Saturday, February 18, 2017

Idea # 1 – talking bot !

(I write about few of my ideas, which anyone can pick-up and realize, if interested. The ‘Idea’ article series present some possibilities with technology that could become reality in future)

Aritificial Intelligence (AI) is getting into mainstream and top-notch companies and startups are competetively working hard to improve technologies and create products that could be useful for individuals or enterprises. From healthcare to home automation, manufacturing to gaming, transportation to digital assistants, AI is showing positive impact. AI was long-back realized in the form of Robots, which have got advanced in the Industrial automation domain but yet to show promise and applications in the personal space. While home appliances, smartphones and digital assistants are advancing their smart-capabilities rapidly, their adoption may not happen at the same pace.

The idea here is to come up with a ‘talking bot’, which can listen, understand and respond to a kid, all by voice, while being a good companion.

This bot would not dance, run or even walk. As the name says, it mainly TALKS ! Of course, it also listens, understands and stores information. It can be given to children in the age-group of 7 to 17, but initial setup has to be done by the parents or appropriate adults. The bot should be a specific-purpose device, unlike a smartphone.

Bot should be small in size & portable (around 500 gms), should have variants in physical appearances, must be re-chargeable, should have considerable storage capacity, must be made-up of harmless material, must have in-built microphone and speaker, could have LED indicators and must have a set of pleasant voices to choose. It should be pre-configured not to mention any inappropriate content for a given age. The bot should be able to provide enhanced capabilities with software updates over the air.

As usual, one’s bot should be trained for a specific voice input so that she responds only to that person’s voice. Kids should be able to use it in one of the following three modes

conversation mode (activated by saying ‘let’s talk’)

  • kid should be able to interact with bot about normal, everyday conversations – what’s your favorite color? how did you come to earth? what would you like to have for dinner?
  • bot should be able to answer pleasantly and give creative answers. It must also understand the preferences, feelings, lingo and moods of the kids while sensing timing, location and other external factors
  • based on the mood, timing and other context, bot should ask appropriate questions – how was your day today? did you eat healthy food today? what’s the best thing that happened to you this week? when was the last time you helped someone?
  • kid should be able to talk about small secrets – am angry with dad today, I am scared of darkness, I am going to give a surprise to grandpa on his birthday, these are my best friends etc
  • bot should be able to take commands and execute them – set alarm, remind about event at a time, remind me to carry library book to school tomorrow etc
  • remind about events as requested earlier – tasks, birthdays etc

story mode (activated by saying ‘tell a story’)

  •  kid should be able to mention a theme and bot should tell a story around the same
  • kid should be able to provide some keywords – lion, forest, village, food, happy – and bot should weave and tell a story with those keywords
  • should be able to suggest appropriate books, movies, tv series based on age, gender and environment factors

info mode (activated by saying ‘help me’)

  • bot should be able to answer questions related to facts – tell me a few words about gandhi? why did world war two happen? what is the time now? how is the weather tomorrow? name some freedom fighters in indian independence struggle? how does a refrigerator work? how many elements are there in periodic table? get me a quote by Steve Jobs?
  • bot should be able to retrieve info over internet from service providers or from built-in modules (monetization avenues)

Kids should be able to command the bot to ‘stop talking’ by saying so at any time. Bot should be able to understand the language, dialect and accent spoken by the kid and respond in a manner that the kid understands. Bot should also keep learning continuously from the ealier interactions with the kid. Of course, parents can always get a report of how the bot is used.

This bot could complement the learning that kid undergoes at school and improves his listening, comprehension and debating skills. This bot could be the modern-day genie that answers most of the questions for the kid and be his personal companion.

With fast-pace advancements in science & technology and its impact in different sectors, kids should have appropriate aids to speed-up their learning, while reducing the stress and driving innovation further in future.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Innovation and patterns around Internet

When I started using a smartphone, I was interested in only two things – the first one being the display of all contact information of a person in an organized manner and the second is the display of SMS messages in a window, neatly showing the threaded discussion.

