Wednesday, March 19, 2008

'In the presence of mine enemies...'
-On wild mongoose chases-

An expatriate student is at once an intrepid explorer and an unwitting exile. Having come to a distant land, one must first of all 'make oneself at home' even before trying to 'make a mark'.Be they visiting scholars in exchange programs, professionals on a sabbatical, recipients of scholarships or simply students enrolled for higher education programmes, they are not only faced with the challenges of meeting their personal quests and beating their personal bests; but are often fazed by the keen awareness that their efforts and earnings are owed to and anxiously expected by sponsors, employers, parent institutes or perhaps parents. For someone like me who quit the clamour of a conventional workplace in my home country, and now on a different quest in the conducive calm of university environs, these concerns are best expressed in the words of Kahlil Gibran, "A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?". Having 'come all the way' to a distant land, one is certainly not expected to return empty-handed. I have found it heartening to read about expatriate university alumni of US universities who return to their home countries to dispense their newly discovered treasures with confidence, often by single-handedly pioneering a certain field of research in their countries and sometimes founding research institutes. Today I found an outstandingly inspirational example of what it means to share treasures with one's countrymen.

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara* was a guest speaker today at a talk entitled, "Biomimetic Legged Locomotion and Odor-Guided Behavior for Humanitarian Landmine Detection". I will not expand too much on the title, for my motivation for writing this is not as much the talk but the man himself and what drives him. It will suffice to state that a demining squad needs 'biomimetic legged locomotion' because animal legs are much better than automobile wheels while negotiating densely forested territory where mines are commonly found,that they are interested in 'odor guided behavior', motivated by sniffer dogs who continue to be the most tried and tested means in explosive detection, that 'humanitarian landmine detection' does not mean clearing a minefield by blowing it up and leaving a hole in the earth, but reclaiming the land unscathed. Coming to the man; Dr. Nanayakkara, currently a visiting researcher at Harvard, hails from Galle in terrorism-ravaged Sri Lanka and has a multidisciplinary academic background including a bachelors in Electrical Engineering from University of Moratuwa in Colombo, a doctorate in Systems Control and Robotics from Saga University in Japan and post-doctoral research in Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. As a background for today's talk he gave a brief bloodcurdling account of ethnic violence in northern Sri Lanka raging over the past three decades. Landmines, a staple for guerrillas the world over, are 'indiscriminate weapons' built not to target a known enemy but to wreak blind destruction on perhaps a hapless toddler. Children joyfully treading to village schools have fallen prey to landmines, scaring their classmates from taking the same route the next day, robbing them of childhood education and thus making them susceptible to the canvassing of militant groups. Breadwinners on their way to the workplace have met their end in landmine explosions, leaving families destitute and again susceptible to terrorist recruitment. In four simple words capturing his patriotic and humanitarian concerns, Dr Nanayakkara summed up his description of landmines by simply saying with a grim, sardonic sigh, "I don't like them!". But he did not stop by just 'not liking them'. He chose to draw upon his education in Electrical Engineering, Robotics and Biomedical Engineering not merely to climb pedestals of publications and patents in a pedagogic world; but move right to the war-zone as it were in his professed mission: to rid his homeland of landmines within 15 years. Enriched by an international education, the treasures he wishes to dispense among his countrymen are not treasures shipped from a foreign land. Rather, he is reclaiming for his people the bountiful earth that is their own, but which they aren't able to farm; the schools and shrines which are theirs but languishing in ghost towns. What he is doing is not just dispensing treasures with confidence. From the fiery landmine-infested hell that his homeland has become, he is doing nothing less than reclaiming, fearlessly and resourcefully, the Paradise on Earth which he and his countrymen are justly heirs to. May his tribe increase!

Besides the obvious humanitarian and patriotic passion which Dr. Nanayanakkara brings to his work, the research** itself is cutting-edge and literally operates at the frontiers the robotics and computer science fields(while its results are operational at frontier mine-fields!) Just to give a hint of why this work ought to excite engineering researchers at large, I will just paste here what USC's Viterbi School of Engineering's online announcement listed as keywords for the talk, "Keywords: Field robots for landmine detection, animal-robot cooperation, adaptive control, reinforcement based learning, fuzzy and neural network based control, evolutionary optimization." The requirements of any solution to the de-mining problem is that it must necessarily be unmanned, capable of mobility on soft muddy terrain, capable of navigation through dense vegetation and be able to locate a target with a signal gradient analogous to the sniffing of a dog. I will dwell briefly upon a thought that struck me when Dr. Nanayakkara mentioned one of the remarkable conceptual innovations his group had made. Conventional robots, while undertaking a navigation task, use an approach of 'obstacle avoidance' ie. dodging and evading an obstacle as soon as it is sensed from a distance. The approach he uses is one of classifying 'obstacle impedance' and moving accordingly; so that obstacles are not just dodged but first probed and then possibly pushed aside or even penetrated if their 'impedance' or the constraint they enforce is small enough. A robot operating using obstacle avoidance would stop short on even detecting tall grass in a forest, while a robot using obstacle impedance characterization would know that the grass can well be trampled upon and does not at all represent a barrier. Digressing with an analogy; when we think that a door is locked just because it appears closed and pass it by without even knocking, we are 'obstacle avoiders'. When we are we use a smart approach of classifying 'obstacle impedance', we would nudge even those doors that seem to be closed and find that some are actually ajar and lead to productive encounters. An approach of overcautious withdrawal stalls all advance, and one of alert assessment at every step may reveal paths which were earlier not obvious.

