Friday, 14 February 2020

AI-ML and our society


After a tortuous reception at the immigration counter at Narita I was quite relieved to find myself before my coach of Narita Express waiting for me to take me to Shinagawa, from where I need to change for my final destination at Tsurumi near Yokohama. I was attending  a conference at Yokohama. When I landed Narita, I never imagined that it would take about two hours to cross the immigration counter. So when I went for collecting my luggage I was dead tired and also a bit worried to change the international SIM in my I-phone for making a call back home. I also needed to book a ticket for a train to travel to Tsurumi. At the JR East Travel Service Center when I could easily got those tickets and directions, I was very relieved and took a deep breath by comfortably placing myself on a sofa near the counter to arrange my newly bought tickets and other travel documents. There was about 15 minutes gap for my train. I might have stretched my relaxation too long! Suddenly I felt a rush to look for the platform and train. Impulsively I went as quickly as possible. After going through a bit of beginner’s nervous lesson to get entry through the automatic ticket checking system, I could finally reach the platform and found my train waiting there. With an immense relief I boarded it and placed my hand bag overhead. The first thing I tried was to change the new SIM card and found that it worked nicely by calling home to inform about my arrival and also calling my student Jit who arrived there last Evening for attending the same conference. Eventually the train started towards its destination.
The coach was quite empty. Most passengers appeared to me traveling alone and belonged to younger generation, absorbed on their laptops or smartphones. A few were also reading books. There was a display hanging overhead, with scrolling messages of places of destination in alternate in two different Japanese scripts and also in English. In the mean time the next station came, which happened to be Terminal 1 of Narita Airport and a few passengers entered into the coach. I was quite relaxed and was excited to get an experience of a fast moving Japanese train. My excitement got a little dampened, when I understood that Narita Express was not of that category. It moved fast but not like the famous Shinkansen (bullet train) of Japan. I went for an inspection of my coach to look for the toilet, and was very pleased to find a neat and clean arrangement in the moving train. While returning I also observed how luggage were kept near the door and a few of them were locked by an iron chain with electronic locking mechanism. In fact in the display there was a message regarding the use of this lock and also a warning that if it  could not be opened it had to be collected from the final destination. I came back to my seat and was eagerly looking forward to reach the transit station of my destination.  When the train was approaching the next station, I heard an announcement of the approaching station with a request to the passengers to be ready for  getting down and also to carry  their luggage near the exit door. I hummed  in my mind, “At least I need not worry and bother on my luggage.”, and looked at my small companion placed on the upper bunk over my seat. I was traveling with my hand bag only. Then a queer sensation gripped me. I felt something was missing with me and realized I should have a luggage with me in this travel, which I did collect from the airport, but left at the JR East Travel Service Desk. More than feeling myself disgusted I was amazed how such an amnesia could overtake me for about half an hour! In a foreign land, I lost my luggage with all my clothing and other necessary items inside. My only consolation then was that I had all my cash and travel documents safe with me!
I was wondering what should be my action at that point! Should I  take the loss with a stoic’s heart and look for making some contingency arrangement for a few necessary clothes, which I knew would be quite expensive? But I recovered soon from my momentary laxity on facing the crisis with determination. I went for searching the conductor of the coach to inform him  about my loss. While entering I did notice a few railways staff with their blue-white dresses. Fortunately at that time, a person with that kind of official dress was going through my coach. He happened to be a railway security person. I tried to inform him about my loss, but he could not make out anything from me. All other passengers were also looking at me. But I was not sure whether they could understand my English.  I was feeling quite helpless.  I took the person near the luggage cell, and waved my hand to signal that I had lost mine.
The security staff brought the coach conductor within a few minutes and he tried to talk to me with a few English monosyllables. Through a bit of sign language and a few broken English words he understood that I lost my luggage at the Airport Terminal Station. He asked me to accompany him and also to take my belongings with me. He took me to another coach and asked me to take an empty seat and wait for him (all by signs and hand movements). With an empty look and also empty stomach as well, through semi-transparent window glasses, I was staring at the fast moving outside world glittering and simmering with Japanese city lives! My student also called me to enquire about my whereabouts and they (Jit and his friend) were completely taken aback to know that I left my luggage at the terminal! They just completed their dinner and were having a nice stroll in a park near the ocean in Yokohama.
“Should I come Sir?”
“No way! It won’t help. Let me see how it goes,  and let you know.”
The conductor came with a device, which appeared to me something like a walky-talky and was telling something in Japanese with the device. I guessed he might be talking with a railway staff at Narita Terminal 2 station informing about the lost luggage. But after finishing his talk he placed it before me and was waiting for some actions on my part. I was looking at him without understanding at all what he was expecting from me. He again took the device and spoke something in Japanese and placed it before me. Then I noticed there was something written in English.
“What is the color of your bag?”
It’s a machine which translates Japanese speech in English text.
“Blue”, I informed.
The machine converted my English speech in Japanese text.
“What were there?”
“Clothes, and a file.”
The conductor again spoke something. It printed something like “We go.” I looked  at him with some confusion. He spoke again.
“Get down at the next station.”
Further with his next speech, he assured me by showing the text, “I get down with you.”
