Sunday, August 25, 2013

Intellectual property - where should one draw the line between individual property, community property and humanity's property?

Just because a given person thinks a particular thought before others, should that give him or her legal rights over the thought and its implications, even if they are significant for the community or humanity? Private parties, that are able to fund thinkers/researchers to think particular thoughts expect to be compensated for their "investment" by returns generated from the knowledge generated due to the research funded by them.  Most of the time, legal regimes grant such rights for pre-specified time, after which the knowledge becomes available to others for their similar usage. This is commonly accepted as ok. But where does one draw the line?

The open ended search for knowledge and open ended building of tools using the knowledge needs to be monitored and controlled better than it has been till now. Else humanity will shoot itself in its foot. It is our responsibility to do so, else some parties will acquire control over the rest of us. Liberty is at risk from the empire-builders and their agents. There is an urgent need to regulate regarding
1. Who can research what and how?
2. What rules should be applied for controlling what research can be carried out privately?
3.  Who can fund what research and how?
4. Do such rules violate human rights of the researchers and/or funders?
5. Can such rules be implemented in practice i.e. are they practical?
6. If a particular technology can generate great benefits/risks (in a very generic sense) to the community and/or humanity, what rules should apply to researchers and/or funders?

Essentially the fundamental question of our generation is "as the relative value of intellectual property with respect to physical property continues to rise, how does one ensure that at a humanity level, we grow in knowledge and leverage its positive benefits, but we do it in a sustainable manner i.e. without putting the community and environment at risk?"

Many of us will know that this is difficult and dangerous territory. The IPR battles between multiple large players are proof enough of the capability of IPR law to drive as well as stifle innovation. It is almost as if IPR is the organising mechanism of the modern world. High IPR means high financial and social status and low IPR means low financial and social status. Not that this is surprising because this has largely been so for most of humanity's time on earth. But the scale and scope of IPR's influence is very large and growing in determining financial and social status and/or destinies of individuals and firms.While we increasingly share more and more knowledge over the Internet, the quality of knowledge available on the internet is not uniform and given the ever increasing quantity of knowledge shared on it, the elusiveness of the knowledge increment which will provide competitive advantage continues to grow as advised by Claude Shannon. But inexorably, the financial and social status correlates well with the quality of knowledge and/or its perception.

Essentially if the above mentioned regulation happens, it will have significant implications for our social and political structures, ideas/beliefs and practices? As humanity we face a large transformational challenge. If we do not take up the challenge, we will destroy ourselves in a few centuries or live in a quite different world in a few centuries. If we succeed, we might live in a very different world. I am not able to see the next paradigm shift, but what the heck - let us deal with the one we need to right now.


Pratap Tambay
25 August 2013

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The problem of retaining human knowledge over generations and its implications for complex public and private systems

The service sector is bigger than other sectors of most economies around the world and this trend is increasing further. Essentially lesser and lesser people are required to manufacture the "things" (tangible "products and" intangibles products like software or digital products) the global economy needs. More and more people derive their livelihoods by providing services around these products. Just like water/sever systems/networks, transportation system/networks (including networks of roads, railways and airports), electrical systems/networks and telecommunication systems/networks arose over previous centuries, over the last twenty five years, larger and more complex systems/networks like the Internet and Mobile networks have become common and we are seeing further expansion of networks into homes, into hitherto unexplored space on/in/outside the earth. Moreover the capabilities enabled for humanity through these networks are also increasing. Essentially each human exists within a technosphere around which we have the physical atmosphere.

