Thursday, February 15, 2018

Advances in Brain-Machine Interfaces

On one end, we are discussing how AI will advance in the future and how many of current jobs will be wiped out by its onslaught. On the other end, we are making much progress in developing brain -machine interfaces which will help in curing many neuron related diseases partially or fully.

See the excerpt below from WSJ,

"Nancy Smith, who was injured in a car accident seven years ago... only able to move her shoulder and head. Neurosurgeons and neuroscientists in California implanted a tiny “bed of nails” array of electrodes in the region of her cortex that encodes her intention to grasp a cup or to press piano keys. Algorithms decode her neural signals and pass instruction to a musical synthesizer, so that she can play music with her mind"

"Bill Kochevar was... paralyzed below the shoulders following a bike accident many years ago. A Cleveland-based team of doctors and neuroscientists placed electrodes into his left motor cortex; these read out the electrical tremors of about 100 neurons, decoding the patient’s intention and then electrically stimulating muscles in his arm and hand to enable him to reach and to grasp. Such functional electrical stimulation is akin to “writing” the nervous system, giving instructions that mimic, however crudely, what occurs naturally. Functional stimulation lets Mr. Kochevar eat and drink by himself. There are more than 50 such patients with listening devices installed in their brains."

"When we move in the world, our bodies receive massive feedback from sensors in our limbs that signal their location in space and from touch sensors in the skin. Neuroscientists are seeking to replace these signals in patients who don’t feel their limbs by electrically stimulating their somatosensory cortex using implanted electrodes."

It is expected that future research for brain-machine interfaces will help in treating OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Treatment resistant depression, Essential tremor, Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy, Stroke recovery, blindness and other neuron related diseases.

References

1. To Keep Up With AI, We’ll Need High-Tech Brains - WSJ

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Money in Politics - Corporate Vs People

In market those who shell out money for buying shares are entitled for dividend. Obviously, those who don't invest won't get anything. Today’s politics is like market only. This strange situation is not limited to India but across the world it is the same. Best examples are oil rich countries. Those countries don't have any dependency on tax revenue, many are not even interested in collecting it. Hence they often blink their eye towards public demands and protests.

Well, let's see who is funding India's political parties. During 2016-17, "just 10 donors contributed over 50 per cent of political donations" as per Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Between FY 2013-14 and 2016-17, 9 registered Electoral Trusts donated a total of 637.54 crore INR to political parties.

Break up is as follows,

During FY 2013-14: 85.37 crore
During FY 2014-15: 177.40 crore
During FY 2015-16: 49.50 crore
During FY 2016-17: 325.27 crore

Above numbers are from registered electoral trusts who submitted data to Election Commission; 14 out of 21 submitted contribution report.

Top 10 donors are (rupees in crores),

1. DLF - 28
2. UPL - 25
3. JSW Energy - 25
4. Piramal Enterprises Ltd - 21.1
5. Suresh Kotak - 18.5
6. Bharti Airtel - 17.005
7. DLF Cyber City - 15
8. Essar Bulk Terminal - 15
9. Ultra Tech Cement - 13
10. Grasim Industries - 13

I strongly believe this trend should be reversed. There should be a small upper limit on individual/single corporate contribution. Loop holes like contribution from shell companies should be restricted. Parties should be forced to get their campaign fund from public. Unless we are not reaching there, democracy will be for the contributors by the political parties off the public.

Sajeev

References
1. Analysis of Contribution Report of Electoral Trusts – FY 2016-17 - ADR

Robots are getting closer!!!

One of the biggest challenges for Robotic Engineers is, how to make robots which could do things that are very easy for humans. That is exactly why DARPA added below scenarios in their challenges,
1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Connect a fire hose to a standpipe and turn on a valve.

Recently Boston Dynamics achieved a remarkable feat in this area, its four-legged robot opened a closed door and walked out. See that video and some other interesting videos from Boston Dynamics below.


