Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spacewalk and Science Proficiency in the US : A Tale of Two Worlds

To spin a popular Charles Dickens opening line somewhat differently, "It is the best of science, it is the worst of science".

"Rocket Science" is a metaphor for complex tasks that demands superiority in science and math. While the Russian milestones starting with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's first spaceflight are no less noteworthy and even though the ISS coalesced technical partnerships of a broad coalition and not just the US, yet America's leading role in space technology (i.e. "rocket science") is beyond question.  It was the lead country to adopt a sustained national space program with establishment of NASA

The milestones have been nothing short of spectacular - moon landing, Skylab, Mars missions, Cassini Saturn mission, space station, reusable space shuttles, communication satellites, GPS and on and on. I am reminded of that excellence every time US astronauts aboard the space station do a space walk to replace Hubble telescopes' lens or to fix the ammonia leak of thecooling system as they did yesterday - while orbiting the earth at 5 miles per second. 

But here is the paradox... as of 2011, the same country with so much to claim on real rocket science only had a 32 percent proficiency rate in math among its high school students.

 While the Curiosity rover crawls on real Martian soil looking for water, the humbling down-to-earth 2010 fact is that US students scored 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared to 65 other top industrial countries. Curiously enough, there is very little uproar.

 If the media is any reflection of the collective psyche of the country, it seems we are more fixated on reality TV, American Idol or the juvenile antics of our lawmakers trying to satisfy their respective lobbies.

Encouragingly, there is a growing awareness and movement to improve and expand STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the US. I only hope the momentum builds fast enough to change the course. As I noted in an earlier blog, science and technology have proven to be the most important force of true progress in improving human life and civilization. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vending Machine - A Glittering Journey from Gum ball to Gold

On my first trip to the US, I was en route to Cincinnati via JFK airport. One of the few things I still remember from the first of many JFK layovers was the ubiquity of vending machines disgorging shiny red cans of coke. Little did I know then that over the next few years, I would have many up-close interactions with these coin-sucking, coffee-spouting machines during  many late night hours at graduate school.

A vending machine of course is hardly a subject for reflection on a technology blog. We take them for granted and they come in handy - that's all. But the more I think of it, they actually are an essential part of our urban life. They too have evolved with technology, much like other gadgets such as TVs or phones.  And, in a way, they reflect the tastes or preference of society.

The History:

The notion of mechanized self-service is actually pretty old. The Greek mathematician Hero seems to have gotten the ball rolling in 215BC, when he invented a machine to vend holy water in an Egyptian temple at Alexandria. In 1076 A.D., a coin-activated pencil dispenser was developed in China. In post industrial revolution Europe, one of the earlier instances of vending machines goes back to 1880 when commercial coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London to dispense post cards. Once ubiquitous gumball vending machines in the US were first introduced in 1907.

Since then, the basic technology of vending machines remained somewhat same - mechanism to test and check the coins (or paper bill) and then a mechanical or electric  motor actuation of the feeder trays to release the item. 

Fast forward to 21st Century: 

Machines in the 21st century are of course a little more sophisticated. They may now come with touchscreen for selection, LCD display, and connectivity for credit card validation. Today, like everything else, they too are increasingly fitted with wireless chipsets, connected to the internet  to transmit real-time transaction, enabling purchase through smartphones. In the age of Internet of Things (IoT), 'remote vending' that permits vendors to remotely scan and manage stock and to even change pricing on the fly may soon become the norm.

Supporting social preferences or even crisis mitigation:

While Pepsi, Coke, Coffee and snack vendors  dominate today's vending machines in the US, vending machines in some parts of Europe can serve up Pizza. In Japan, the vending machine economy is probably more diverse than anywhere else in the world serving everything from snacks and beverages to clothes, electronics and even beer! And in some parts of the world ravaged by AIDS, access to vending machines for condoms has actually become an effective tool for both government and NGOs (Non Government Organizations) to fight the spread of HIV.

