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April 26, 2020

Technology for good

We start with 3 apparently unrelated incidents:
- Last week I decided to keep some time aside everyday on the really high-end design world I used to be part of. Seven years back I moved to Auroville and pretty much stopped working on designing analog and RF chips, the stuff I was trained for, through my undergrad and PhD at I.I.T.M, Columbia by truly phenomenal professors (KRK, Tsividis), who helped me love electronics.

- I was observing the WhatsApp chat discussion of my college group where it was remarked that technology was value neutral (e.g. facebook) and its the people who use it who are to blame.

- I was contacted by my mentor (who works on development) about a report on the increase in child abuse online at a time of Carona virus and an AI intervention that was aimed to reduce it and what I could do to support such interventions.

A recurring question on my mind has been about the claim of technology being value neutral. I realized my question is perhaps not about technology itself i.e. I'm not talking about a cellphone (though we can now talk to one!), a water filter, a 100 GBs data network, an automatic machine gun, or an atomic bomb (though the last two are perhaps questionable). My question is more of the people behind the technology who built/create/sustain them, engineers like me who make a choice, or do we?

It made me reflect where I have been touched by technology as part of my personal journey in the last 7 yrs at Auroville.
- I first used basic electronics to give children something to tinker with switches, batteries, LEDs, 7 segment displays, sensors, arduinos, etc. This helped children get curious, work with their hands, think logically and be creative.
- Of course I used the internet to learn about stuff I could do with children and document it (at least in the initial couple of years) before starting STEM land - Aura Auro Design (when you youth started blogging and I stopped blogging).
- STEM land-Aura Auro Design that I started  5 years back was created on the backbone of technology. It is an entity where youth could volunteer with children in the mornings and be able to learn and work on technology in the afternoon. Here I learned and used python programming along with the youth. Again we used Coursera online learning and training platforms to learn. In time we also offered courses in programming, hands on electronics and so on.
- At STEM land the centers we created with children we used programming with children to learn to think mathematically and for them to improve their reasoning and logical ability. As a way to express their mastery with something other than examinations, by creating projects in areas their learned. We also used some robotics with children and over the years children have built projects like the electronic voting machine as part of the process of understanding elections.
- With a bit of an effort Isai Ambalam school was connected to the NKN that helped us get access to materials and videos online for children. Most of the material we could put online was thanks to this. We also put a couple of computers in classrooms for teachers and children to have a way to look things up quickly. Some of the children even used these to access videos on how to draw, solve the rubiks cube, and learned these. Overall all the access to the internet and putting out information has been valuable it even helped set up the Support a child program that is maintained by the youth of STEM land and gets in almost half the funds needed to sustain the school.
- About a year back we started working on a group ramping up on VLSI layout so a few youth are supported through this. About 9 months back we also started engaging with Quilt.AI an ethical product research company this brought in some data-science and again programming to show data and trends and scraping. In parallel a group also started on content creation desk research and blogging based on data research and AI data. We now have three tech groups and one content group of youth and all part of a learning organization that is supporting personal journeys of youth learn a skill, mature into looking at their socialization and discover what they really care for - their purpose. As a learning organization time can be put aside for meditation, leadership, etc. In a year on an average we spend a month or more on working on oneself. Also built in are contributions to the community both in terms or time and monitory.
To me while these are not high-end technology and (perhaps some are use of technology), but I consider them technology for good - used for learning, growth of children and the youth. The intent was to use technology for good, be it the projects we or children make, courses we offer or the skills, competencies and inner capacities acquired when working with companies.

Coming back to the three unrelated incidents, in the third, I attempted to explain to my mentor that my expertise as an engineer was not AI but in creating core hardware technology and what I could do was point her to those in my organization dealing with AI. It was nice to know, that the people we are working with can address responsible use of technology.

The second incident I think is oft repeated by us engineers ourselves not necessarily because we believe every product is value neutral, but because it makes our life easier to accept the larger system that govern the products we work on - markets, investors, customers, etc. I wonder if the more educated and specialized we get, 'professionally' we are left with lesser choices in the 'real world'. One solution of course has been what I did the last 7 yrs, not let my specialization be my prison and respond with what was needed for what was around me. Even this year, the choice I am making is to  keep my skills up-to-date, understand new processes, methodologies and technologies to appropriately guide the team that is building up here that works on tech for good.

I am (was?) a fairly good engineer (I have the best paper award at ISSCC and over a billion products show for it) and the question for myself after 7 yrs of working on 'technology for good' is what choices will exist for me for doing the same in the 'real world'.

