Monday, May 22, 2023

Freedom of Speech and Generative AI

Photo Credit: Mirko Tobias Schaefer, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons ""><img width="512" alt="Bios robotlab writing robot" 

Freedom of Speech and Generative AI

I will not tangle with court opinions on what constitutes free speech for human beings. However, I have a few opinions of what anonymity should be offered to Generative AI. Suppose the law says that generative AI systems should watermark all the output they create digitally in such a manner that everyone's browser can in principle mark such material as "Produced by Generative AI". One result would be that students cannot submit such material to their teachers and claim credit as if it was their own writing. Ideally, the watermarking should identify uniquely the system that authored the material concerned. This provision should cover all output of Generative AI systems including images.

Secondly, watermarking would inform every user of the Internet as to the origin of text they rely upon – was it created by a human or a machine. 

We have enough of fake news already, and we do not need to have it produced in industrial quantity! For instance, if this safeguard was in operation now, no confusion would have been caused by a synthetic image showing a massive smoke column near the Pentagon

In conclusion, I am not ready to confer citizenship on Generative AI systems.

Srinivasan Ramani 

Monday, December 26, 2022

RIP Turing Test


The context of this article is the Turing Test. If you have not read on this topic, you could look it up on the Wikipedia. I would also suggest you read articles on the Loebner Prize which is related. Visit and

 I spent sometime today "talking" to Chat GPT through the Chrome Browser. Many of my questions were "why" questions such as "Why is the sky blue?". One question was "What would happen if ice were to be dense enough to sink in water?" I was quite impressed by the responses. I would advise readers never to use a chat interview to hire an employee. They could be using a mobile device to ask Chat GPT while talking to you on a laptop. Has an artificial intelligence passed the Turing Test? I do think so.

 I did not use professional tricks to look for weaknesses in the conversation. Does my conversational counterpart identify contradictions in what I said some time ago and what I say now? Is it fooled by ambiguous statements, puns, etc.?

Instead, I asked straightforward questions. I could not completely avoid asking factual questions that could be answered by store-and-forward techniques, or by a web search. I was curious to know the answers for a few questions I felt are the ones likely to stump search engines.

I also did not look to see if I could make the counterpart to say something wrong. To err is human, and you don’t throw out an AI for making the kind of mistake a human could easily make. 

I list a few questions I tried and the responses I got from Chat GPT. You may also wish to read my post on this topic on Linkedin:

Is there any logic in the relative positions internal organs are found in the abdomen?

Yes, there is logic in the relative positions of the internal organs in the abdomen. The organs are arranged in the abdomen in a way that allows them to function efficiently and effectively.

For example, the digestive organs (such as the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine) are located in the lower part of the abdomen, near the pelvis. This allows gravity to assist in the movement of food and waste through these organs.

The liver, which plays a role in processing nutrients and producing bile, is located in the upper right part of the abdomen. The spleen, which is involved in the immune system and the production of red blood cells, is located in the upper left part of the abdomen.

The kidneys, which are responsible for filtering waste products from the blood and regulating electrolytes, are located in the back part of the abdomen, on either side of the spine.

Overall, the relative positions of the internal organs in the abdomen reflect the functions that they serve and the physiological needs of the body.

what is a micromort?

A micromort is a unit of measurement used to express the risk of death associated with a specific activity or event. It is defined as one in a million chances of death, and it is often used to compare the relative risks of different activities or events. For example, a person who skydives might be considered to be taking on an average of one micromort of risk, while a person who drives a car might be considered to be taking on an average of 0.1 micromorts of risk per hour. Micromorts can be useful for comparing the risks of different activities or for understanding the relative risks associated with different events or activities.


What is the risk of drinking one unit of whiskey in micromorts?

It is difficult to quantify the exact risk of drinking one unit of whiskey in micromorts (a unit of measurement used to quantify the risk of death from various activities), as the risks associated with alcohol consumption depend on a variety of factors, including the individual's age, weight, and overall health, as well as the amount of whiskey consumed and the context in which it is consumed. However, it is generally accepted that the risk of death from alcohol consumption increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of death from alcohol consumption is estimated to be 0.1 micromorts per drink for men and 0.2 micromorts per drink for women. One unit of whiskey is typically equivalent to one shot, which is approximately 1.5 ounces. Based on these estimates, the risk of death from consuming one unit of whiskey may be approximately 0.15 micromorts for a man and 0.3 micromorts for a woman. However, these estimates are based on the assumption of a standard serving size and may not be accurate for all individuals. The risk of death may also be higher if larger servings of whiskey are consumed.

Chat GPT is not Goof-Proof

The computation of risk of alcohol consumption above is a bit wonky! Read the response given to the question on the risk of flying, below. The arithmetic is wrong. However, I think a good fraction of the human population would not notice this mistake unless they take a flight that runs into the risk discussed!