Spot Mini opening a door




Intersting walking by a Spot Mini




Robot Doing Back-flipping




Robot which stands up to Bullies




More from Atlas



Sajeev

References

1. Wired
2. Boston Dynamics

Monday, February 12, 2018

Escalations and Containment in Syria, Israel Lost a Jet

As per news reports, an Iranian drone operated from Syria crossed Israel border. Israel intercepted this drone and attacked Syrian site from where the drone was alleged controlled. While retuning, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down a Israeli F-16 jet, which crash-landed in northern Israel. In response to lost jet, Israeli forces attacked Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria in broad day light.

What make this situation different is two things.
1. loss of fighter jet to Syrian anti-aircraft missiles
2. attack by Israel on Iranian targets.

Both of which can be considered as an escalation in Syrian civil war which already drew forces from US, Russia and Turkey.

This tit for tat exchange may be the latest in on going civil war. There is less probability that tensions will escalate. Though Israel doesn't like Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon she may not want to open a war front with battle hardened troops which are getting supplies of upgraded missiles from Iran. More than that Assad has other priories - recovering rest of Syrian lands from opposition. He might not want to open another front with Israel, which will definitely reverse territorial of gains of Assad regime. Iran also has everything going well in Syria, why should they want to open another front? Russia which have good relations with Israel might try to contain the conflict. It is possible that Syrians, Hezbollah and Iranians are probably taking calculated risk and studying Israeli response.

Sajeev

PS: In addition to Israel, Turkey and Russia also lost a jet in Syria in last week.

Trouble brews in Indian Ocean – Maldives

Political cyclones are not new to this island nation. Current sequence of events has its root in 2011 when then president Mohammed Nasheed faced opposition campaign in the name of protecting Islam (that’s what opposition claimed, even though there was hardly anything supporting their claim) and subsequent mutiny forced him to resign. Later his deputy Mohammed Waheed Hassan became president. Nasheed was later arrested, charged with terrorism, convicted and sentenced for 13 years in a flawed trial. He was later released to exile. This flawed trial exposed judicial system which lost all her credibility.

Nasheed was again elected in 2013 elections. However, Supreme court intervened and annulled results. Once again it became clear where court’s loyalty stands. In second election Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom (former president Goyoom’s half-brother) was elected as president.

Yameen took the country in a different direction. He considerably enhanced relations with China. Xi Jinping - first Chinese leader to visit - reached Maldives in 2014. China got huge infrastructure projects - bridges, ports and airport. Like other countries currently in Chinese orbit, Maldives is also accumulating huge external debt. As per IMF projections, Maldives’ external debt presently stands at 34.7% of GDP. By 2021 it is expected to reach 51% of GDP. Interesting fact is, two thirds of this debt is to Chinese. Yameen also started a crackdown on political dissidents, arrested his vice president and even declared a 30-day emergency on may, 2016.

As per a Guardian article, "president Yameen has ruled with an authoritarian streak, and was accused of corruption, thuggery and international money laundering in an explosive Al-Jazeera documentary, Stealing Paradise. All senior opposition figures have been jailed or forced into exile, joined by a stream of Yameen’s allies, accused of treason, corruption and myriad assassination plots".

Independent journalism already breathed its last in Maldives. Foreign correspondents are barred and local journalists disappeared.

Supreme Court Judgement

In an unexpected turn of events, Maldives Supreme Court ordered release of all political prisoners (Maldivian Democratic Party’s Nasheed, Jumhoree Party chief Gasim Ibrahim and Adhaalath’s Imran Abdulla, former defence minister Mohamed Nazim, MP Faris Maumoon, former vice president Ahmed Adheeb, former prosecutor general Muhthaz Muhusin, chief magistrate Ahmed Nihan and local businessman Hamid Ismail) and reinstated 12 members of parliament who had been stripped of their posts. These members were earlier defected from ruling party and joined opposition; reinstating them will make ruling party a minority in parliament.

Court reasons that, political prisoners were tried without due process, violating constitution and human rights treaties. Court also noted that, prosecutors and judges had been 'unduly influenced' and investigations are 'politically motivated'.