The availability of camera in smartphone caught my attention due to arrival of my daughter into our family at that time. Ability to capture moments overpowered the disappointment of grainy photos. This phase was followed with adoption of productivity tools like gmail and search. I played some games too.

I browse for various kinds of information over Internet and my interests include news, technology, business, movies and blog articles on diverse topics. While I was using browser on Laptop earlier, I tend to consume more information through mobile these days. I find InShorts and Flipboard to be very helpful here.

I took to buying things online easily as I was a credit-card user from early employment days. The likes of Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon opened my world to quite a few books, couple of mobiles, computer accessories like USB-drives and SD-cards and a few miscellaneous items. But it was my wife’s easy adoption of apps to ‘request for offline services online’ that fascinated me. That brought to my attention about a hundred miscellaneous services we would all use at some point in our life – pest control, wedding photographer, yoga trainer, tuition master, gym instructor etc. It has given me a new perspective outside the tech world too.

I leverage google maps for navigation, while moving around the city and also in new places. Owing to my interest in movies and music, I happen to consume multimedia content through a wide variety of apps.

I got an account with Facebook and was accessing it once in a while. Realized soon that there were very few contributors to content and it has become another entertainment channel.  Twitter was fascinating for some time but the noise was too much to handle for me. I never had interest to follow any celebrity on Instagram. WhatsApp is one app which I use regularly as it offers personal or group communication by choice, which suits me. I was willing to pay 1 USD fee to access the same and still would, if required.

After I got into Familybirdz, I downloaded a variety of mobile applications and experimented. The number of applications and categories of applications are overwhelming. While the tech industry is buzzing with new opportunities and billion dollar companies, the app landscape is getting cluttered. The fact that consumers phones have limited resources and typically a user would not access more than ten applications on regular basis (and another 10 rarely) is a point worth keeping in mind. While everyone strives to remain among top 10 in user’s minds and phones, the competition would only get intense. Though there are lot of standalone apps in the market, the apps needing access to back-end servers are not less. These are realization of business models with front-end as apps. As we have been seeing, the innovation can happen in technology or business models.

Driving innovation in the future needs understanding of these models at the highest level possible and one way to do that would be with the help of usage-patterns of Internet as a platform. The following are those usage-patterns, from my point of view, and they are applicable independently or in combinations. 

1.       Communication
(email, enterprise messaging, personal social network (relationships, messaging), social media (brand & customer, celebrity & fan, leader & follower), audio / video calls)
2.       Buy / sell THINGS
(books, clothes, groceries, provisions, etc)
3.       Buy / sell SERVICE
(buy insurance policy, reserve a table, book a movie or event ticket, rent a movie etc)
4.       Requesting for a doorstep SERVICE online
(hail a taxi, order food, photographer, plumber, electrician etc)
5.       Execute business PROCESS
(finance approval, content publish workflow, auction etc)
6.       Access CONTENT
(text & multimedia - static or personalized (login), search, browse)
7.       Games
8.       Digital payments
9.       Advertisements
10.   Connecting machines to each other or to people

If a new idea is floated, it can be mapped on to these patterns. If there is potential in the idea, it would follow one of the existing patterns, but with clear differentiation. If it’s an idea outside the purview of these patterns, it ought to be an innovation in new dimension and can creat new markets. Disruption could be caused either way, depending on the impact of idea. If we look back and think about the times when each of the above patterns were introduced, we can understand the disruption these trends have caused in many sectors.

The end-goal of all apps is to provide convenience to the user, increase efficiency of operations, provide entertainment, enhance knowledge or keep informed. Some of the interesting questions to think are – how will it be, when EVERYONE (adults amongst 7+ billion population) in the world has access to ALL 10 patterns mentioned above through Internet? Would there be enough peace and harmony across the globe? Where are we headed with technology?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where was I, when Innovation was disrupting the world ?