My point in describing the above was to point out the changing nature of cause and effect. Previously human actions/causes resulted mostly in local effects. It was relatively easy to link cause and effect. In the technosphere, the actions of few can have immediate effect on many who may be far. The sheer complexity of the systems and their interactions have increased so much, that we are having to delegate one-level of control to systems. The drive to increase up-time, improve reliability requires us to yield further control to systems. The number of people with end-to-end understanding decreases over time since there is nothing to "worry" most of the time and slowly people lose the drive to keep in charge of the system. This is a bit like the laws and practices to retain the awareness of the fire related procedures and related periodic testing of the fire-alarms to prevent the possibility of the "rarely" required knowledge being forgotten when needed or the fire-alarm from not working when needed. But this only just a bit like the fire case. The laws and social practices needed to manage the complex systems and their interactions that humanity needs are not fully identified, because we just don't know. The complex interdependencies and dynamic interactions between the systems running our social lives and community lives continuously evolve. Given that the very purpose of delegating control to systems is to reduce human errors, humanity will lose the knowledge over time since humans will forget their specifications, their fitness-for-purpose, etc. Yet the urgency of managing knowledge better does not seem to drive the behaviour of our thought and action leaders.

Due to the slight problem that humans die and take their knowledge with them, humans have tended to lose knowledge about how to achieve Nirvana. The knowledge about achieving Nirvana involves understanding one of the most important system on earth and yet humanity has been weak at managing it as described by the Buddha himself. Complex knowledge is difficult to capture, pass to next generations. While we have writing, the meanings of words/images change. Since the practices of capturing and retaining knowledge of our globally interconnected systems are weak, this knowledge over generations is obviously going to decay over time.

Despite knowing that systems may not be reliably designed to the correct requirements, may not constantly adapt to changing requirements and despite knowing that we do not adequately understand the in-use operations of our systems adequately to control them consciously and purposefully, humanity continues to deepen the inter-connected technosphere and slowly losing control due to slow loss of knowledge about its operation. I am reminded of H.W.Longfellows lines

    Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
        And our hearts, though stout and brave,
    Still, like muffled drums, are beating
        Funeral marches to the grave.

If some crisis were to hit humanity, would we retain our knowledgebase?

Whenever I walk in some parts of London, where previously occupied buildings now lie empty and whenever I hear about nuclear plants gone Kaput, I worry about a future where not-to-knowledgeable survivors of the human race try live in a city/country/world without understanding how it works and how to make it work - very dangerous and not very different from the present, where most of us do not know because we need not know. Today we need not know and understand the technosphere, but if we do not manage the knowledge about the technosphere, we may end up in a world not unlike the empty battlefields containing multiple land-mines left by the previous world wars, where ignorant remnants of humanity struggle to survive due to their ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect in their personal and social lives.



Sunday, August 18, 2013

Humanity's problems in the generation, management and distribution of knowledge

Humanity's problems can be best explained with some imagery. Humanity is like a child whose limb called technology has grown a lot, but whose other limbs and body parts have not kept pace. So its ability to correctly use the grown limb without hurting itself (using other parts to balance/control it) is poor.

The feudal estates called schools of thought in various disciplines tend to miss the wood for the trees. Folks from one school believing in unbridled markets gained control over the world and failed to see the impact their decisions driven by their approaches were having. Despite Steve Keen's book and other work showing some of the fallacies, the reform efforts do not seem to be gathering pace. The old foggies in control of the thought streams don't want to let go of their control over their feudal estates, despite the problems in their approaches becoming evident. If their efforts in reforming their approaches were evident, one would understand and respect them. The selfish interests of a few old foggies are preventing the changes needed to reconsider the positions our institutions have been taking and adjust them to put the right bridles on capitalism.

The excessive favouring of on one school of thought from one discipline (represented by the number of academic, research positions and sponsorships) against a balanced funding of teaching, research positions and sponsorships for multiple schools of thoughts from multiple disciplines relevant to the future of humanity has brought us here. This kind of market driven decision making (because the said school of thought propelled itself through its proponents) has caused a bias in our students, professions, academia to focus on subjects and projects which generate returns here and now, irrespective of their impact far and later. As humanity, what have we done to constantly adapt to the growing progress in technology? Why should we even be surprised to find ourselves where we find ourselves? Our economics does not work, our social and political sciences have not kept us ready to manage the social and political impact of technology. Yet we trundle on irresponsibly...those in charge don't even know what deeper forces are unleashing themselves over their fields of responsibility. The spate of governments and rebel forces using chemical weapons, the spectre of technology enabled terrorism, failures in nuclear plants, increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters and man-made disasters are yet to change the beliefs and practices of humanity. Absolutely every significant study of the future points to severe challenges, but the urgency does not reflect in the pronouncements and actions of our thought and action leaders.