I said, “Okay. Thank you very much.”.
The kind conductor again informed me through that machine that the next station was Tokyo and it would take another 40 minutes more to reach.
When the train reached Tokyo, I got down in a confused and uncertain state, as I did not find my friend while leaving the coach. But as soon as I stepped on the platform, I found him behind me. There I found two of his colleagues waiting for us. One of them came forward to me and said in broken English, “Your bag  fine.”
I told, “Fine? Okay. How to get it?”
The staff used his device of speech to text translator and showed me the text, where it was written, “Bag found.”
I heaved a sigh of relief and asked, “Where it is?”
Again through the device came to know, “It is still in Narita Airport Terminal 2 station. You need to go back and collect.”
They helped me to get into a train going to Narita Airport Terminal 2 and finally I could retrieve the bag from the ‘lost and found’ section located at the same station. I was lucky that the incident happened in Japan, a country I found the safest to travel having a social fabric vibrant with honesty and friendliness. 
I cited the above incidence to showcase an example that how AI and Machine Learning (ML) could transform our social interaction and remove the barrier of language and distance. The speech to text cross-lingual translation has become matured and robust enough to get entry in our daily business, and I was a direct beneficiary of this technology.
There could be many such examples. In fact, it is quite natural to the young millennial generation to live with Internet driven business and social practices, many of which are getting enriched each day by new innovations primarily through applications of AI and ML. People are accustomed to use Google Maps to look for  a new place, hotels, restaurants, museums, etc., make online booking of hotels, taxi, air and train tickets, ordering a pizza or  a computer and performing many such various activities . 
Like speech to text, text to speech synthesis has become also matured enough for some of the languages and used in various applications.  Suppose the said cross-lingual gadget, which came to my rescue in Japan, is improvised by addition of another text to speech module, it would act as a human bilingual interpreter among two individuals talking in two different languages. It is exciting to think its applications in a country like India which has twenty two constitutionally recognized languages for communication.  Recently my son forwarded me a video clip, which they created describing how they had developed a technology for synthesizing speech only  from lip movements of speakers in English using deep learning technology. The demonstration was quite amazing and according to him was appreciated by none other than Andrew Zisserman of Oxford University, who is a pioneer in advancing research in Computer Vision. Andrew might have been by nature too generous to encourage young researchers, but I myself, was quite moved by the quality of their speech synthesis through lip reading by a machine. In addition, I was  also impressed by its professional presentation of the story line. So I asked him who had lent the voice in describing the background, which sounded with a very professional accented articulation. I got surprised to know that the whole narration in the background was generated through text to speech synthesis. They only prepared the text of description and fed them to the application synthesising it into a well-articulated speech. I could not distinguish  the voice as artificial and machine generated, though the speech segment synthesized by their algorithm from lip movement had artificial intonation. 
This is where we stand today. What was unimaginable even a decade ago, is now at our door step with awesome clarity and reliability! It is not true that no-one thought about these scenarios. For a long time (at least from sixties of the last century) researchers were breaking their heads  to overcome these barriers, and develop  reliable and robust solutions of problems like speech to text or text to speech synthesis, face recognition, machine recognition of objects,  generation of  description  of scenes and phenomena, diagnosis of diseases, converting images of printed documents to electronic forms, autonomous ground vehicle navigation, commanding robots for  various services, and many other challenging problems. In particular, on the onset of digital revolution in the nineties of the last century these efforts got multiplied by many folds due to the progress in sensing technology, availability of data in digital form and processing them in general purpose computing platforms. Out of these efforts, a few applications were trickling down to solve these problems in restricted environments. One of their major bottlenecks was to apply them in a free unrestricted environment with a robust and reliable performance guarantee. But the advancement that we saw in the last decade, has brought us a qualitative change in their solutions to remove these limitations, for which they are progressively getting integrated from research laboratory to  our daily businesses. 
A new era of technological revolution?
Naturally the question raised at this point is that are we entering into a new era of technological revolution, a revolution due to AI and ML? If so, what would be its impact to our society. How would it reshape the social interaction and human relations with the productive system? Only a few decades ago we witnessed another chapter of industrial revolution, known to be the era of digital revolution, which transformed our society to such an extent that our days before mobile phones and internet services looked prehistoric. Many of us may turn out to be living fossils to our present generation and may find ourselves out of the society without a credit card, email ID and a cell phone connection. The digital revolution came with the phenomenal growth and technological advancement in semiconductor industry in fabrication of integrated chips, digital electronics including sensing and rendition of multimedia content, communication and computing technology. The gadgets, such as phones, cameras, computers, etc.,  what were limited to a few in the society for their high cost and high technical barrier, become available widely at a fractional cost, with higher quality of services and of smaller sizes. The technology also revolutionized the communication infrastructure culminating in wide penetration of cellular wireless  services, data communication and internet services in our society. This has ushered us into an era of new innovations in information processing with increasing capability of handling a large amount of data due to exponential growth in storage and computing capacity. All these advancement and growth could have been perceived as a natural fall out of the digital revolution. So what qualitative changes have been brought further in the productive forces, so that we are considering another quantum leap in a new era of technological revolution? 