What is the risk of a flight in micromorts?

A micromort is a unit of measurement used to represent a one-in-a-million chance of death. It is typically used to evaluate the relative risk of different activities or events. The risk of a flight, in terms of micromorts, depends on a variety of factors, including the type of aircraft, the duration of the flight, the route taken, and the weather conditions.

Generally speaking, the risk of death during a flight is quite low. According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the overall fatality rate for commercial flights in the United States is about 0.07 per 100 million miles flown. This equates to a risk of about 7 micromorts per 100 million miles flown.

However, it's important to note that the risk of a flight can vary significantly depending on the specific circumstances. For example, flights over long distances or to remote locations may have a higher risk due to the potential for technical issues or other unexpected events. Additionally, flights in smaller or older aircraft may have a higher risk than flights in newer, larger aircraft.

Overall, it's important to recognize that flying is a relatively safe mode of transportation, but like any activity, it does carry some risk. It's always a good idea to take steps to minimize the risks associated with flying, such as choosing a reputable airline, following safety instructions during the flight.


For an intelligence to hold what looks like a good conversation in a Turing Test, it needs the ability to deal with a human language. It also needs the ability to organize the discourse, that is, to shape the flow of communication to make sense. It has taken decades for AI researchers to make necessary advances in this direction. Meanwhile the Internet has brought us something close to omniscience. There was a time when scholars of language said world knowledge was impossible to put into a system as it seemed to be huge. So, they limited their theories to syntax and limited semantics.

Now, as long as a system is able to benefit from human language text, practically everything known by people everywhere can be accessed by it. Practically all public knowledge is available to an artificial intelligence.  My question below and Chat GPT’s response to it demonstrate how extensive this knowledge-reach has become. Even though I am a Tamil speaker, I did not know the meaning of the name Thirumazhisai.  Chat GPT explained this to me.

Tell me about Thirumazhisai

Thirumazhisai is a town located in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in the district of Kanchipuram. It is known for being home to the ancient Thirumazhisai Azhwar Temple, which is dedicated to the Tamil saint and poet known as Thirumazhisai Azhwar. The temple is an important place of worship for Hindus, and it is believed to have been built during the 8th century.

Thirumazhisai Azhwar was one of the twelve ancient saints known as the "Azhwars," who are revered in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. He is known for his devotional poetry, which is considered to be some of the most important works in Tamil literature. The Thirumazhisai Azhwar Temple is a popular destination for pilgrims who come to pay their respects to Thirumazhisai Azhwar and to seek his blessings.

In addition to the Thirumazhisai Azhwar Temple, the town of Thirumazhisai is also home to other places of cultural and historical significance, such as the Vellappar Temple and the Chola-era stone inscriptions at the Thirumazhisai Koothanur Temple. There are also several small local businesses and markets in the town, which contribute to the local economy.

What does the word thirumazhisai mean?

The word "Thirumazhisai" is derived from the Tamil language and is believed to be named after the Tamil saint and poet known as Thirumazhisai Azhwar. The name "Thirumazhisai" is believed to be a combination of two Tamil words: "thiru," which means "sacred" or "holy," and "mazhisai," which means "poet." Therefore, the word "Thirumazhisai" can be translated as "sacred poet" or "holy poet." It is also the name of a town located in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is named after the temple dedicated to Thirumazhisai Azhwar.

I promise to discuss this topic in one or two more future posts on this blog

There is more to talk about. I talked to Chat GPT (my nickname for it is Chatpat!) about feelings. It seems to have clear views on why it does not need to have feelings of its own. However, it agreed with me (or should I say Shee agreed with me? It seems inappropriate to call an intelligent system “it”) that it might have to understand our feelings in order to serve us better. Shee clearly said that she does not need to have feelings of her own for understanding of feelings of users!

Has humanity created its own successor? Yes, it seems so. AI systems can be designed to last a few billion years if we work really hard! Besides, these systems would be able to transmigrate themselves to new bodies over telecom when it becomes necessary!  

What next?

Some of you may study the feedback contest mentioned on the Chatpat website and perhaps participate in it.

Some of you might want to do projects related to this whole area. I will keep all this in mind when I plan my future blogposts.

Meanwhile, many of you may not agree about AI not needing feelings. Would it not be good for them to have empathy? And perhaps, curiosity? Should they not have something like mental activity when they are not conversing with a human? Or should they be talking to each other, or “learning” through the Internet? 

Srinivasan Ramani


Sunday, October 09, 2022

Delivering supplies to a submarine under water


Display at Museu do Expedicionário, Brazil

Photo credit: Squibb - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

From Wikimedia Commons

I find it odd that spacecraft routinely deliver supplies to the International Space Station, while there is no way to deliver supplies to a submarine under water. Is it conceivable that an underwater drone could safely dock with an under-water sub and deliver supplies? This could be a ton of enriched air to manage an emergency, medical supplies, or food. Imagine a sub receiving a hundred kilos of fresh salad, after a couple of months under water!