As Ani joked (as only a spouse can), brain the size of a planet what are you doing with it, in response to when I am in a thoughtful or pondering over are how to support the youth and children I work with make more progress and utilize the opportunities presented to them (perhaps, to 'my' expectations), how to resolve an impasse in my community (where I live and work) that could help it be at its full potential. Things that I need Vipassana for, that allow me to see things as they are, that I can create opportunity for growth, but growth is a choice and that the longer you live in a place the bigger any problem looks! To address them, I still myself, free myself from expectation, create space for others to breath and hope for a quiet insight.
Issues in the technical problems in comparison are significantly well behaved than human problems and looking inside is limited to clearing a cluttered mind. But, perhaps, applying the same methodology as I have to human problems even when I am in a 'pure technology' world may give other solutions than I have found in the past.

January 13, 2019

Vipassana: from battle to surrender

The first time we heard of Vipassana was from marathon training coach in Austin. we were talking about the hardest races to run and he mentioned that the hardest thing he had ever done was attend Vipassana.

I guess the first time we did go to it as a challenge (10 yrs back) and I had written about my experience as a little about the technique then. More recently one of the youth I went with also recorded her understanding of the theory after attending such a course.

Over the years I went for Vipassana 5 times, two times to do the course, once to serve and two more times recently in Dec 16 and Dec 17. In later times the 10 hour sittings a day were physically easier, but every time preparing for Vipassana is like preparing for battle. Not for putting things in order as one is uncontactable for 10 days (you realise quickly and initially with some disappointment that the world moves on fine without you). But, for the wandering mind and the pain the 10 hour sittings (especially Aditan 3 sessions where you can't change your position for an hour).
The mind especially wanders because the technique works with the truth, ordinary bodily truth of respiration and then sensation and settling down the mind itself takes three days or more. There is no visualisation, verbalization, etc.

I started practicing Vipassana when I was seriously questioning organised religion, our mothers were usually at the receiving end of my intensity on the subject. I continued through being an agnostic and now again when we moved to Auroville I was open to having faith again and being a willing servitude of the divine consciousness. Vipassana is a practice of purifying the mind and can be practiced irrespective of the philosophy just as sugar works as well with lemon water or (badam) milk.

In recent years esp Dec '16, Dec '17 I realized that the more the responsibilities I have taken up the longer it has taken to quieten my mind .

This year I came for Dhamma service, it's 10 days you give to serve in the program and help administration of the course. I was given the responsibility of taking care of the main hall, support serving food, organization teacher meetings, requirements of mediators and a few more things that kept coming up :).

In my last Dhamma service at Bangalore it primarily compounding and for most part I attended the course as a regular participant. As I was accountable for the Dhamma hall I thought this will be a good practice to meditate and have some daily happenings and make it a little more lifelike.

However, in the first session the teacher said that I would be required to by and large keep our eyes open, I realised that there will be very little serious meditation that I'll be able to do. Ah well. I did come for Seva. Then the team of dhamma works decided we decided to take turns in meditation. When the first opportunity presented itself for me to meditate I just sort of surrendered something that has been very hard to do before my move to Auroville. I relaxed completely and there were not as many thoughts as I had ever had before. I was not battling against my mind as I had done in the past. I just took the instructions to heart that respiration is already there, the river is already flowing, I just needed to watch it.

When thoughts came they came with a precursors an image, an incident, a sentence and I could smile that my mind was about to drift and smile and tell myself that I'm about to pop (from the matrix) and come back to watching my breath. What distracted me the most we the thought of writing a blog about it not being a battle but a surrender.

What helped was before a session reminding myself that I was not a teacher, principal, technical leader of a group, mentor, community member with responsibilities, I was just a human being who had come to learn to be a witness and learn through this experience.

Also sitting with the teacher and listening to him repeating the instructions again and again suddenly one thing clicked understanding sensation is Anika (temporary) and with choice less observation we improve our equanimity based on observing this reality in sensations. When we get angry we can take a moment and observe the sensations, wait for it to subside and then act.

The entire course was a lot more hectic than I can imagine but sessions were not as much of a battle. They were hard only when I took myself too seriously and one of my ego heads showed up.

I also realized that things I was worried about and noticed that my happiness is really my responsibly and that I have become too serious and need to smile more :) (why so serious, as the joker says in the dark knight, comes to mind).

What also made sense is what the teacher said to one of the students, "don't try to meditate, just meditate".

As I mentioned before technique works on no imagination and no visualization and works with the truth of the moment as experienced by me and helps me train my subconscious mind to change the habit pattern of generation attachment and aversion. And yet, as the ego weakens e.g. in the Bhang state of the total dissolution of the physical body you experience and observe something more than just mind and matter and its obvious interaction.