If we observe previous industrial revolutions, each of them was a fall out of a new technological innovation which had introduced revolutionary changes in the ways production and commerce were organized. Subsequently these also  brought significant changes in our social practices and social relations, creating clear distinctions between societies who had embraced new technology and who did not.  The first industrial revolution (1760-1830) was driven by steam engines. And we could see that this was the era, when large capitalist production system started to grow up and brought new social relations so that old feudal systems did crumble against the onslaught of a new order of bourgeoisie. After a brief period of steady growth, the second stage of industrial revolution (1860-1914) began with the discovery of electro-magnetism and harnessing electricity in the production system. The period had seen revolutionary changes in our understanding of nature and natural phenomena. The discovery of fossil fuel and its use in automobile further accelerated its growth. The capitalism ruled supreme in this stage, so did the conflicts among industrially advanced nations for capturing the markets of their colonies,  leading to two world wars subsequently. The concept of new social order also grew strong from major proponents such as  Karl Marx and Frederik Engels, which led to revolutionary movements to bring  new political and economic structure in Russia and later in China, and subsequently in many other countries. 
After the second industrial revolution, there was a steady growth and expansion of industry and commerce, but there was no major change in the factory based production system. With the development of digital technologies, this process was further accelerated. But it took a major leap with the rapid advancement of computing and communication technology.  It is difficult to identify a single invention or discovery leading to this state of affairs. It was the culmination of several simultaneous  technological advancement, such as  in fabrication of semiconductor devices, space technology and remote sensing, computer hardware and software, digital data and wireless communication, audio-visual and imaging, medical imaging, biomedical devices, and so on. We may mark  the period of technological advancement during early eighties of the last century to early years of first decade of this century as that of the period of ‘digital revolution’ (roughly from 1984 to 2004). Then there has been post digital age advancement, which played the crucial role in bringing radical changes in our daily life,  social interaction and engagement with the production system. During this period we saw tremendous expansion of internet services, computing resources, mobile networks,  and penetration of smartphones even to the low income section of the society. 
Hardly one and half a decade passed in between. Is it not too early to declare arrival of another new era of technological revolution, the era of AI and ML? Can we not consider present technological progress as the continuation of the same digital era? Is there any departure in our mode of interaction with the productive forces? Is there going to be any significant reshaping of society? To assess the impact of AI and ML in today’s and tomorrow’s society, we need to address these vital and crucial questions. As an individual we have limited roles to influence the progress in science and technology. But  as a social being we should be aware,  what is coming to us as a fall out of this progress and to decide how to harness this new technological advancement for the benefit of our society in general.

Present era: expectation and outcome 
Let us review how we reacted at the advent of  digital technology, internet, mobile communication, smart phones, social networking, e-commerce and so on.  No doubt, there was high hope all around, and there were good reasons for that. Once I heard from a very distinguished speaker who was very enthusiastic about  three great benefits of internet, namely, Google Search Engine, WikiPedia and YouTube. It was a lecture during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of our Institute (2011-2012). According to him they provide great opportunities of learning and thus could act as the instruments for liberating an individual from ignorance and making her  more confident in exploring life and unknown territories. At that moment probably we all agreed.  There was no reason to doubt his observations, as all could share the benefits of these services with the expansion of internet and digital infrastructure. But we did not see then the flip side of the same coin. After a decade now, we find how individual liberty and freedom has become a commodity in lieu of availing these services, putting ourselves under an increasingly intensive surveillance system!   
The other expectation was on strengthening of democracy as the gap between administrators and common people would be bridged by this new technology. Peoples’ voice and opinions would be more effectively  shared and heard in policy making to the benefit of the majority. Many of us shared this optimism, though I had a debate with one of my friends, presently a director in one of our premium Institutions,  on how the media would be free of control from rich and powerful! That was around the beginning of this millennium.  In fact, a decade later we witnessed  the positive role of social media and electronic media in inspiring protests and movements against the autocratic regimes in Middle East in 2010-11. There were initial successes in bringing down a few autocratic regimes and dictators. But the history taught us now that very soon this euphoria turned into nightmares! In absence of any progressive ideology, very soon these regions became the hunting ground of religious fanatics and neo-liberal rulers of today’s world, backed by their multinational corporate houses. 
If we consider present state of affairs, we would find that in the electronic media, and social networking platforms common people’s voices are hardly audible. We get all sorts of stories about  victories and defeats of our political masters, wars and violence, natural calamities and occasional worries of  climate change, and  the glittering colourful worlds of celebrities. But  rarely you find any concern for issues related to a common man! Hardly any article on their distressed conditions in economic crisis, their political and economic demands and grievances against governance, their fights and movements against the undemocratic laws and acts!  It is not only done by flooding the media with the propaganda of  ruling sections, but also by active suppression of free expression through coercive laws and blocking of internets.  In today’s world probably Hitler and Goebbels would have been more successful in hypnotising their target audiences by parroting same stories and hate speeches millionth times without any accountability and hindrance, thus giving least regards to their truthfulness! That has become the unfortunate state of affairs in many such democracies! Even there are business houses who are paid for promoting such campaigns! What was there previously  paid advertisements on a few prints of news media, and that too with some legal restrictions, has become an easy to access chattering mouthpiece of a hundred headed monster for the unscrupulous rulers  of our society. Eventually we find that the digital revolution swept away all these regulations to allow hate speech, mass shaming, trolling, and naked campaigning of half truths and lies targeting every individual, an apparent beneficiary of its world wide connectivity!