The theme which drives me as an entrepreneur is “Apply technology for the the benefit of greater good”. I have seen disruption in ‘execution of day-to-day activities’ due to evolution in 'application of technology' in the last 10 years, more so than before. All the tasks which were done manually or handled in an unorganized manner are made efficient and effective with the help of technology. Buying things, getting services or watching favorite shows through Internet has become ubiquitous. I was thinking about the days when the online world did not exist and wondering how innovation has evolved in the Internet domain, right in front of my eyes over time. 

When I completed B.Tech in 1995, the Internet has just come into the main stream. AOL and Yahoo started just then. I did know about internet but accessed it rarely from computer centre in college.

Google started its journey in 1998. I completed my M.Tech at that time and got placed through campus @ DE Shaw Private Limited. Jeff Bezos was taking e-commerce to new heights by that time.

While I was busy dabbling with ‘cutting-edge’ technologies like Bluetooth, J2ME and J2EE, there was a dot com bust and only the best-of-internet survived. I knew about Indian Services companies like Infosys, TCS and Wipro. Owing to my interest in development activities around networking, I joined in IBM, after declining a similar offer in Sun Microsystems.

In 2001, I worked on ‘app-store’ for Reliance on device-side. I was thrilled with the reach of data services from Reliance, through the app-store model. Globally, only NTT-DoCoMo was following that model, especially with J2ME. I did apply for a patent on bluetooth-based LAN model for such data services (which could be used in Malls etc) which was published. I did see the potential for such models in future.

I did work with different kinds of pervasive devices – palm pilots, internet appliance devices and other embedded systems. I was always thinking about why IBM does not adopt a particular strategy, but never did it occur to me that I could step out of IBM and start my own venture in any of those areas. 

In 2004, when Facebook was created, I read a few news articles about it. I was interested in launching a services company at that time and not a product or SaaS company. My exposure to enterprise technologies and strong knowledge around architecting solutions using IBM middleware were the primary reason for that. 

In 2008, app store models have come into existence. Apple and Google dominated the scene. I was excited that the model I fancied about a few years ago, is implemented by someone in the market. It still did not occur to me that I could drive such solutions through my own venture !

Even when I stepped out of IBM in 2011, smartphone and Internet penetration in India was just on the upward trend. With the evolution of these two in the next five years, most of the activities executed in non-tech world started going online. I happened to watch companies with ''mobile first" strategy.

Bus/train/flight tickets, movie tickets, house rentals or sales, groceries & vegetables, jewellery,  apparel and other lifestyle essentials are all available online in India now. All kinds of services like taxi-hailing, wedding photography, AC repair or house painting can all be fulfilled through apps on mobile. India has almost ten Unicorn companies (companies with valuation more than 1 billion USD) now.

The BIG questions is – why didn’t I get any of these ideas in the last 20 years, when I was doing my so-called ENGINEERING course or working in MNCs in CITIES? How did I let pass so many disruptive ideas !? :-)

I got several answers for that question, but couple of them stick out prominently. The first one being lack of awareness about starting a venture of my own at different stages of career. I haven’t come across anyone who jumpstarted their career as an entrepreneur and succeeded earlier in life. None of my family members had a business background earlier. I did not have the opportunity to interact with any MBA grads for sufficient time to know about the business fundamentals. The news about new companies being formed to solve a specific customer problem was non-existent in those days. The idea of opening a business is equivalent to opening a shop in neighborhood, which is primarily to earn good money. As acquisition of personal wealth was never a true motivator in life, it did not entice enough to start on my own. 

The second major reason being the culture in which I was brought-up. We are used to the culture of ‘passive consumption of things’ and ‘contentment and sharing of what we have’.  We were never encouraged to ‘create anything new’, forget about ‘thinking big’. The idea of making a difference in the world or creation and distribution of wealth was never discussed amongst family, friends or in school. I am ever grateful to my family, friends and teachers for being with me and taking care of all my needs though.

I believe the above two reasons – lack of awareness and brought-up culture – inhibited the action of starting on my own, but not innovation. After adequate experience and exposure, I was driving innovation in terms of solutions within a constrained environment. But that does not provide satisfaction for a person hungry to innovate for a broader and bigger impact. Does it?

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