Such delivery may disclose the location of the sub. Hence, this may be a risky maneuver in times of conflict. However, we have heard of under-water emergencies in peace time as well.

I do not want students to worry about trying to sell a solution to the navy! It is a job for a company. However, students can experiment with underwater drone technology and do a concept demonstration. You can visit Torpedo - Wikipedia and Torpedo tube - Wikipedia to get the general background. Many subs use torpedoes that are 533 mm in diameter and about six meters in length. They weigh approximately a ton and are driven by an electrical motor. They have a range of a few kilometres. The interesting thing is that they are fired from torpedo tubes. There is a torpedo room connected to the torpedo tubes. There are doors at both ends of the torpedo tube. In principle an underwater drone should be able to dock into a modified torpedo tube! The supplies can be taken out through the torpedo room.

It might even be possible to put in a sick or injured crew member in the drone and send him to a nearby ship. These possibilities would be particularly valuable for stricken submarines that are not able to come to the surface. But, alas, I wear a 42-inch shirt, and therefore won’t fit into a drone docked inside a torpedo tube!

Now for the concept demonstration. If your college is near a waterbody, you could think of building half size replicas of torpedo tubes. You can then build underwater drones and demonstrate that they can home into a docking tube.

Srinivasan Ramani

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Hotel on TK7, L4: The Next International Space Station


TK7 is an asteroid that was discovered in 2010 by the NEOWISE team of astronomers using the WISE space telescope. It is about 300 Meters in diameter and is a part of the world’s most valuable real estate! Why? It is easier to reach than the moon, leave alone Mars. It’s orbit round the Sun is close to that of the earth and is gravitationally synchronized to the L4 location of the earth. It is astronomical convention to call asteroids at the L4 and L5 points associated with a planet Trojans. So, technically, TK7 is a Trojan.

The mathematician and physicist Leonhard Euler had shown in 1750 that there are three points L1, L2 and L3, associated with a planet circling a central body like the Sun. The scientist cum mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange had shown in 1772 that there are two more points L4 and L5. Objects at or near these points are relatively stable there. Visit What are Lagrange Points?

We have L4 and L5 points on the earth’s orbit around the Sun.

A spacecraft headed to TK7 will need much less fuel than one headed to Mars. A spaceship going to Mars would have to fire its rockets and burn a lot of fuel to do a soft landing on Mars. A spaceship headed to L4 or L5 would not need to fight any strong gravity. Gravitational force exerted by the Sun near L4 or L5 is only 6 mm/sec2! Synchronizing a spacecraft’s orbit with that of TK7 would not require huge amounts of energy.

The return to Earth from TK7 will also require much less fuel than a return from Mars. Gravity at its surface is twenty thousand times weaker than that of the earth’s gravity we live in.

Why is 300 M diameter rock a valuable real estate? Because, living on it would be much easier and safer than living in the current International Space Station. You can live, say, 10 meters below TK7’s surface, very well protected against cosmic radiation and micrometeorites. Temperature management would be a lot easier. Space available for living and for work would be a lot larger.

Who would want to live there? Scientists interested in studying the universe, for instance. They have had the James Webb Telescope working from July 2022 at the Lagrange Point L1 in the earth’s shadow. It is a very complex telescope, and if some part of it fails, there is no way to repair it. On the other hand, if a telescope is built on TK7 a resident crew could repair it easily.

The 300-meter diameter TK7 would have a surface area of about 60 acres if it is a smooth sphere though it is unlikely to be a sphere. However, gravity on its surface is so weak that we should have no trouble building big structures all around it. In course of time, we could even give it a 400 Meter diameter outer shell in the form of a smooth sphere! Building materials that weigh a ton on earth would weigh a mere 100 grams on TK7! Elevators, if any, would need power mainly to cope with inertia, as weight would be negligible.  

Other possibilities are of modifying the rotation of TK7, so that one side always faces the Sun and generates huge amounts of solar power. The other part could always face away from the Sun and can house big telescopes to study the universe at various wavelengths. Of course, there would be a need for radio telescopes as well on TK7, provided we have tight control on electromagnetic noise.

How about air and water? Recycling them, monitoring them, and keeping them unpolluted, will be major challenges. Water and air will also escape the meager gravity of TK7 if there are any leaks.

Building and operating a station on TK7 would require international cooperation. This would be a unique project which would require states of the world to cooperate on a huge and expensive high technology project.

Would the scientific value of such a project alone persuade member states of the UN to contribute its cost? Would the project be sustainable without a source of revenue?