The third positive impact of digital revolution was to make the world more integrated by removing the barriers of distance and national boundaries. In fact, neo-liberal policy makers during this era drew ideological support from this technological advancement welcoming free movement of people in a global market. We were elated to think about a world without any national boundaries thriving with fraternity and brotherhood, peace and prosperity! But if we consider the present situation, we find a world with rising animosity and hatred against the migrant population, giving way to rise of ultra-nationalism at various corners of globe.  Instead of universal bonhomie and fraternity, wars, violence, and terror attacks  have become the order of the days!
Finally if we consider the distribution of wealth and income of the society, we would again find another disappointing scenario. It was quite natural to expect that with the embrace of digital revolution the society would be rich and prosperous, and each of its members would be benefited due to many fold increase of productive forces. But what effectively we see is that in almost in every country there is a rising inequality in wealth and income among the population. To be precise we may take an example of my country India. The  Gini index of India in 2011 was 35.2, which steeply rose to 47.5 in 2018, very close to some of sub-Saharan countries in Africa! It is a worrying factor as  with such an inequality in a society, a democracy cannot function. Either the political order would move toward more equitable distribution by curtailing  the monopolistic trends of big corporate houses, or be dictated more and more by them in framing economic policies and political laws to safeguard their interests! 
I may be sounding over-pessimistic and would have been very glad if I could have sketched a happy and rosy picture of our glittering world! I left my dreamy days long before, yet I was hopeful of finding a world more rational and humane! Instead we find a world with bitterness and sorrows, and full of dissent but without any political voice guided by a strong humanist ideology! Moreover due to massive and accelerated exploitation of natural resources, global warming and climate change are waving red flags to very existence of our civilization.  With such a heavy heart at this critical juncture let us look at the magical world of AI and ML and try to understand what would be the natural fall out if the current trend continues!  
AI-ML: the genesis and growth
Artificial intelligence caught the imagination of researchers since the beginning of computing with electronic circuitry. That the machines would be able to think or act like a human, play games, diagnose diseases and treat patients, was dreamt by many visionaries such as Allan Turing,  Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and many others in the early age of computing. The term AI was coined by John McCarthy in 1956 in a workshop at Dartmouth College, USA, where AI as a discipline of research got recognized. Machine learning is a specialized area of research in AI, which considers empowering a computer program meant to perform a task to improve the performance with increasing experiences of handling input data. Arthur Samuel of IBM coined the term in 1959. There were ups and down in the progress of these research areas, which started with a promising note but got dampened due to limitations of technology and material conditions in seventies and early eighties of the last century. Later, with the advancement of digital and computing technology, and expansion of data communication infrastructure, there have been significant advancement in these areas. The techniques of  “support vector machines” (SVM),  “decision tree”, “random forest”, “artificial neural network”, “Bayesian network”, “hidden Markov and conditional random field models”, etc.,  are being increasingly used in solving many challenging problems, which are otherwise hard to crack using deterministic algorithms of traditional computing. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue, a  chess playing computer, using AI based search techniques  in a parallel computing  environment could beat then reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in a six games series by winning three, losing two and keeping a match draw. Incidentally a year before the great champion grand master had beaten its previous version of chess playing program. 
Post digital revolution period saw  a steady development of theory and practice in these areas. The period also saw the emergence of new technology leaders, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc., who started acquiring a vast amount of data of users of their systems, their behaviours and business transactions either directly or indirectly from their business partners. They rolled out a different business models by offering some of their services free to their common users, but charging from their clients (usually corporate houses and Government agencies) on advertisements and providing relevant statistics related to marketing, etc. Various other types of specialized data repositories, satellite images, business data from online shopping and trading systems, banking, etc., augmented this process further and different types of services are increasingly being provided on analysing these data. AI and ML techniques have become de facto choices in advancing these technologies. Then with the emergence of general purpose graphics processing unit (GPGPU) based computing, deep learning based techniques have taken their roots in researches in these areas. They have been found to be providing solutions at remarkable improved performances, and thus enabling deployment of  these systems in practice in real life. From 2015 onward, AI-ML techniques using deep learning based neural architecture began to perform wonders in natural language processing, audio-visual and speech processing, computer vision, robotics  and almost in every areas of science and technology for modelling a process with the precondition that a large amount of labelled data are available, which should also be  generated from the same process. The core of this computation involves  optimization of an objective function of inputs and outputs  of a very large model, which may have millions of parameters. That is why the necessity of a very large amount of labelled data, and also a very powerful parallel computing environment to finish computation within a reasonable time interval (if not days, should not be more than a few weeks!). The theory and proponent of this computation dates back to eighties of the last century, when David Rumelhart, Geoffrey Hinton and Ronald Williams developed back propagation algorithm for optimizing artificial neural networks. Later  in 1990s Yann LeCun and his coresearchers brought the concept of convolutional neural network (CNN), a biologically inspired network for classification of objects. However, the technology and material condition of getting a large labelled dataset were not yet ready then! Then in 2012, AlexNet, a deep neural architecture designed by Alex Krizhevsky, then a student of Geoffrey Hinton, showed how this could solve a hard problem such as classifying images of objects of 1000 categories (ImageNet dataset) with significantly higher accuracy than the traditional techniques of ML. This has opened the magic box of deep learning and many such neural architectures are subsequently being proposed with increasing performance on the same and many other  datasets solving various tasks such as object localization and classification, face recognition, action recognition, image captioning, generating description of  a scene, language translation, speech to text synthesis, etc.  In fact this technology has become the wonder tool to create those magic boxes of cross-lingual translators as I mentioned in the beginning of this story. Many such wonders are either already on the shelf or waiting to roll out in near future. We have become used to take help of navigation guidance using maps and satellite images while traveling by car or walking the streets. Often we interact with chat bots which take our queries and try to resolve them. Even all such text based interfaces are increasingly replaced by free speech conversation with tools such as Siri, Alexa, etc. Autonomous driverless cars have passed many miles of testing on roads. Though there were a few accidents and hiccups, it is expected that they would be running on our streets within a few years. So does drone based deliveries and surveillance systems. Air taxis on metropolitan sky line may also be flying in this decade. In every sector there would be automation which would perform like an intelligent professional person of that trade. For example, in a hospital we may be screened initially by a robot-physician before meeting the specialist doctor. In judiciary, an optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP) based system  may summarize the case history from the documents for presenting to a lawyer. 
