Last month, the coordinators of SEEDS (Stairway towards Empowering Engineering Dreams to Success) an initiative by Don Bosco College of Engineering, Fatorda, invited me to give a talk at their annual program held on Saturday, 25th August, 2018.
The topic of my talk was ‘Constructive Innovation’. Without further ado, here it is for your perusal:
Good morning everyone,
Thank you, principal, Dr. Neena Panandikar as well as the organisers of SEEDS for inviting me to interact with all of you today.
I’m 2 years away from sitting where you’re sitting right now, and thoroughly looking forward to it.
Before we get the ball rolling, allow me to briefly interest you in how I landed up here.
Computers fascinated me for quite some time, and in the 4th standard, I was introduced to Scratch, a graphical programming interface for children. A gradually growing interest in technology led me to my first ‘up close and personal’ encounter with the world of robotics, in the 6th standard. It slowly nudged me into attending a few workshops, then organised by a company called Inventrom; formerly based in Mala, they’ve now moved to Bangalore. The following year, I was fortunate to be part of a team trained by them to try our hand at a college-level technical competition. Over the course of the next two summer vacations I did month-long internships at the very same company, working in the R&D team that developed a precursor to Bolt: an IOT development platform that is today, the company’s flagship product. It was over the course of these two internships that I interacted with some truly amazing people who freely shared their technical expertise, encouraging me to carry on the practice, through a technical blog documenting my work in tutorial format so that others too, could access this information. Having enjoyed the practical experience of working on bigger projects so much, I decided to proactively search for more opportunities to intern at technical firms whenever possible. This search brought me to a short program conducted by KUKA Robotics at their training centre in Pune, two years back. The program primarily involved their industrial robotic arm platforms used in the assembly lines of major automobile companies like Volkswagen, BMW and Audi.
Between the vacations, and math homework, I managed to squeeze in some time for a few of my own projects, which now constitute the bulk of my website’s content. From the 6th standard to the 9th standard, I dragged my befuddled parents halfway across the countryside, participating in technical competitions within as well as outside the state.
Why on earth do you need to know all this? Because standing before you today, is the spoiler alert to a blockbuster called the technological innovation wave: A wave that only rises higher and higher with every new generation that partakes in the supercharged tech-race.
Innovation is comparable to a suburban train in Mumbai. Whatever happens, it’s not going to wait; so if you and I want to get on it, then its about time we pulled our socks up and started running!
If innovation was a wheel, then change would be its axle. And change, as we know it, is inevitable. Thus, rotates the wheel of invention, innovation and most importantly, creative thinking. In fact, it’s probably the only thing in perpetual motion, which does not violate the laws of thermodynamics!
Contrary to common misconception, innovating doesn’t necessarily involve making something new. You could reinvent the wheel a dozen times, each time with a different approach to the same problem. Experimenting with a plethora of seemingly useless techniques can also be useful, because when something doesn’t work out, naturally, we try to fix it. And in fixing it, not only does one discover a way to make it work, but also one more way in which it does not. Occasionally, we’ve all run into that person who magnanimously prescribes the kickstart treatment to stalling bikes and inkjet printers in equal measure. At that point of time, it works. But does it really resolve the problem at its source?
That, is the primary reason why you and I were born into a world that thirsts for constructive innovation: Novelty in the process of ideation beyond the limitations of conventional methods.
In fact, this reminds me of an experience at Quark 2016, the annual technical festival of the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (Goa campus). I was in the 8th standard, participating in it for the third time.
It was the second day of the three-day event and the first round of the famous Line Following competition. The objective was pretty simple: Design and build a robot that can traverse any given black coloured pathway printed on a white background, where the width of the path is 3 centimetres. The robot which could complete the track within the least time, would win.
Based on two previous years of participation in the very same competition, I had planned to use a PID control algorithm to navigate longer sections of the path with special cases for sharp turns, discontinuous lines and junctions.
PID is an acronym for Proportional-Integral-Derivative. It is a control loop feedback mechanism for systems requiring continuously modulated control blah, blah, blah… that’s the Wikipedia definition. In layman terms: it measures the difference between a desired target value (called the set-point) and the actual value received from sensors (called the process variable). Consequently, it corrects the robot’s movement based on a set of three equations containing the proportional, integral and derivative terms.