One option for a revenue stream would be to allow a certain percentage of facilities on the trojan to serve tourists for a few weeks each. That is why this article is titled “The Hotel on TK7”. Wikipedia mentions 56 million as the number of millionaires in the world. Perhaps one could attract 10,000 of them per year to visit “The Hotel on TK7”. If they stayed for an average of 7 days each, we would need about 200 bunks on TK7. If they paid 2 to 3 million dollars each for the trip, they would contribute a reasonable amount. Would the astronomers want this crowd around?

Mining for rare elements is another possibility, but mining on TK7 may not be compatible with other activities on it. Is there a sufficient tonnage of asteroids orbiting the L4 point to support mining activity? Ideally, mining should be coupled with manufacturing. This would make it worthwhile to mine even not-so-rare metals such as iron. To go lower down in sophistication, we can even manufacture prefabricated hollow blocks for use in constructing buildings on Mars. The manufactured products should be exported to Mars rather than to earth. The low cost of transportation from L4 would make Mars a very attractive destination for goods manufactured around L4.

It is possible to create a semi-permanent facility for asteroid mining to be located around L4, but not on TK7. Potentially interesting asteroids could be brought to this facility by automated asteroid lassoing spacecraft. The miners who run these activities could be based on TK7; they would make trips to the mining facility whenever necessary. However, human effort involved in space-based mining and manufacture should be minimized. Processes should be automated as far as possible because human presence in space is so expensive.

The biggest attraction of building a station on TK7 is that it would be a valuable steppingstone to a permanent station on Mars. The scale of the effort would be smaller, and the costs and risks involved would be much lower.  

TK7 is not the only trojan that we should consider. The earth has a larger trojan linked to its L4, 2020 XL5, designated as a minor planet. It is 1.3 KM in diameter, making it much heavier than TK7. XL5 may not be as attractive as TK7 for staging Mars expeditions, as its orbit takes it well away from Mars. In its nearest approach to the Sun, it gets closer to the Sun than Venus. Chances of finding water on it may be low.

There are several trojans in Mars’ orbit, and two are big: 5261 Eureka, trailing Mars in its orbit is 1.3 KM in diameter. 2011 UN63, also trailing Mars, is 560 KM in diameter. Setting up a base on one of these would be easier than setting it up on Mars.

Careful study and analysis may show the advantages and disadvantages of these trojans for staging a Mars expedition. Ultimately, I suspect that “local” resources would matter a lot. For instance, the presence of a thousand tons of water or ice would be a big attraction.  

We would need a new breed of robotic spacecraft to do the necessary investigations of several trojan asteroids. The Japanese have established a lead in creating such exploration spacecraft. Visit the Hayabusa Page

Srinivasan Ramani

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Reducing the loss of Cellphones using a watch alert

You might have read this news item:

It talks about a friend of Warren Buffet, who lost his iPhone in a taxi and felt very bad.

There is a simple way to reduce such losses. Assume that the owner of an iPhone is also wearing an Apple watch. It should be easy to arrange for the watch to alert the owner when he moves some distance away from the phone. Loss of the Bluetooth signal from the iPhone can trigger this off. ”Setting” can offer the owner the choice of having this alert on, or turning it off. The watch display can show if the tether is on or off. See also my earlier post related to this topic:

I am glad to see that a form of this technology is in use now. Visit

Srinivasan Ramani



Saturday, April 30, 2022

Admissions to IITs and the IISc

We, in India, are usually concerned about marks and entrance examinations.  Lakhs of applicants take the JEE (Main) test and those who get a specified minimum in that test take the JEE (Advanced). Finally, the top 10,000 rankers from the JEE (Advanced) get admission to IITs. There must be a few countries where such severe competition exists. Is there a statistical difference between those are in the 9900-10,000 ranks and in the 11900-12000 rank band? I doubt it.

That is not the end of the story. What do the tests measure? I have heard skeptical comments from many academics about how the exam-coaching industry runs circles round the system!

I was worrying about my daughter’s studying for the exams when she was in the 12th Grade. “Do you want me to get marks, or get an education, Daddy?”, she asked. The professors know the difference. One of them, from the Indian Institute of Science has written a short article on Linked in which is essential reading for all those interested in the field of higher education. Visit

He tells you how bad Entrance Exam top rankers can be.

Srinivasan Ramani

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Software to Make Highways Safe

 Suppose that a Jumbo jet crashed every day in India, killing all passengers in it. A similar number of deaths occur due to road accidents every day (377 deaths/day, or approximately 137,605 deaths/year). The country is not able to do much to reduce the number of these accidents.  I believe that our engineering colleges should do R & D to reduce the number of road fatalities. I will offer suggestions in this article. I hope they will trigger thinking and discussions. 