The future looks quite exciting! You turn over pages of science fiction books of yesterdays, you would find we are almost there! Except the fact, that we are also suffering an existential threat due to impending secular doomsday prediction from climate scientists  and also due to the intensified arms race and war mongering of the present rulers of the world order! It is no doubt that AI-ML techniques, in spite of their great potential to become a great benefit to humanity, are serving their interests and   sharpening their arsenals for keeping their house of cards intact!
Ruling an individual
One of the mottos of  modern  digital  world is nourishment of absolute  individualism. This may happen even by bringing total alienation of a person from the society in which he or she lives. That the technology which played a  positive role in liberating a person from ignorance by bringing the  world at her door step, could  effectively also imprison her in a glittering  virtual world. In manufacturing and production also due to automation and invention of small, portable but powerful tools and machinery, the necessity of organized labour has been greatly reduced. Working from home, replacing regular employment by contractual jobs,  running major businesses in a multi-tiered subcontracting  system, etc., have become common practices in industry. This was also the period when social welfare states get withered by the onslaught of neo-liberal policy makers paving the way of unhindered privatization of essential services and resources, and thus accelerating accumulation of wealth only to a tiny fraction of population, members of big business and corporate houses. Naturally the tension and dissent in the society has been simmering all around the world. AI-ML technology has become a great weapon to these masters of the society to rule an individual. If we would like to name a few widely used applications of AI-ML techniques in today’s world, the first and foremost would be in surveillance. Profiling a user has become common business practice of these big corporations in absence of any law or regulations regarding such acquisition of data and their uses for commercial purposes. Later  some countries in the west, brought a few regulations.  But on several occasions those were found to be flouted at the risk of facing meagre penalties from the regulating authority. Sometimes users are encouraged or forced to allow intrusion to their privacy and sharing of data to these service providers to avail their services, effectively turning themselves into commodities of data products. Many governments are also increasingly forcing their citizens to acquire digital identities and to avail essential services through online transactions. Through their digital foot-prints, people could be easily brought into their surveillance systems, and monitored by automated systems to raise a red flag for any kind of opposition to establishment. That is the task set to  AI-ML techniques for serving  watchdog agencies  and big-brothers of today’s political order. The technology can greatly help them locate a single voice of dissension and suppress it at their mercy. With the spread of terrorism and anarchism in the conflict torn today’s world, it has become easier for the rulers to convince their citizens to be subjected to these surveillance systems. Apart from user profiling by internet based various service providers, and sharing the data with the Government agencies by law,  throughout the world there are arrangements of putting video surveillance systems in place. There is a steady growth of this industry. In 2014, the number of CCTV installations was such that for every 30 persons in this world, there was one such system.  I do not have the present statistics, but won’t be surprised if the number of systems has been doubled by this time.
Reshaping our society
At present it may be difficult to conclusively say that AI-ML has led us to a new technological era, but what we could say without hesitation that the social practices and modes of interaction for availing essential services will have marked departure in coming years from what presently being followed. There would be self serving kiosks  for various operations and transactions. Some of these are already in place in airports, railway counters, etc.  This would be expanded to tasks involving both manual and intellectual labour. For example, in Japan various kinds of robots are being increasingly used at  different places of work such as schools,  hospitals, etc. They are used in place of human security guards for periodic inspection of  a site. They are also designed to provide various domestic services aiding the aging population. Industries are being increasingly automated with different kinds of robots. Different economic reports had already identified a large categories of jobs of human employment that would be extinct in near future.  