Every time the robot veered away from the centre of the line while moving ahead, it would automatically steer itself back on course. In principle, this would be the ideal code for a line follower.
When the track for Round 1 was unveiled before the participants, we were in for a very rude shock: the width of the line was 4 centimetres. That doesn’t sound like much, (how bad could one extra centimetre be?) For a digital line sensing array no longer than your index finger, one more centimetre, translates into one more sensor! Thinking that a quick alteration to accommodate the extra sensor would be sufficient, I did just that and gave both my trials for Round 1 successively. It was the worst performance ever. Spinning in circles like a cat chasing its tail, that silly line follower didn’t so much as sniff the finishing line.
I returned home, and began adjusting every possible parameter in the code, going to the extent of fiddling with the previously calibrated constants in the equations. After a very late dinner several exasperating hours later, I decided, “To hell with the standard PID format,” and at one o’ clock in the morning, I modified the very equations on which the whole algorithm was based. Testing it only once before turning in for the night, I vaguely remember it moving slightly better than before.
Serendipitously, everyone had problems during the first round, so the organisers decided to allow all 24 participating teams to qualify for Round 2 the next day.
The first trial ended with a few incorrect judgements at the acute angled turns, which I tried to correct before my second attempt. To cut a long story short, it completed the track with 5 penalties for wrong turns resulting in 25 extra seconds being added to its total run time of 38 seconds.
So with 63 seconds on the scoresheet, I packed up and left the room to watch the final rounds of the other competitions.
That year, an 8th standard student won the second place at the BITS Quark Line Following competition.
It taught me an invaluable lesson: When changing the parameters don’t work, change the equation. Alter the obvious.
Invention, innovation and novelty rely on shifting these paradigms when they cease to function; not simply providing a temporary bug-fix but changing the entire approach to tackle the problem at its roots.
Do we have opportunities for this? Absolutely. No scientific system, however well engineered, is flawless; there’s always scope for improvement and herein lies a chance for disruptive innovation to raise its head. Trying something that’s never been attempted before; something that sounds totally out of the box; something that makes people laugh first and think later, throwing their lives into high gear with its benefits.
No machine is infallible, but however much anyone tries, progressive innovation is the one machine that just isn’t designed to break down.
There have been several times in the past when the growth of not just technology, but science as a whole, seemed to stumble beyond a point of no return. But each and every time, creative human minds the world over, broke through these shackles with renewed vigour, completely revolutionising science on an unfathomable scale.
With new avenues opening up in Big Data analytics, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and block-chain technology, the quantum of grey areas between these fields has multiplied manifold, giving great importance to innovators of the future.
An innovator’s work is never over. It’s analogous to playing a game with an indefinite number of levels, each one more complicated and more exciting than the one preceding it.
Ever since the dawn of the Information Age, pop culture has been ranting and raving, “The AI revolution is coming,” and for the last decade or so, I’ve heard folks reiterating “It’s coming… it’s coming… it’s coming…” Well, you know what? IT’S HERE! Yes, the artificial intelligence that western pop-culture was so infatuated with is right here, right now. It entered our lives in the least dramatic manner, without the long-promised self-awareness apocalypse. (I was almost disappointed.)
At some point or the other, we’ve all heard of artificial intelligence apocalypses, popularised by science fiction movies. But take a moment, step back and think about it very rationally, any form of technology, not just AI, is a double-edged sword. How one wields it, is what makes a world of difference. So far, I’d say we’re doing jolly well handling the technology we’ve developed. It’s well within controllable limits. Besides, you have to consider the fact that Hollywood makes its money scaring the pants off its audience.
On a more serious note, the manner in which we choose to utilise our knowledge is one that all of us have faced or will face in the coming years. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason why I say to you not merely innovation, but constructive innovation, is the need of the hour.
Every single one of us, here is a vital constituent of a great body of knowledge. And it is our moral duty to ensure that this invaluable information gained from years of evolutionary experience is passed on in its entirety.
As Dr. Seuss once put it well and I quote, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”
Innovators, I wish you all the best for your future endeavours.
Special thanks to the Coordinators of SEEDS, Prof. Gladys Da Silva and Prof. Natasha D’Souza e Jacques; Principal, Dr. Neena Panandikar and Director Rev. Fr. Kinley D’Cruz, for having me there.