After describing 'obstacle impedance classification' and other innovative features of his mine detection robot, Dr. Nanayakkara described another ancillary area of research,namely, training mongooses to sniff out mines in fields. While traditional sniffer dogs take as long as a year to train and require a human master to accompany it to the life-threatening minefield, mongooses can be trained in as little as two weeks. Who will accompany the mongoose to the field then? Here came the kicker, when he nonchalantly said as if it were the most obvious thing, "We have a robot. We have an animal. Now we tie them together!". While the audience listened astonished, he described how the mongoose 'yoked' to the robot is an effective hybrid system to survey minefields. To prevent the problem of the animal and the robot pulling in different directions, the system incorporates what he calls a 'bargaining mechanism' where the mongoose is trained with Pavlovian methods to respond to signals from the robot when the robot is more likely to be on the right track, and the robot is programmed to respond to feedback from mongoose's movement when it is the mongoose that is one the right track. In a relatively flat field where the robot has superior navigation, this system ensures that the robot pulls and the mongoose obeys. When it is a dense thicket which demands the mongoose's natural skills, it is the robot's turn to obey. Unlike the crude and callous use of live dolphins as minesweepers by the US Navy, the use of mongooses here causes almost no harm to the animal given its naturally gifted nimbleness. Unlike the oft-quoted anecdote about bullocks drawing a motorcar in India (jovially called the Ox-Ford by none other than Mahatma Gandhi) due to the vehicle's malfunction, the mongoose and robot drawing each other is a picture not of subcontinental resource-crunch, but of indigenous resourcefulness. When the state-of-the-art in landmine detection in his country was old-fashioned unreliable metal detectors or more realistically, simply rakes; this pioneering researcher proved how a wild rodent so far seen only as an exotic pet could drive his pet project to unprecedented accomplishment. Indians have a word for this kind of resourcefulness: jugaad, which is vividly described in an article that appeared in the Times of India, which says, "The operative world of jugaad, implying alternatives, substitutes, improvisations and make-dos, is spurred by a native inventiveness steeped in a culture of scarcity and survival."***

The talk had begun of course with a narrative on the horrors of war, and at the end of it, there doubtlessly lingers in mind not just benedictions for Dr. Nanayakkara and his group but an almost urgent prayer for Peace on Earth. A reverie brought to mind these lines from the Bible, which seem so apt and would be so reassuring to those who brave deadly minefields probing for mines with little more than rods, hoping to liberate farmlands and lay the tables of the famished community with the yield of a bountiful, peaceful earth to come.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me....

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies...

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...

-Psalm 23, King James Bible
* Dr. Nanayakkara's University of Moratuwa page

** Dr. Nanayakkara's research and video clips

***Link to the article on 'jugaad' in the Times of India

Friday, March 07, 2008

P for Playtime

For once, I am playing one of the 'games people play'. For those just discovering the blogosphere, an ongoing fad is a game called tagging. The rules are simple: take a letter of the alphabet, think of as many words as you can, and type out what each word means to you. It doesn't stop here. You need to pick a fellow-blogger and assign him or her a letter too, for the show to go on. That's how I got here, with the letter P assigned to me here...(do visit this to get a hang of what the game is)

At first sight, I had dismissed this as a frivolous exercise, but I then thought that this will be a great way to engage in my liking for collage, as well as for alliteration! Here goes my shot at the tagging game, with triads of words revolving around a certain theme.

It amuses me to start such a contemporary game with something as classical as characters in Greek mythology, each epitomizing a human trait.

Prometheus : The Titan who gifted fire to mankind; the synonym for pioneer
Pandora : The example of unrestrained curiosity and unwitting folly leading to much misery
Pan : The cheerful guardian of shepherds, letting us know that the greatest of us need not outgrow the thrill of merriment

Let us move from Greek myths to English literature, naming three literary works that between them span the entire gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous in the human condition.