Even highly professional jobs may be replaced by robots and cyborgs.  In a hospital, you may have to report to a cyber-doctor. Human teachers in class rooms would be replaced by cyber-instructors through video lectures or online composition from a knowledge base created by domain experts. Even in cultural landscape, various performing artists may be replaced by robo-artists saving the exchequer of producers and directors. There may be a robot-singer popularizing new composition at the same level of proficiency of any expert singer or musician. In sports, various robotic teams would participate to compete with each other. It is true that all these fundamentally would be product of human intellects, but in a market oriented economy, they would also make certain human trades extinct. 
The infrastructure for communication and commerce will have many more changes in coming years. There would be new rules and regulations making mandatory adoption of new technological advancement. The road, signalling and traffic rules would be overhauled to get the autonomous driverless cars on streets. Drones and aerial vehicles would be used for transportation and delivery of commodities. The policing in the streets and mob controlling  may be done using various automated surveillance tools and mobile robots. In Airport, possibly you may have to get your face scanned for verification with the photograph printed in your identity card  before boarding the aircraft. Even  one may have to enrol with periodic updates of biometric signatures of face, fingerprint, DNA finger prints, etc., for accessing various essential services, such as banking, traveling, shopping, health care, etc.  Without such a digital identity a person would be an outcast in a society. In the business world, your digital identity may also become a commodity to sell and to keep protected. Various technologies and counter-technologies would be developed to steal and safeguard someone’s identity.
In the present world, we are already observing how the advancement in digital technology changed the nature of warfare and made a huge gap between a technologically  advanced and a backward country. What was a field demonstration in the first gulf war (1990-1991), had become regular in modern warfare causing immense misery of people in affected lands. People of defeated nations have no other option than leaving their destroyed homes and devastated lands, and migrating to a relatively safe corner of foreign countries. World wide migration for war and economic break down have become the order of these days. Recent progress in AI and ML did not make any change in the present situation.  Neither it is expected, as the technology itself never provides a political solution, rather becomes another tool of dominance of the rulers.  In future, there  will be  more arsenals to their armies as  derivatives of this technology.  The military of a country may have an army of robots. The days are not far behind when man and machine will fight each other in the battle field. With increasing precision striking capability, advanced satellite imaging and navigation systems, we have already seen, how a general of a country can be killed out of the blue ignoring ethics and norms of the civil world! In the great epic Mahabharata, it is considered the death of Abhimanyu broke all the civilities and norms of that mythical era in wars between the two warring factions. In this twenty first century,  this unfortunate incident might have ushered us  into an era with new codes of ethics in warfare, which would be devastating for our race!
Concerns and hope
Any technological advancement brings new hope and demands for improving our life with increasing comfort and happiness. With newer insight of nature and living world, and their applications in solving various challenging and critical problems, we are better prepared in handling uncertainties, and mitigating crisis. AI-ML based technology has great power and potential to make our life and society better.  Already there are ample proofs of its role to the benefits of the mankind. It  accelerates discovery of new medicine and vaccine in treating patients of life threatening diseases. It  not only removes barriers of distance and time in social interactions, but also of languages, physical disabilities, and many other challenges. It forecasts weather with much greater precision and accuracy helping better organization, management and planning of various events and activities. In facing critical challenges such as, impending crisis of global warming, fossil-fuel dependency, diminishing resources of drinking water, etc.,  AI and ML have great potential to play positive roles.
The irony is that in spite of all these technological progresses, the chaos and anarchy in our society are ever increasing. On international arena, if we note, these are accelerated on the emergence of  AI and ML as a strong  driving force of the technological progress.  This may not be considered as a mere coincidence. This raises  future concerns of our civilization. They are not so benign to be ignored among the euphoria of magical world on adoption of AI-ML solutions. 
One of the worrying factors is that, overuse of technology in decision making may lead to loss of rationality among humans, driven by their blind faiths on cyborgs and automated systems. Even from the philosophical angle, it is the empiricism, which  takes over on logical discourses on settling debates and hypotheses. Dominance of machine learning in technological advancement would provide strong incentives in strengthening these views. Fuller context and perspectives may be ignored and trivial generalization would put a major hindrance in taking rational decision, thus in effect blocking the scientific progress. In our present era itself, we could observe this trend. In our academic world, often citation numbers, number of publications in rated journals and conferences, etc.,  get more priority in decision making on short-listing and selection, than going through the contributions of candidates. Even though there may be significant margins of errors in  the reports of various automated indexing databases, they are accepted without any hesitation in making such decisions. Empiricist philosophy of ML has another problem. It accepts the continuance of prevailing characteristics of learnable data, thus legitimizing  existing bias in our society. The privileged section would take most benefits of this progress in the present social order.
One of the deadliest examples of blind faith on functioning  of  automated system is the way US multinational company Boeing allowed the introduction of a new automated navigation module named Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) in their new aircraft model Boeing 737 MAX, whose malfunctioning was identified as the root cause of two back to back plane accidents in Indonesia and Kenya, in October 29, 2018 and March 11, 2019, respectively. The company was so confident about the reliability of its function on keeping the nose of the plane down to prevent it from getting it too high and causing a stall, that they did not mention this feature initially with sufficient clarity to regulators. Prior to the first accident in their aviation manual recommended actions in case of failure and malfunctioning of this system were missing. Even after the first accident, it was  a half-hearted acknowledgement of the fact with  remedial suggestions to the pilots in the event of such rare incidents. Had it been the case that Boeing discontinued their misplaced confidence and faith on such automated system immediately after the first accident, the second unfortunate incident in Kenya could have been avoided! 