Reduce Speeding on Highways

India has made FASTags mandatory for highway users  This automates the recording of vehicle’s license-plate numbers and the time at which they cross any toll gate. In each case, the distance to the next toll road is known. Therefore, any vehicle exceeding the speed limit between two toll gates can be detected easily. All we need is Internet connectivity to each toll gate. This could be through a landline connection or through a cellular connection. Procedure-wise, rules can authorize the police to seize any over-speeding vehicle unless the driver pays a specified fine on the spot. 

An app running on a PC or even on a cell phone can alert the staff at a toll gate. How many lives would this project save?

Highlight Fatality Sites  

A high fraction of vehicles have someone carrying a smartphone equipped with a map application. We can work with the app service provider to maintain and utilize a nationwide database of road fatalities: locations in which one or more lives were lost within the previous 30 days. As any app user approaches a fatality site the app can indicate this in a suitable manner and give details. The text should be written for the purpose of making users aware of the risks in that segment of the road.

Enabling every road user to be a safety warden  

We see dangerous behavior on highways. These include trucks standing on a highway blocking a lane, vehicles doing illegal turns and road crossings, and vehicles not having the required lights on. Vehicles, usually two-wheelers, running against the traffic. Rarely do we report such problems and provide location information. An app can be developed to work with a map app. The map app could display a red disc or some such prominent icon all the time it is being used. The user should be able to use the icon and activate a reporting mechanism. This should automatically report the location. It should also enable the user to take a photograph optionally and add a short written text. The reporting user’s identity should be protected by encryption but should be available to a court if it is considered essential. The app should not require the user to stop at the place where the risk is present. That location should be identified as one where the user activated the reporting mechanism. The app should allow the user to complete the report within a specified time from the moment the reporting mechanism is activated. 

In conclusion, reduction of risks and fatalities is an essential objective in engineering. Technology can reduce road deaths by at least 25% within the next two years. That is, technology can save over 30,000 lives per year.

Srinivasan Ramani 

This article was originally published in Volume 4 Issue 4 of
Advanced Computing and Communications




Thursday, November 21, 2019

Using an Activity Tracker as a Wireless Key

You don’t even need to say Open sesame!

Many of us wear an Activity Tracker (AT) most of the working day, partly because we have thrown our watches away! The ATs communicate with our cell phones by Bluetooth. We usually also carry our cell phone on our person. Women tend to carry purses or small handbags and put their cell phones in them. There is enough technology in the world to create a secure locking mechanism to enable the presence of these two devices to open an electronic lock on our door and to help us login into our computing devices. The cellphone and AT form a fine pair, complementing each other. One can put in special hardware such as a chip containing a private key into the AT. It would be difficult to hack such a system. The cell phone can come from any one of several manufacturers. It can run apps, display an invoice, and verify the user by finger print, face recognition or a PIN.  The cell phone also can use the WLAN and the cellular network.

The proposed system requires careful design if it is to be reasonably secure. Let us anticipate possible problems.

Firstly, the fact that I am inside the house should not open my front door to all and sundry. There must be a distance limiting mechanism which prevents the electronic key working beyond one metre or so. The front door should recognize me only if I am close to it and outside the house. The system should work only if I had identified myself to my cell phone within the previous 24 hours by entering a PIN or by my fingerprint or face recognition. Otherwise it should issue an alert.  If I move away from my Laptop, the system should not log me out, but temporarily lock up my keyboard and shut down the display till I return, when it should turn these on again.

The system should have good enough cryptographic protection to ensure that the chances of my door and laptop being opened by some stranger’s AT should be negligible. Ideally, the system should enable me to share it with my family members. The system should be resistant to hacking.

It would be valuable if a log is maintained on my cell phone or on the cloud showing a record of each time any of my locks was opened by the system. A bonus would be a photo record of every person who entered my home or used my Laptop.

The next step could be to extend the use of this system to make e-payments at POS terminals, and over the Internet. One way would be to equip each AT with a chip that encrypts text strings involved in transactions with my private key. Anyone with my ID string associated with that text string should be able use my public key and decrypt that text string.

The security mechanism should ideally be common to all credit cards and debit cards one uses. One should be able to create a common book-keeping mechanism to build a common account of all expenses incurred through this mechanism.

Widespread use of this mechanism should reduce risks in the payments industry. It should also significantly reduce processing costs, besides opening the doors for new entities to compete with the traditional “card issuers”.
Creating a cryptographically secure mechanism like the one described above for authenticating oneself over the web is essential. With Internet giants such as Google Inc buying AT companies, one can anticipate some developments like this. What would this imply for the world of business? How would it impact the credit card and debit card issuers? What would it mean for banks and their customers?  How can a company prepare itself to be a front-runner in the use of this technology?     
Srinivasan Ramani

Friday, October 25, 2019

Design a Front View Mirror

One of the TV channels showed a harrowing video-clip on the 24th October 2019, during a news bulletin. I viewed this news bulletin in Bangalore. A three-year old child, wearing a bag and looking as if she was going to her play-school, was walking around a bus parked in the drive way in front of a building. The child was walking one or two feet in front of a standing bus. Just then the bus started moving and knocked the child down and its left front wheel ran over the child. The video had been obviously been recorded by an overhead closed circuit TV camera. The video disturbed me so much that I have been thinking about it frequently the whole day.
I looked up the Web to locate a related news item. This led to another painful experience, showing me shocking reports and photographs of similar “accidents” all over the world.