Paradise Lost: An epic poem of inevitable human folly, inescapable diabolical cunning and inscrutable divine plans
The Prince and the Pauper: A historical novel on accidents of birth and appearances that are deceptive
The Pickwick Papers: Anecdotes that make a reader both laugh and sigh; presenting humour of all hues with generous streaks of black humour

Let us move on now from words to pictures; to images which have become inextricably entwined with ideas seemingly far removed from them. Incidentally, we move on from books to a publisher!

Penguin: Exotic, distant and often ponderous; like the ideas and worlds in books bearing this age-old well-loved logo
Panda: Endangered and emblematic; a potent and poignant WWF visual of a lurking,looming wildlife void
Puma: Feline fleet of foot, lending its name to shoemakers promising agility and athleticism

Let's watch some feline stances now since they have made their presence felt anyway.

Prowl: This surreptitious, stealthy motion isn't just feline anymore; with stalkers on the loose in our cities and smear campaigns underway in our organizations.
Prance: Strutting the stuff with carefree abandon seems to be the humans' preferred gait as well with ostentation and hedonism becoming second nature.
Pounce: Many of our actions mimic this feline move not in swiftness but in haste, not in finesse but just in force.

Staying with fauna, let us look at some birds which are perennial metaphors which remind of some perennial questions.
Pigeon: Is timidity often mistaken for a peace-loving nature?
Peacock: Is the idea of understated elegance forgotten in times of lavish extravagance?
Parrot: Is all repetition unintelligent and is all originality an improvement?

Speaking of repetition and originality, the discourse of men and nations can be...
Profound: Often what is profound sounds too simple to be so; like the Zen koans, the Confucian Analects, everyday rustic wisdom and every forgotten home-truth.
Profane: Much of what is now sacred began in a seeming sacrilege, and what is now the world's most populous faith is based on the words of the Saviour who called the holiest shrine of his religion 'a den of thieves'.
Profuse: Much of today's discourse by commentators, analysts, experts, madarins and pundits is just profuse, diffuse, voluble and vacuous.

Not all the experts and think-tanks in the world have been able to heal the ills which plague our planet.
Plagues: Don't pandemic bird flue and SARS, and looming smog and acid rain sound eerily similar to the Plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament? It's just that much of it is human doing and not divine retribution.
Pleas: Unheard pleas from war-zones, refugee camps, indigenous peoples on the verge of extinction, communities displaced by industrial juggernauts remain cries in the wilderness possibly presaging a wasteland to come.
Pledges: Pledges deafen men and nations to pleas; pledges in the form of alliances, allegiances, trade balances and treaties which reduce climate change to just the Kyoto Protocol, and genocides to statistics.

It is not often pledges made and promises to keep which drive men though. What drives us mainly is
Profit: 'It's the money, honey!'
Praise: Adulation is addictive.
Pride: A personal ego-trip beats any paid holiday.

Civilization owes much to those who served passions greater than their personal desires, and it is such yearnings that underlie..
Philosophy: The human endeavor which concerns itself with questions more than answers, and more importantly in knowing what makes a question worthwhile and what makes an answer true.
Physical Science: The human endeavor that is relieving mankind from enslavement to the elements, conquering the tyranny of geography, prolonging life by human effort and enriching life with comforts
Philanthropy: The urge for human welfare which addresses the ends of human endeavour while science simply provides the means

Selfish or unselfish, individual or collective; success in human endeavour results from balancing thought and action and especially realizing the subtle difference between what is:
Practical: Whether the situation considered is an actual happening or a thought-up possibility
Practicable: Given an actual happening, whether the change we suggest is possible
Pragmatic: Given an actual happening, and given possible changes, whether we are willing to disregard convention and push limits

For success in endeavours, stopping to think and avoiding pitfalls is as important as 'going for it', as they adages go...
Pause: "Look before you leap"
Pass: "Let well alone".
Pace: "Strike when the iron is hot!"

Achieving success means giving our best at every given time..
Past: This offers lessons, not regrets.
Present: This is the world we seek and all that is in it. Alas! How often do we glimpse just its shadow in the past or its mirage in the future.
Posterity: This should offer hope, not anxieties.

Three simple words can in fact present an entire philosophy of life, which is easier read than practised. This will be a fitting way to conclude.
Pay : Pay your everyone who did you the slightest favour. Pay your those who walked before you and paved the way.
Play: Play your role. Play fair.
Pray: It matters not whether we prostrate or join hands. What matters is that we pray!

************************************************************************************** keep the game going
Letter C: Kunal :
Letter W: Vishwanath:

Postscript: Much as I enjoyed this, I would like this to be a one-off. Avoid back-tagging please!