Thoughts on Creative Learning


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Conversations with Three Gentlemen

Travel is an excellent opportunity to connect with people across varied spectrum’s of life, and a great way to strike two way conversations with real people. Here are glimpses from three such conversations from my travel to Bangalore, October 2013.

I could sense that Mr A, my co-passenger, was a businessman and a frequent traveller. The train was late by about two hours and he did not waste any time spreading his bedspread and going to sleep, as soon as we boarded! So the conversations were left for the following day which I initiated with some hesitation. Mr A was refreshed from a good night’s sleep and was willing to speak.

We spoke on a variety of topics, ranging from his venture, the challenges of the IT services model, lessons from epics that can be applied to modern management, politics without scruples, and so on. Mr A was a trader, who imported solvents from the Gulf Region and sold it to various companies across Southern India.

It was fascinating to learn that solvents (petrochemical derivatives) are the preferred form for dissolving anything, for creating products ranging from the pharmaceutical industry to the food industry! Solvents can dissolve literally anything, which is essential when the final product is a blend of multiple chemical constituents that do not mix with ease. The natural question for me was: How safe is this process? His response: The final process of separation of the finished product is very good and has evolved, leaving truly no traces of the solvent.

That is where his business is; he mentioned 50 Crores as his annual revenue. Certainly an excellent accomplishment for a person who did his Engineering in Electronics in the early nineties, was out of job for quite some time, and then decided to venture into this business.

My innovation charter at work could not resist finding solutions for fixing thefts in transport via smart logistics and inventory management, to which he smiled and responded: The purchaser is already being billed for the theft, for theft is an accepted necessary evil, in this business! I guess GPS and IT solutions will not work for this person. The good part is that he does have a computer based system for inventory management and billing.

I was quite surprised when he asked: Why are the big players in IT not creating products and still relying on low end services? I had to scurry with my usual responses, not entirely convinced myself! It sure left me thinking…

Another travel, the next gentleman Mr B, was the head of the training division at a well-known product cum Services Company at Bangalore. Given my stint in training and building talent pools, there was a lot of mind-share along the bus journey. We spoke on Engineers who lack skills and motivation, talent pool challenges, and attrition. I realised that the problems are universal, and we truly could not converge on any solution. He spoke of Nascom’s projection of 10 million skilled workforce needs by 2020, not surprising since the prediction is that IT will hit 300 Billion dollars in revenue from the 100 Billion dollars of today! And where do we get the skilled talent pool? That was the open question which I guess will need some serious pondering…

The last gentleman, Mr C, was a chartered accountant. On my return journey by train, this gentleman was accompanied by his son, who had just secured a medical seat at a well-known college at Bangalore. Our conversations drifted into Education, or the lack of it at the school level, the pain pangs of parents, uncoordinated admission processes across the country, to the lack of rigour in students today to explore and understand the core of what they want to study!  The conversation then shifted to IT, and the discussion veered towards why the current pool of IT talent does not truly know what they are doing! Interestingly, he also mentioned that lawyers and chartered accountants, who are in IT firms and making good money, are facing similar challenges. The job they are doing is way below their trained capabilities and does not truly provide them with longevity or incremental skill development in their career! But he was happy to notice that there is a new breed of entrants to his field from the Engineering field, and they seem far more committed on building a long term career, and hence are focussed on building the associated skills needed.

To sum up, three interesting conversations, that highlights the challenges faced by today’s youth, where opportunities are abound, but the lure of easy money could pull them away from their core strengths and learning, and hence result in disillusionment and burn out early in their career.

Is there an easy fix for the problem above? For there is no doubt that IT services and the associated businesses it has helped create, has provided job opportunities to millions of students and will continue to do so for many more years. What we then need is a meaningful alternative to that, and one that can symbiotically exist with the current model.

Which means that we need a new breed of brave entrepreneurs, who will create truly value added services and original products in the IT and engineering space, and in turn provide that alternate path to the millions of engineers who will continue to graduate over the next several years. The good part is that this is slowly happening, NasComs effort of creating 10,000 Start-up’s, Start-up Village of creating 1000 start-ups, and similar ventures backed by good mentors and investor networks, and government’s support, should surely help create that change.

The talent is there, the intent is there, the passion is there. It is time that we move up the value chain, and create a unique identity for our IT and Engineering business models.

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Digitization of Thought

A short vacation, if one is unplugged from the digital highway, is a great way to reflect, observe and compare and contrast, including the way most of us are observing, communicating and more importantly, creating art forms, these days.