The other concern  is the lack of accountability in the fallout of wrong decisions from automated systems. Final victim is the user or customer. Even today, any error generated from such systems, however serious it is, finds no accountability from their operators or implementers. Even the transparency on placing the accountability is also missing there. This adds complexity to the redressal of grievances and taking remedial measures. The unfortunate incidents of  Boeing plane accidents, as mentioned before, also showed us how difficult it is to implicate any person or organization in such cases. In first few months, the aircraft company and their lobbyists had made all possible efforts in implicating pilots and airlines! Due to world-wide concern on safety of air travel and subsequent  grounding of the said model of aircraft, the company finally had to step back in acknowledging the unforeseen technical fault in their design. 
And the last but not the least concern of the present and future era is the increasing unemployment in population. The bleak picture of abolition of jobs is predictable, and undeniably a foregone conclusion. What is not clear, at what rate new jobs would be created. In earlier industrial revolutions, these concerns were routinely raised. But with the emergence of newer jobs, new workforces had been created. New technological progress required increasing participation of educated and skilled labours, both manual and intellectual. Automation in a factory abolished many manual jobs, but created various other ancillary industries to support it. But it is becoming more and more clear that there has been increasing gap between the rise of productivity due to automation and growth of jobs since the beginning of this millennium. In 2011,  Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee  of  the MIT Sloan School of Management in their book “Race against the machine” had shown how the automation through AI-ML technology is spearheading the steep rise of productivity, but halting the growth of employment in USA. The difference in automation through AI-ML from the industrial automation of previous centuries is that they will not only replace many manual jobs, but also drain away many jobs of brain. In this kind of scenario there will be a highly specialized work force, presumably very small in number, and a vast majority serving them primarily engaged in service sectors. But the concern is that a far greater number will remain unemployed or under employed. This would not only heighten inequality in income among these two sections, but also lead to a situation, when requirement of higher education to the lower income group will vanish. Higher education would be accessible to only the small privileged section and used as a tool for maintaining this social division. Master and slave relations will flourish more in the society. At its peak, there would be two strata in the society sharpening the division of rich and poor: masters and their cronies in a small minority, and slaves in the vast majority! The outcome would be the complete negation of what we expected  from the technological advancement in the beginning! With high hope we had embraced  the digital revolution as it empowers an individual to step out from kupa-madukata (self-confinement through ignorance). But under the new technological advancement with its wide spread tentacles of surveillance, freedom and liberty would be a caricature of the past! Under this scenario, we may see an aberration in Marxian analysis of social progress, when capitalism may lead to a slave society!  
Naturally, this would not be a free lunch for the masters! There would be resistance from the multitude going through this transformation. As a reaction, the state would be more and more dictatorial leading to an Orwellian dystopian society. Still our only hope lies with this resistance of people, as we find at various corners of globe today. This  would grow day by day against the tyranny and oppression, and hope to take a political shape to turn back the tide towards socialism and people’s democracy!
14.02.2020





Monday, 11 September 2017

The act of the great magician



From my childhood days, I have been always fascinated by magicians. Their tricks always puzzle me, and make me wonder how things get vanished or replaced from my naked eyes.  At the unfolding of any new trick or game in a magic show, I always try to keep myself as much alert as possible to catch the magician in wrong foot, but consistently failed in all my past endeavors, which left me perplexed and overwhelmed in a confused state of mind. The earliest show that possibly I attended when I was as little as to comprehend my age or days around. Only image that still haunts me is that it was an evening show in an open ground. There was a large gathering. I was possibly held on the shoulder of my father watching from a great distance the acts of the greatest magician of the world (that’s what my father told me), senior P.C. Sorkar (that time he was simply the great Jadukar P.C. Sorkar) in a well-lit make-shift stage. He was having the famed turban over his head. I have no memory of the games or tricks he played in that show. Possibly, I was frightened on his intention to cut a girl through and through by his magical sword or to vanish her from a wooden enclosure by the touch of his magical wand.   

My first school was situated about a kilometer and a half from my home. For first few days I was accompanied by my father, and possibly by the maid working then in our house. But it was becoming very difficult for my father to bring me back from the school, as it clashed with his office time. The service of our maid also became very irregular.  My mother was very busy in her domestic work. She had to attend my little brother also. It was not always possible for her to make herself free to receive me from the school gate. So, after a few months I was habituated to return on my own. In my second year of schooling, I gained the complete freedom of my movement from home to the school and returning back.