What make current turn of events unusual is Supreme Court's 180-degree volte face. It was same Supreme Court which gave a flawed verdict against Nasheed and annulled election results. Now, court got some spine and ordered release and retrials of president's opponents.

Supreme court got some backbone, but we don’t know how long it will be there. Supreme court was also a part of whatever went wrong in Maldives. As per Guardian report, "...Handpicked by Gayoom during his rule and illegally given life tenure under the new constitution in 2010, the judges have been at the centre of most of the Maldives’ recent ills; at least 50% of the 200-odd judges and magistrates have less than seventh-grade education, while a quarter had actual criminal records, including convictions for sexual misconduct, embezzlement, violence and disruption of public harmony"

Yameen’s Retribution

Judgement didn’t go well with president Abdulla Yameen. He refused to comply with order and ordered imprisonment of Chief Justice, judges and other dissidents (which includes former president and Yameen’s half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom). To control all organs of state, he even ordered a state of emergency for 15 days.

Radicalization 

While political leadership was fighting each other, and suppressing democracy, country’s youth were getting radicalized and joining IS. As per news report, "Maldives has likely contributed more fighters to Syria and Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other country not directly engaged in the conflict".

Impact in Economy

Current set of political events are hitting Maldives major industry – her bread and butter - tourism. Travel adversaries are out from several countries.

Elections

Elections were scheduled for later this year. Now it’s not clear whether Yameen will go ahead with election while his popularity is hitting rock bottom. Even if conducted whether it will be fair?
After arrests, Maldives President Yameen sent his Minister Mohamed Saeed to India and China. India refused to see him. Official line is dates are not suitable. Special envoy is also to visit, China, Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia.

India’s Role

What India will do with crisis in her backyard? China already made considerable inroads to this island nation and unlike India, China (for that matter Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) won’t find any problem in siding with strongmen who suppress political dissidents and democracy.

Nasheed’s Request

Nasheed publicly asked India to send a special envoy with military backing. Back in 1989 India intervened (Operation Cactus) to stop overthrowing of then Maldives government. Situation is considerably different this time. In 1989, it was as per the request of Maldives ruler to support democracy (with full public support). Now also the objective is to support democracy; but now ruler is the root cause of all problems. Moreover, Maldives is radicalized a lot. We don’t know how far the people and Maldives own defence forces view such a move.

In an interview with The Wire, Nasheed told, “I am not asking necessarily for Indian troops or Indian boots on Male… we don’t think that simply asking him (President Yameen) would do the trick… How you assist your neighbour in the 21st century in my view would be rather different on how it was done in the 20th or 19th century. I am sure we can use our imagination and I am sure that people in Delhi would have a variety of tools to be able to use in achieving a given objective”.

Simply talking to Yameen is not going to change anything. Sanctions will only drag the problem and create hardship for Maldives’ population. Military operations on the other hand neither be swift nor supported by whole public.

India asked Yameen government to implement Supreme Court order and described herself as “disturbed’ by actions of President. Will India take any steps to force the government to do the right thing?

Chinese don’t know how India is going to react. They want to test waters and see how far India will go in resolving the crisis and whether India will accept extra regional powers to intervene in her own backyard. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, "The international community should play a constructive role based on the principle of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives instead of taking actions that may complicate the current situation". See the word 'sovereignty' here, it’s an indirect indication that others should not intervene.

Well if things go out of hand, China will make the situation to its advantage and entrench to Maldives forever. I think forcing Maldives government to conduct an independent election under the watch of foreign observers as early as possible  is the best thing which India and international community can do at this moment.

Sajeev

References

1. The Maldives’ political soap opera won’t end without judicial reform - JJ Robinson: The Guardian
2. Maldives Supreme Court Orders Release of All Opposition Leaders, President Yameen Defiant - The Wire
3. Nasheed: ‘India Has the Imagination and Tools to Get its Way With the Maldives Government’ - The Wire
4. China says international community should play constructive role in Maldives - Reuters
5. Chinese company bags Maldivian Island on 50-year lease - ET
6. Maldives gives airport contract to Chinese firm during Xi's visit - Reuters