The age of Internet of Things (IoT) changes everything:

Today in the US, smart vending machines are being equipped with connectivity technology that not only enables purchase by smartphones, but can locate and inform the nearest replenishing depot, so machines are refilled before popular products run out.  This  just-in-time inventory management is enabling automated kiosks for diverse businesses such as ticket sales and vending of high value items such as electronics.
Vending by Twitter: One South African beverage company recently made news by launching Twitter-activated vending machines as part of a promotion in Capetown. Consumers who send a tweet to vending machines in select locations, while standing in front of it, receive free samples of its local branded iced tea. The IP-enabled, wirelessly connected 'smart' vending machine is programmed such that all tweets with a certain hashtag are streamed to the machine. It then checks every tweet's location and if it is within a certain proximity of itself, it dispenses the beverage! What a deal! 

Mother of all vending machines:

Let me end this blog with what I thought was the mother of all vending machines! The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi has reportedly installed the world's first Connected gold vending machine in its lobby. The Gold To Go machine from Ex Oriente Lux  serves 24-carat gold bars and coins in a nice gift box. But here is the kicker! The buyers make menu choices via a 19-inch touch screen interface and the prices get updated wirelessly every hour via a link to the company's online shop. The inventory is monitored with RFID tags supported by a 24/7 security camera and an ID scanner to prevent money laundering.
Just make sure you have a well funded credit card before you try the bullion dispenser. Save the loose change for the good old coke machine ! 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why health care can get a boost from big data and cognitive computing

Modern medicine does wonders when it comes to targeted healing of our specific ailments - especially when it comes to mechanical malfunction of a body part. Surgeons can go to very precise organs and fix or even replace them with bionic parts.

While the health care system trains doctor to test, scan and treat targeted ailments, every now and then, we come across anecdotes of physicians not being able to think holistically to produce the correct diagnosis. Today's diagnosis is often done by individual symptoms or test results - not by connecting the dots of myriad other discrete symptoms or past health history of the patient. In other words, even the best medical technology is still ways off from treating the human body as a super-complex system.

A friend of mine has been seeing doctors for years with many individual but apparently unrelated issues - backache, fatigue, recurring eye redness and on and on. Every time she received "adequate" treatments for the specific conditions but they all kept coming back. Not until she, at the behest of another friend with similar history, researched and consulted multiple experts could she find her real underlying degenerative chronic auto-immune condition.

So what have big data and artificial intelligence got to do with this? Could be a lot.

In an engineering conference for the automotive industry (where I work), Rob High, CTO of IBM Watson Solutions, made a case for 'big data' and cognitive computing in solving complex problems including medical diagnostics. Integrating myriad medical data and past history in to a cohesive medical diagnosis can be a computing challenge. Even if we ignore the lack of holistic approach, modern health care in many ways is becoming victim of its own rapid progress. According to Dr. High, new medical information and discoveries now double every two years. Nearly, 80000 pages of new medical information are created daily. Yet, a typical medical practitioner hardly keeps in touch with a meager fraction of these new discoveries. An average doctor, processes no more than 5% of this growing knowledge base and is often miserably outdated. 81% of physicians don't even spare five hours per month to keep up.

In 2011, IBM demonstrated its own progress in artificial intelligence, data analytics and cognitive computing when its Watson computer program bested Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter - the all time best Jeopardy! champions in a three-day competition. What Watson demonstrated was its capability to understand the clues and contexts hidden in an 'answer' and then to analyze all relevant information and prior learning from its very large memory and produce the most statistically relevant outcome. Clearly the same technology has potential to lend a hand to develop more integrated medical diagnoses.

I am encouraged that Cleveland Clinic is looking to apply this technology for its expert "diagnosticassistant'I also hope that someday, smart evidence-based (if not fully holistic) treatment as indicated by this Youtube demo about oncology treatment may become routine.