Buses are often designed such that drivers don’t have near vision in front. Pedestrians and children often pay the price with their lives. A simple solution seems to fix a “front view mirror” to give drivers some near vision in front. This would save lives and also make it easier for bus drivers to avoid pot holes, puppies and kittens on the road. Near vision would also help drivers navigate tight parking areas which force the drivers to take the buses very close to the wall.

Rear view mirrors costing about Rs 5,000 can be modified and fixed on a bus in an appropriate position. I hope that students of design and engineering would do projects and develop this idea further. Equally importantly, we must run campaigns to bring this to the attention of authorities who give permits to buses and lorries.

Please also read


Srinivasan Ramani

Saturday, September 07, 2019

We need a School Science Network

Recently, Dr Anand Oak had suggested that there should be a monthly meeting for school students in Bangalore, to be addressed by an eminent scientist chosen for that month. I have tried to put together information on them. It appears to me that there is room for at least a hundred such efforts in every metropolis. The problem is that most of us interested in them do not network properly. So, we are not aware of many of them.  Perhaps we should now put some effort into networking effectively. The focus need not be on a single city or a single region. The network need not be exclusive to India. It should start as a minimal system, growing to meet the expectation of its members over time. In the beginning, it can merely be a website listing the active member institutions and their events, and giving everyone a moderated online forum to exchange ideas and information.  Later, perhaps the network can encourage event organizers to create good quality video recordings to be made available over the Internet.  

I think lectures at different places given in person by eminent scientists would be valuable. They could be occasional lectures, periodic lectures, etc. under the auspices of various institutions, not necessarily members of the School Science Net. Many good things could come out of having a few hundred lectures a year by good scientists. I would hope that they would inspire many students every year to select their careers based on knowledge and go on reach the highest levels of achievement as mathematicians, scientists, or technologists.

Now, I will go on to list a few relevant events and institutions interested in such events. These are mostly Bangalore based, but any reader can add one or more institutions from anywhere in the comments following this blog post. Anyone trying to create the networking website can use the list of all these events/institutions to get the effort going.  

Science Forum at the National Pre-University College 

Kapi with Kuriosity,
organized by International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS-TIFR) in collaboration with the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium and other educational institutions in Bengaluru.

Lectures that can be held in one’s apartment block: Organized by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru,

Popular lectures on science organized by Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium,

Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences Public Lecture Series

Science and Beyond: A Lecture Series from the British Council

Popular Science Science Lecture Series  Co-organized by Anna Centenary Library

& Tamilnadu Science Forum

Srinivasan Ramani

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Kudos to Kerala on Efficient Handling of the Nipah Virus Outbreak

Visit Nipah virus: Anatomy of an outbreak a report in the Hindu newspaper.

Kozhikode: Kozhikode and Malappuram districts, where 17 people died of Nipah in May, were declared free of the virus by the Kerala government in July 2018. "A decision to declare both districts as Nipah-virus-free was taken by the government as no fresh cases have been reported after June 1," health minister K.K. Shylaja said. 
She was speaking at an event to felicitate medical teams, support staff and volunteers who fought against the spread of the virus.
Sajeesh, husband of 28-year-old nurse Lini Puthuserry who died after contracting the virus while attending to patients at Perumbra Taluk Hospital, was among those honoured.
The Collectors of Kozhikode and Malapurram districts, U.V. Jose and Amit Kumar Meena, and Manipal Virology Institute director G. Arunkumar were also honoured. Dr A.S. Anoop Kumar of the Kozhikode-based Baby Memorial Hospital was presented with a special award for his efforts to identify and prevent the virus outbreak.
The government had on June 11 lifted the travel advisory it had issued in the wake of the virus and said it was safe to travel to any part of the state.
It is heartening to see how they have managed the crisis efficiently. It is frightening to think of what could have happened if the outbreak had happened in a place where healthcare is not as efficient as it seems to have been in Kerala.
The speed with which Kozhikode’s Baby Memorial Hospital seems to have ruled out alternative hypotheses and suspected Nipah infection is impressive. The availability of a very competent critical care doctor and an equally competent neurologist there to handle the first set of Nipah victims speaks highly of the state of health care in Kerala. 
Credit for the second impressive feat belongs to a private institution in Karnataka – which has been operating the Manipal Centre for Virus Research (MCVR) - and to Dr Arunkumar, Prof and Head of the Department at MCVR. In 2017 MCVR had sent a team to the US Centre for Disease control. One of the actions taken was training some members of the visiting team for testing samples to identify the presence or absence of the Nipah infection. This test can be currently done only at two places in India: National Institute of Virology, Pune and MCVR. 
The Kerala hospital sent samples to MCVR, 300 KM away, for quick identification of the virus involved. MCVR under the Manipal University has also been supported by the Govt of India. This public-private partnership in the critical area of public health shows what can be done in India when dedicated leadership is available.