I happened to listen to some good music, both old and new, and also watched a Malayalam movie, that has been received well by the local audience during such a recent break. One such leisurely day was spent on a short trip to nature, visiting Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, and taking a slow ferry ride through the backwaters. While on these diversions from my Digital World, I had the luxury to reflect and analyze how our thought patterns could possibly have changed, over these years of the Digital revolution.

The new generation movie and music, slick and cut to near perfection, left a lingering feeling in me that something was amiss. The story line was good, the actors did a decent job, and the movie had a powerful message, but…. Same with the music where the lyrics and the music were good, audio quality was perfect, mixing was intricate, but…

While on the short boat trip at Kumarakom, I was fascinated by my co-traveler’s desire to quickly capture our journey, digitally broadcast it on to face book, and get instant responses and comments like “Super”, “Awesome”, “great family”, within 2 minutes from when we boarded the boat!. For the other end of the chain on the face book thread, this must be their great glimpse into nature, almost instantly.

These observations are the trigger point for this article, and my reflections on why was I left with this but… feeling.

My memories rolled back about 30 Years. I can still recall my father and his friend, taking our families on a 4 day trip to Puri and Bhubaneswar, during our school vacation. I can very clearly visualize the image of Konark temple (in an aesthetic sense), the Sun dial there, and the guide’s passionate description on the history of this place and its evolution. I can also clearly remember that my energy and focus was on observing the art forms that got created over several years; via focused dedication and commitment from Master craftsmen, for whom art was a form of divine expression; and in their own, unique way, a means of converting their abstract thoughts into visual forms of beauty. I can also clearly remember that once I was back from this trip, it took me a while to sequence my travelogue and script a letter to my friend, in my own handwriting, describing the joy that I had experienced over those four days.

Being an engineer by profession, a person fascinated by science via formal education, and an amateur experimental artist via my strays into music, writing, and nature, I was left wondering: Was my feeling of but… because we have managed to digitize our thought process and transmit them instantly, leading to in that process, leaving out of the emotional connect and our personalized shades of reflections, imaginations and introspections on our observations and thoughts?

If one observes the more aged form of Music or Art or any creation for that matter, they were all created in an Analog manner. When a plant grows, you can see great continuity in its evolution. When music was first recorded, the entire crew, including the singer, the band, the conductor and the recording artists, all worked in unison. The music that got created was an amalgamation of their collective creativity. Same goes true for literature and craft, whether it was an individual effort or groups. All creations were done in a painstaking manner, taking time, and had evolved in a very Analog manner.

Digital world is great, and an excellent way to communicate information instantly. It is a very valuable tool if used for that purpose. One can see great value if one were to related the quick momentum and support that was possible for the social protests and movements across the world recently. But digital information rarely conveys the emotions experienced by the artisan or the observer; especially when speed of conveying information is not essential, emotions as experienced are.  For thoughts and feelings cannot be digitized ; each tiny space between the digital samples has millions and billions of samples in between, that has to be shaded by subtle emotions and thoughts for completeness.

Probably a strong reason why no computer has been able to create music, or paint a picture, or create a Taj Mahal; they can merely replicate pre-programmed data.  3D printers can create objects, but not objects that strike an emotional chord.

As our young minds turn to more and more digital forms of communication, and are facebook-ed and email-ed, and Microsoft word-ed, there is true danger of losing our creative aspect of our brain. It is very tempting to use a high quality digital camera, take an imaging tool, and attempt creating an art form out of it. Or Google, tie a few pieces together, and attempt creating a story. Or sing into an iPod, and then allow the application downloaded from the App Store to create a track out of this. But such creations can only invoke those cryptic expressions from the audience that sound like:  “Super”, “Awesome”, “Cool”, to be forgotten no sooner that when the next person creates a newer version and uploads.

Life was never meant to be instant and digital. Our observations that turn to reflections and creations all act on the analog plane, and take time to evolve into creations that can last.  For that to happen, we often have to be “Digitally Unplugged”.

I am glad I found a short opportunity to do so, and am hoping I will do this more often. Let us hope that the digitally plugged generation will also do so, and will only use the wide variety of cliché and sophisticated tools to convey information and not create.

Footnote

I wish I had made an honest attempt to actually write (hand write) this article and not Microsoft word it. But then years of toying around with the computer has taken me to a state where even I am unable to read my own handwriting!


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Smart Kid and Smart(ing) Dad!

As parents, we all know the pressure our kids are going through these days, lugging heavy text books, note books, lunch boxes, snack boxes, and god knows what else the teacher wants on that particular day! No amount of media messages or personal messages from Dr Abdul Kalam seems to change this behavior, and I am shocked at the load my son is carrying these days!

The morning rush hour at home, prior to the rush hour during commute hours has become a norm at most homes. One of such days, when I was distressed, and tired, and reached work a little late, I slipped into an early morning siesta, and had this wonderful dream:

Year 2020.