I posit that humanity needs to manage the process of generation, management and distribution of knowledge better starting with funding  the right people to carry out the right activities which are best for the future of humanity. It cannot happen in the lackadaisical market-driven method common till now. The negative current/future outcomes due to selfish decision-making by all cannot be prevented until we find a way of funding the research required to figure out the multi-disciplinary institutional mechanisms to learn to survive efficiently and effectively with ever evolving technology.

Funding for social sciences needs to improve and standard for them need to keep pace with those for the natural sciences and technologies. We need to learn to plan and manage large scale social and political changes needed to leverage the benefits of technologies, without incurring the problems there-of. And while doing this, we need to figure out ways (policies/actions) of preventing empire-builders to put the rest of us at risk, which pursuing competitive advantage through technologies.

A lot needs to be done...


Pratap Tambay

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Should all humans have equal access to all the knowledge of humanity?

Should all humans have equal access to all the knowledge of humanity? I read about the technological tools which were used to create the Atom bomb. How should humanity manage knowledge like the knowledge of making Atom bombs? Can the knowledge  be "managed" in terms of ensuring that it  does not  fall into the wrong hands?

As per the books  I read, significantly rudimentary tools were used to craft the American bombs used in world war II. The kind of computing technology used in particular was tiny compared to the capability that is now available to the average human. It has been more than 68 years since the knowledge of making an Atom bomb was generated. We have been able to guard it quite well, despite the plethora of knowledge sharing mechanisms that we have invented and made available to every human. I am not aware of any significant restriction placed on what can and cannot be taught in terms of first principles about absolutely any field of knowledge possessed by humanity. While I am of course aware that no one is permitted to offer cheap and publicly available courses in making Atom bombs, I am not sure how much of the component technologies are cheaply and publicly taught.

How difficult is it in 2013 for a intelligent person with bad intentions to piece together publicly available knowledge (first principles) and easily accessible technological tools to figure out the knowledge of making Atom bombs on his/her own? Does one need to be genius to do this?

How difficult is it for someone with access to the knowledge to consciously or unconsciously leak it to the globe in a second through Twitter and/or Facebook? I know that it is far too easy.

As humanity, we have managed to avoid  a global war for 68 odd years. As the bites of  the current financial  troubles mount, our geopolitics is no longer safe. The incentives for powerful individuals, groups, governments to incentivise intelligent persons to figure out "globe domination" tools may be mounting. Are our institutional mechanisms adequate to manage the fragile peace? [ ]

We have seen a cold war, which built a pile of weapons on both side over multiple years. We were lucky that no idiot on either  side pressed the wrong button. When there will be large number  of  parties  with  large number of buttons, how will we protect against the random idiot destroying us all?

It is now urgent to manage knowledge in society? Balancing democratic ideals of equality, liberty, fraternity with the restrictions we need to place on knowledge generation and sharing activities is going to be difficult. It almost seems like democracy may no longer be suitable in its currently understood form.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Sweating IT assets for competitive advantage - The emergence of social network transaction/decision processing

Enhancing capabilities of IT architecture and business processes to catch up with competition  or go ahead of them now happens in a reasonably structured manner in most IT organisations. Most have outsourced the management of IT and/or BPO services to deliver the stream of enhancements and subsequently support the enhanced IT architecture and business processes. The focus of CIO's and the senior team is on the process of identifying new capabilities to drive competitive advantage.

There is nothing wrong with constantly searching for the right value-adding needle in the constantly increasing hay-stack of possible capabilities unleashed by each new technological innovation. No one can afford to not do it.

But do IT departments sweat existing IT assets adequately? While the grand new shiny break-through innovation is being conceptualised, built, tested, fine-tuned, are IT organisations squeezing full value from their existing IT portfolios? The measure that IT departments use for whether they are doing this are the number of tickets in their support service. The assumption is that if the number of tickets is low, then the IT architecture is stable and IT need not do more. This assumption is wrong.