India as well as the World Health Organization have done the right thing by honouring Lini Puthussery a dedicated healthcare professional who died after taking care of Nipah victims. We need to recognize that the professionals and other staff who work in public health are some of the most valuable people in India. It is necessary to institute annual awards to honour these committed workers.  We must also identify hospitals that maintain readiness to deal with public health emergencies.  

Srinivasan Ramani  


1) Nipah virus: Anatomy of an outbreak, Priyanka Pulla, JUNE 02,   
2018 00:15 IST, UPDATED: JUNE 02, 2018 12:38 IST

2) WHO pays tribute to Kerala nurse who died of Nipah, PTI,
      Jun 05, 2018, 05.12 PM IST


Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Hanging Rules
There was a time when algorithms were considered more important if they did not depend on the nature of data they processed. Take sort algorithms, for instance. They work just the same whether you sort the weights of a set of pigs, or the age of a set of galaxies. I have no quarrel with such algorithms; in some sense they deal with the highest level of abstractions such as numbers.

However, nowadays the challenges are more in dealing with large volumes of data from different application domains. Knowledge related to the domain are basic to success with most of our endeavours. Computations of this type do not necessarily lead to unique solutions to a given problem. However, the solutions they provide could have great value. This value arises from the importance of problems they help us solve.

Why this build up for what is to follow? It is because I wish to discuss a very important problem. It is the problem of shaping pre-poll alliances among political parties. It is clear that the Indian election to be held in 2019 will critically depend upon pre-poll alliances. The recent Karnataka election has high-lighted the significance of alliances. Commentators have pointed out that had there been a pre-poll alliance, the outcome would have been quite different. Pre-poll tie-ups will be important for all parties: those with a high vote share as well as for the smaller parties. When vote shares are added together, the winner may not get the aithmetic sum of the two vote shares. When two parties with vote shares (expressed as percentages of votes cast) A and B have an alliance, the winner does not get the vote share A + B but may get something like A + B/2. The effect on the election results could however be very dramatic. Pre-poll alliances have demonstrated their effectiveness in the past in this regard. Increasing your vote share by B/2 does not just increase your chances of winning by 50%. It may increase it 500%.  

Given this logic, why do parties hesitate to enter into pre-poll alliances? Partly because reliable predictions of possible gains are not available. Secondly, there are no clear procedures which can be used by the parties concerned to decide on how they should share constituencies between them. How many constituencies would each party get? Which constituencies would be assigned to which partner? These are complex questions, even when only two parties participate in a pre-poll alliance. Multi-party computations are more complex, but the generalization form a 2-party to a multi-party situation is not very difficult.

The major difficulties in persuading political parties to consider this problem analyticaly is that solution should be fair to the potential allies and must be seen to be clearly unbiased. The solution should also be easy to communicate and understand. The solution cannot be thrust upon the parties involved and must leave some room for tweaking as per their intuition and perceptions. I will offer a solution here to the two-party problem and leave it to the reader to generalize it to the multi-party situation. I don’t mean to suggest a solution that should be adopted blindly; I only wish to have many people think out their own versions of the solution. Secondly, I want to keep the solution very simple. You can make it more accurate as a predictor of the gains of a pre-poll alliance by making it more complicated, but very few political leaders are computer scientists. It is difficult to persuade them to adopt what sounds like mumbo-jumbo to them!

Lastly, why the funny name? It comes from the saying “If you don’t hang together, you will hang separately”! So, this is a solution that shows how some politicians could hang together!

The solution: 
  1. Assume that the vote share received in each constituency in the last election is the best estimate of the vote share that a party would get in the forthcoming election.  
  2. If the estimated vote share A of one of the two parties is greater than that of the other B, assign that constituency to the party with the higher estimated vote share.
  3. Compute the total A + B/2 where B is the vote share estimated for the other partner. Let C be the highest vote share estimated for the strongest party outside the alliance. If (A+B/2) > C, mark that constituency as a strong seat for the proposed alliance. The underlying assumption is that an alliance does not transfer all votes of from one partnering party to the other. For simplicity, we assume that 50% of the votes can be "transferred". (carry out the above three steps for each constitutency).
  4. Make adjustments to the extent of 20% of the seats by negotiation, provided this does not disturb the assignment of any strong constituency. However, the number of seats assigned to partners should be in proportion to the total vote shares each has earned.
  5. The above rules are not written in stone. But if the two partners cannot agree to some reasonable modified version of the same, they can hang separately!