It is 7.15 AM and time for our son Karthik to get dressed up and go to the school. As the morning scramble continues, I am searching for that heavy armor called backpack when my son walks out all smiles with a Tiffin box and a 12 inch ultra thin slate! I scream, “Karthik, you forgot your books”. Karthik does not wait, and I just realized that I had once again forgotten that the Digital World has taken over our life, this time for the better! A faint smile appeared on my lips.

The thin slate that Karthik is carrying is a custom built PDA, with a high resolution camera, high speed wireless connectivity, and large enough screen with touchpad capabilities that can receive high quality video and play stereophonic quality audio. Equipped with a voice recognition system, it can identify most of my son’s cryptic syllables, and has enough stuff to help him message and connect to friends. It is Smart enough to identify where he is and send that message to my PDA, and to our Home Security system.

I have just received an alert: “Karthik boarded”, and I am relieved. As I step into the shower, that is ready with the right level of temperature and optimal water flow, I am happy that I am saving on energy and water bills. For these have become quite expensive of late!

As I step out for work and open my car door, the car has tuned itself to my favorite FM 107.5 station. A nostalgic song is in the air, the weather is pleasant, and I am even more relaxed.

Half way through my 30 minute drive, I receive a voice message through the car’s audio: “Karthik at school”. A flash of my son’s picture appears on the dashboard briefly. Good beginning to the day so far, I think.

As I step into my cubicle, the glass partitions turn a subtle grey, for they double up providing aesthetics outside, and privacy inside! I slip on my glasses, age is catching up, but these are no ordinary glasses. I see a 21 inch projected screen, crisp and clear, and a virtual keyboard that I can now touch type on with ease. As I get up and walk to get some water, still typing (in air), and I am sure I look like a completely crazy person, walking, talking, typing, and mumbling, all at the same time! But then, this is the age of Digital and Virtual Reality.

Good morning Ullas, my colleague is speaking, the screen fades out, I can clearly see her, my hands are still on the virtual keyboard and I pull that back slightly embarrassed, and return her greetings. Mornings …, how are you today, I smile and return her greetings. Doing good, she responds back, and is on her way to her Digital and Virtual Work world.

Lunch time is a song; I have already mumbled South Indian Meals to the tiny microphone, the restaurant staff has been alerted as I step out, and my hot meal is waiting to be picked up.

Can’t miss that short power nap after lunch, as I step back into my chair, and lean back, the Chair knows the Saigal song that I love listening to, and soothing music is flowing into my ears! Well I am glad that some things have still not changed!

Meanwhile, what is happening to my son Karthik?

As he steps out of the bus and walks into his classroom, his slate becomes a textbook and a notebook rolled into one; and magically disconnects from public network and connects to the restricted network within the school, over a very high speed 4G (or 6G) network.

The teacher has a video projection system via which the subject and lessons are taught. All of these appear at the same time on each of the kids slates, and they can message the teacher, for any questions. At the end of the class, an assignment is sent to the kid’s laptop at home, which can then be completed and send over the public network to the school’s server, for the teacher to correct and grade.

Wireless power is already here, so wherever the kid is, no more worry about the device running out of battery. The price point of the device is so low that there is no point in stealing it!

What else can this device do? Well, Karthik can send a voice message home on what he wants to eat for snack and dinner. If mom is home, and in good spirits, she could cook a custom meal. Else, she forwards the message to the smart appliances that can all get into action, and can create a reasonably close menu that can match his wishes.

I am jolted from this early morning siesta by a loud voice that says “Where is your weekly status report?” Now you know who is besides my chair! Half asleep, I thought I had written a script to do that, but I guess the perfect age of Digital World is still not here, and I am jolted back to Year 2012!

Does all this sound utopian? Well, yes today, if viewed in its entirety. But if you take pieces of the puzzle above, they already are a reality. Not at the price point we want, but that is when Moore’s law will kick in.

Welcome to the world of “Smart Systems”, “Telemetry”, “M2M”, “Internet of things”, “Cloud based services”, and “Connected Homes”.  Devices are become smarter and smarter, and connectivity is going to become dirt cheap soon. Which means that the scenario described may not have to wait till Year 2020.

So what is it that a connected digital world cannot do, yet?

Well almost everything, except…

The poor kid still has to learn and internalize the lessons that are taught, and do his assignments. Until we come up with an even Smarter System that will wirelessly transmit lessons to targeted areas in the Child’s brain!!! But do we really want that?

Acknowledgements:

Corning’s YouTube video:

A Day Made of Glass : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Cf7IL_eZ38

Brain Computer Interface:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain%E2%80%93computer_interface