The course trains an individual to work for their own salvation and indeed one has to put in time and work, but what is often overlooked is that there is grace when you work sincerely. This time I could feel this grace actively supporting me.

A picture of my team of dhamma workers who handled 70 odd meditators.
I don't even know what they do. We just got together and as the teacher said worked beautifully as a team, supported the meditators and went our ways.

March 12, 2017

Change in culture

Four years back when I moved to Auroville I would post one or two puzzles a week on the school notice board at Udavi. I had announced them in the classes I taught and there were always two children U and D in the school (in 10th grade) who would attempt to answer the puzzles. They would discuss the puzzles among themselves and often submit a solution to the puzzles. Sometimes they would have doubts and come and explain their logic to me and ask me to find a flaw.
I did some visual puzzles with arranging match sticks and these some of the 6th graders were interested in, but by and large, I got one or two solutions for the puzzles with barely any discussion about the puzzles.

Last week Naveen took up the exercise of putting up a puzzle a week in STEM Land. There has been quite some discussion about the puzzle - the 9th graders applying algebra to solve it and the younger attempting to do it without algebra. I even noticed a volunteer who has come to learn STEM has been attempting to solve it. 

It remains to be seen how much of this buzz translates to children taking the initiative to submit their queries, especially as we have not marked any prizes for their submissions. Nonetheless, I can see a change in culture, of attempting puzzles, that was missing in the children before.

March 11, 2017

Deep learning...

Someone had recently asked me to give them an example of what I considered deep learning.

The STEM Land (@ Udavi) display that the children in the 9th grade had broken down and a couple of letters were not lighting up. A couple of children in the 7th grade had expressed interest to fix the display. I had walked them through how powering a leg of the display lights up one of the 7 segments (and the decimal point). They had been fascinated by being able to fix something and over a couple of classes went ahead and fixed it.

After fixing the board and seeing it work one of the children was interested in doing something more with the Arduino. What the 9th graders had done was the treat a digit as a unit and light up one digit at a time, etc without changing the essential message of what was being printed. But this child wanted to do more. He wired up the 7 segments to a separate Arduino pin and wanted to control them individually.

He managed to light up a 1 by end of a class. I mentioned to him that this will soon get out of hand if he did not start organizing the code (in a language he was learning) into functions.

Later that day one of my youth asked me to give them an example of deep learning in STEM Land.

The next morning B didn't have a class, but during lunch, he came by and asked me to show him what these functions are. I told him that it was similar to the setup and loop that are already present, but with any name he wanted and they could be called into action when needed, similar to the blocks in Scratch. His face immediately lit up and he said ok, I understand blocks.

He had an activity class after lunch and he sat down to implement what he had in mind. He ran into a couple of errors of syntax (defn of functions needs matching '{}', calling functions in C needs '()' ), but then he did not ask for me for about 45 minutes. Then he came to me and said that he needs some help in extending the functionality. I went up and saw what he had done and realized that he had made a single digit counter that went from 1 to 9 every one second. He had now decided to make a clock out of the arduino and had added a second 7 segment display to get the second digit of the clock he needed. I thought he would have missed the logic of the first digit continuing to run when the second was set, but he had got that logic right and implemented this as well. 

I could find nothing wrong with his program and I think was a little surprised how much he was able to progress in a single session starting from wiring up getting the logic of an entire set of digits right and moving on to the next logically. Perhaps, the issue is with the hardware and we are attempting to draw too much current from the USB and none of the displays were lighting up. The debug continues
...but it gave me an answer to what I presently consider an example of deep learning, taking a concept in an entirely different context from blinking light->fixing a 7segment display->individual control of segments and putting it all together to shift between digits in the hope of creating a clock with very little help from an adult.

Of course, there are not enough outputs in the Arduino to create all the digits of a full-fledged clock and I let him know, but it seemed he was happy with what he could get.

March 07, 2017

Second STEM Land at Isai Ambalam

We started a second center of STEM Land at Isai Ambalam School on 1st March. The children at the school had been learning the games and puzzles and had set up stalls to engage those who had come. Some had created small projects like a name board with a welcome sign to a few 5 graders explaining a small LED circuit with a switch and a resistor, to games that the children had put up.
The 9th graders from Udavi had come for the inauguration and also brought their own games, rubiks cubes, etc to show the younger ones at Isai Ambalam the spirit of STEM land.

The opening is well documented in the following posts.

I wanted to talk about one moment of the opening ceremony when the entire Aura Auro team (7 people) were at the entrance. We could see all the people engage with the stalls and no one noticed any of us missing or all of us had gathered together. I just let it soak and we waited for a few minutes before starting the silent clap that slowly gathers steam till everyone was paying attention.

The best moments of a teacher are the moments when you are no longer needed.