          Srinivasan Ramani       

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Rating for People's Representatives!

Many of us are now used to rating goods and services. The dosa you had in a small restaurant seemed to be the best you have eaten in some time? You write a few lines of review for a site that rates restaurants and give it 4.5 or 5 stars! You thought the driver of the Uber or Ola cab you took to the station could have been more helpful. Ok, give him only three stars!
What about you CM, or your MLA, or your councillor? Why not rate him on a number of dimensions? Voting for/against them once in five years is not good enough. We ought to share our opinions about their deeds and failures almost every month.
The way a leader is to be judged is no doubt very important, but as this is a blog in the field of science and technology, our first priority would be technical issues in designing a rating website. I would suggest the following design objectives:
Credibility: it should be difficult to fool the website and manipulate the data going in
Authentication: The site should ideally work on “one citizen – one vote” principle
Privacy: People who provide ratings may not want some shady company or hackers, to sell a record of their ratings. A good design involves careful consideration of privacy on a site which insists on authentication. One simple design would be to have ratings come in only through SMS messages. No prior registration is required. We can ensure that a cell phone can vote on an issue only once. It can give a rating only to the persons/offices in the state from where it sends a message. I will assume that most users do not care too much about hackers finding out how one’s cell phone voted. After all, in most countries, we are not so scared of the government as to keep our political opinions a secret.       
Simplicity: The system should be based on a good trade off – not too complex to drive users away and not so simple that it can be fooled easily
Accessibility: The system should be accessible from a smart phone. This will deny access to a significant fraction of the Indian population, but it would enable you to build a working system easily. The trade off in this dimension could be examined and different choices can be explored by different groups. What is the value of a smart phone when the votes are cast by SMS? The user can use a smart phone to read the web pages which will help the users to select the issue/person they wish to rate. If the web pages support it, they could answer multiple questions giving answers in the form of a numeral in the range 1-5. The system could summarize answers to six questions, for example, as 325-45 meaning that the six questions were answered as follows, giving ratings on a scale of 5, where 5 is excellent and 1 is very poor:

Question 1: Answer 3
Question 2: Answer 2
Question 3: Answer 5
Question 4: Skipped
Question 5: Answer 4
Question 6: Answer 5

The website would also give a unique ID to the person or office rated, for example SRM for Srinivasan Ramani. The user has to send an SMS to a given number reading, for example as
   SRM 325-45
Why send an SMS, and not submit the answers on the Webpage itself? The security mechanism provided by the cellular network identifies the sender’s cell phone number reliably. In my opinion it is reliable enough for the application and is simple enough to implement. It is also worth noting that the cellular network sends with the SMS the sender’s phone number, the time of sending, and the location from which the message is sent. A computer receiving the messages can use all this information to process them suitably.
The answers I have given to some of the design questions above are not binding on you. You may make your choices. A system like this makes sense only when it operates with a large number of users. So, you need to plan for scalability and reliability. The systems should work round the clock, round the year. Lastly, you need to decide on what your business model would be? Who would pay the bills after the system scales up?
Now, we can turn to the nature of comments and ratings we would like to collect. I have some suggestions about what questions we can ask about representatives and service providing offices but again, in your project, you are free to make your own choices. Please treat my questions as examples what you could ask.
Questions about a people's representative
·        Is he a visionary leader?  (Here and in the following, I merely use “he” to refer to the representative. It can obviously be a “she”).
·        Has he been effective in getting a few major problems solved?
·        Is he known for his integrity?
·        Does he have cronies or sons who are not exactly assets to society?
·        Does he communicate his ideas well?
·        Does he do this frequently?
·        Has he kept his electoral promises?
·        Are you likely to vote for him next time?

Questions about specific issues
·        Should your state have prohibition?
·        Should we ban children below ten being given rides on two-wheelers on city roads or highways?
Questions about specific offices that provide a service
·        Is a given bank branch helpful and efficient?
·        Is a given college a good place to send students to?
·        Is there corruption in a given hospital?
As, I see it, each of these questions is a like raw nerve. The pain-signals of our lives travel through these nerves, but do they bother the person who is responsible for the pain? Usually no! The nerve does not run far enough to touch him.  
Making the ratings public, and highlighting them during election time, are important to make the system sit up and take notice. 
Getting people to rate their representatives and their governments is not exactly new. You can see what other websites offer in this area. Visit
There is a lot of room for innovation, but the basic idea is simple: public feedback makes the high and mighty accountable. App-based taxicab services are responsive to people's problems. We should demand that people's representatives and government services be equally responsive.

Srinivasan Ramani