Whatsapp and Twitter last night. Aggregated information of these volunteer activities as well as the official arrangements, helps to reassure and keep calm despite a disaster situation. Electronic display boards could also display such information.

5. Hashtags for specific themes like traffic movement or voluntary aid in food/water/shelter can be used by police for collecting information and pictures from the public users of social media. This  information could then be placed on the map for users to get information relevant to their needs. Such map based aggregation of information will also be very useful to the police control room to respond with useful guidance to distressed callers.

In disaster situations, people look to government for proper information and relief. And technology can provide that single point authentic source for coordinating an effective response.

Suicides, AI and Meditation

There have been reports of some really disturbing incidents in the past few weeks. The only son of colleague government officers committed suicide-apparently with no provocation. I was browsing Facebook and I saw a trending video of a young district collector recording his thoughts and reasons for deciding to commit suicide just before he actually does that! A few days ago, I read about a popular online game which encouraged people to commit suicide as its final challenge- and many youngsters were actually doing that!!

There is a lot of concern on humans becoming too addicted to the internet, living their lives online and in the process losing the warmth and support and empathic nature of face to face human relationships. Fears of computing machines subordinating humans in the not so distant future are also often expressed. The addiction to the virtual world of the internet and the consequent information overload is so stressful to all, and especially to young minds, that the worth of an invaluable ‘life’ is not really appreciated. There is a huge need to quiet the mental turmoil of our period and for individuals to find peace within themselves.

I am currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is near’ – his futuristic take on the exponential growth in the power of computing through machine learning and artificial intelligence, that will happen in the coming decades. He believes that we will achieve one human brain computing capability (currently at 10^16 calculations per second) at the cost of one cent around the year 2037, and then we will go on to achieve one human race computing capability (10^26 cps) for $1000 around the year 2049. He believes that technology will be used at the intersection of information and biology creating pervasive AI systems. This AI will not ‘seize power’ but integrate into humans. He talks of Nanobots, the futuristic robots circulating inside human bodies and constantly adjusting various chemical/ hormonal parameters intelligently to keep the physical body healthy. Future humans will thus have become part machine and part biological and they will be leading longer, disease free lives, thanks to AI.

So the exponential growth of computing is here to stay. But in this futuristic scenario, even if we gain in longevity and health, will we lose in terms of the individuality of our mental makeup? Our individuality is based on our individual unique set of genes and their genetic expression, creating the chemical environment for the state of our physical bodies and for our psychological makeup. If nanobots normalise everything for the optimum will we become identical to each other? Even at today’s level of computing power, our psychology at the level of society, is deeply affected and some extreme consequences are the reports mentioned in the first paragraph. I think deep wisdom is needed to guide human capabilities in computing towards a stable future for humanity. The alternative to that will be the advanced technologies being used frivolously as a game.

What kind of humanity are we evolving into – a restless, anxious and mentally disturbed race? How do we get to that point where we feel safe and at peace despite the gadgets in and around us? I think we need to feel more connected – not the Facebook friends or Linked In connections variety. But the connectedness which will give humanity inner peace. Finding time for solitude with oneself could deepen our connectedness with the universe. It will improve our lost sense of belonging and bring us a sense of peace.

I think meditation is a requirement, not an option, for today’s and future generations. Schools, universities, families – all need to set aside some time to devote to meditation. It may keep the unease and the artificiality of today’s living at bay. And give us a chance to have generosity and compassion towards each other as the foundation for a peaceful and stable society of tomorrow.