Should'nt the real measure be whether all the capabilities provided by the IT architecture being used as they were intended? The specific business scenario occurring at a given moment is intended to be serviced by usage of a specific capabilities of the IT architecture. But users/partners intentionally or unintentionally do not use those specific capabilities correctly. Mature IT organisations handle this problem better than immature ones sweating their IT assets more.

Mature IT departments can be identified by their answers to the following questions.

1. Does IT have any per user report, which tells it whether that user used the right capability for the right scenario each time? IT is responsible for ensuring that the system is used as intended/designed. IT architectures need to be designed to generate this data more easily.

2. What tools does IT have to identify mistakes by users, so that the cause of those mistakes can be studied as a source of learning to design better enhancements, innovations or selection/training programmes?

When the mistake is critical and/or large, it tends to get identified and addressed through the support service. But what about small mistakes? What are the systems and processes by which such mistakes are identified and cured? Most IT audit practices are weak. It is surprising that regulators have not taken them to task yet. I guess we await a few high profile failures. The whole issue is whether correctness is adequate for sustenance of business or whether accuracy is mandatory for survival. Not failing spectacularly does not mean that everything is alright. The business may  be making less money than it might if it avoided the mistakes.

3. What are the tools to identify the comparative performance of users as a source of learning to design better enhancements, innovations or selection/training/compensation programmes?

4.  Does IT do any retrospective analysis of 
a. Whether New unanticipated business scenarios are being encountered more and more frequently
b. What would have been the BEST way of dealing with a given customer interaction? Did the user use that way? If not why not?
c. Which are the better users and which are not, so that this objective measure can feed into performance evaluation and variable compensation?
d. How much money was lost due to mistakes by users/partners at the operating level
e. How much money was lost due to strategic decision errors due to using erroneous data

The emergence of social software has given a new dimension to the problem of sweating IT assets for competitive advantage. The excessive focus on single-user transaction processing and single-user decision making in current business processes can change to multi-user transaction processing and multi-user decision making due to social software. The possibility  of using all the knowledge and human capability in the organisation at each customer/partner interaction point can help in further sweating the existing IT assets if enabled in a new "Loose" IT framework built on the top of enterprise social networking technology.

The problem that IT now has to solve is
1. At the point of customer/partner interaction, make all the relevant information, transaction-capability, decision-support-capability available from across the entire IT architecture.
2. At each point of customer/partner interaction, identify the right people from the whole organisation and enable them to collaborate effectively between themselves and the customer/partner to ensure that maximum value is generated in the minimum time

There is now a need for "loose" IT systems framework, such that
1. A social network can be quickly setup per customer interaction containing the right resources available at that time
2. The user interface of the client-facing node should be replicated to other nodes and different nodes should control different portions of the UI with the IT systems framework and/or the client-facing node orchestrating the collaboration to analyse the entire organisational information, process the transaction and make the relevant decision.
3. The days of assuming that all logic can be identified in advance and coded in front-middle-back tiers of IT components to validate and process user input using only a limited intelligence from the customer-facing individual and no participation from other humans who could be available at that time are fast going away.
4. Nothing prevents multiple enterprise staff to engage with client simultaneously as long as the business process and IT system support this. One underwriter is anyway supported by multiple support staff. Once trader is anyway supported by multiple staff. The days of one superman making a decision and explaining/justifying to others later are gone. Teams can be made accountable along with individuals. Customer tolerance of gaps between different elements of the organisation is falling. Customers (due to the Google and Amazon effect) expect you to not have gaps in your understanding of them.

So even if the fundamental capabilities of the IT architecture does not change, the business process can be carved up differently using social software technology as the base to sweat the IT architecture using the most appropriate team. I am not aware of any company doing this yet.

Like I envisaged web-services before they acquired that name, I am sure I am right this time too. I was  not able to leverage my crystal ball gazing skills to benefit myself last time. I hope this time is different. In any case, I am going to date this article explicitly to see how ahead of time I  am this time.

6th August 2013

Pratap Tambay