There were two different routes for walking to my school. One was along a railway track, occasionally used for shunting goods-train in this long track. Sometime a lone coal engine would visit us along the track to fill water in its boiler from an overhead tank. Many a time we used to visit that place after hearing their shrill whistles. Years back passenger trains used to ply, as the railway station was close to my home. This place was also near the river side. But now the station is shifted away from this place, and it is quite near to my first school I attended then. In those days, no passenger train used to run along that track.  Following this railway track we could reach my school by a shorter path. The longer route was along the main metal road through the town. My parents preferred the latter for my self-commuting. They considered that the metal road was safer as there were more commuters in the day time, and advised me to always use the sidewalk beside the road. While returning I used to pass by my father’s place of work. He worked then in the Criminal court. His office was in the first floor of the building, and the window behind his seat was at the side of the road. So, while returning I always shouted at the top of my voice calling him and waited with excitement to see his face through the window. He would wave his hand to acknowledge my call. It was almost a daily ritual that I used to enjoy.

There were other added attractions too.  The court premise was a large area throbbed by a multitude of petty shopkeepers, tea-sellers, cheap book sellers, food vendors, hawkers, typists, copyists, astrologers, and many other colorful characters apart from black-hooded lawyers, their clients, clerks and other staffs of different trades connected to our justice dispensing system. My school was in the morning hours. So, on my return; I used to find the whole arena jostling with murmurs, excitements and occasional shouting of all these people. The astrologers, showcasing a framed photograph of Goddess Kali anointed by red vermilions, would plead passing travelers for seeking their advice, and sometimes they would sit with their preys in a trance and with an occasional look at their palms. The random rhythmic sound of type-writers would continuously hum in your ears. But the most exciting part was the trick-shows freely offered by various hawkers. Some of them used to sell tooth powders, medicinal ointments, herbs or extracts, etc. Even if you were fortunate you would get a snake-charmer selling a type of herb-roots for driving away snakes with a live demonstration of various snakes and their movements around them. They would play the flute and speak intermittently with the snakes and also with the audience. Sometime I could also watch tricks with monkeys and bears in this open show.  But these were rare events. Mostly I passed the gathering without any interruption in my journey. My mother also instructed me not to interact with any stranger on my way or make any stop or delay. However, only on those rare treats, I used to join the crowd around it, and take the liberty of enjoying a break not lasting more that a quarter of an hour.  

On one occasion, I was put into an embarrassing situation. That day I was attracted by the sound of dugdugi (an instrument of making fast beating sound) played by a lean, thin and dark person raining incessant stream of words in a high pitch modulated rhythmic voice. He was promising to show many tricks with full of fun to the people around. Not only that, he vouched to teach those tricks to the open gathering. Within a moment, a good number of people encircled the place centering the show-master. I also joined them and placed myself at the front of the encircling crowd. The man was accompanied by a boy a few years older than me. For quite sometimes the senior person continued playing dugdugi shouting his words of promises to the viewers, till he got satisfied with the numbers around the show.   Then he brought out a pair of iron rings, attached with each other, from his jhola (a bag made of clothes usually carried by hanging on the shoulder). He announced, “If any of you can make this couple separated, I will give you a reward of five rupees.”  His much younger partner approached the spectators for trials. A few tried, but of no success. I also made an attempt, though he was not eager to oblige me. The trick-star separated them without an effort. Again, he passed the separated rings and asked whether we could chain them again. No! No one could do it. He restored the bonding of the two rings. Next, he with much eloquence demonstrated how to pull them out, and how to attach them together. Things were getting interesting for me. I lost track of time, that I should spend there. This was more due to the fact that he promised to show us a very interesting trick, which none in this world can do. Only his late guru taught him this amazing trick. Saying this he brought out an apple from his jhola and a bottle, made of glass, with a very narrow opening. He placed the apple on top of the opening. It was pretty big enough compared to tiny opening of the bottle. But he declared he would make the apple go inside the bottle through this opening before our naked eyes. He would also teach each of us this wonderful trick at the end of this show. By saying this he started canvassing for a tooth powder. Intermittently he kept on reminding us about the trick that he would be performing. I was patiently waiting for this wonderful fit to be performed before me, and did not keep any account of the ticking clocks at that noon hours. I did not know how long it went. The trick star went on selling bottles of powder, and after each successful endeavor he would return to the topic of the apple going inside the bottle. At last, there was none but me waiting to see his wonderful trick. So, I went to him and asked to show the magic. He gave a big smile and rewarded my patience by presenting the apple to me. I was too disappointed to accept his token of appreciation and hurried towards my home, as I realized I spent more than an hour in that show. On my way, I met my mother. I could see her from a distance. She was walking back from my school along the railway track. From her appearance, I could see the trauma she went through that hour. She came out from our home without changing her dress. With untidy hairs, she was walking without any purpose, and with an empty look. When I called her, she was unmindful to make any response. But moment she saw me, she came almost running, and asked why I was so late. I told her the truth. Surprisingly my mother did not utter a single harsh word to me. She only told me not to make any such stop and delay for any reason whatsoever while returning back. I had a good lesson from my mother and the street-charmer as well on that day.


I was attracted to science as it has that magical touch in my childish imagination. The earliest encounter with such wonder was a radio set. I should be around the age of three then, as I was always at my home and did not start attending any school. One day, my father bought a radio set. I could distinctly remember the model ‘Bahadur’ made by Phillips. This set was small, and not a big valve set of its previous generation.  I was amazed by the talking, singing and playing machine with the rotation of its dials. At its back, there were tiny rectangular grills. Often, I wanted to see through it whether really there was someone speaking from such a small place! Of course, my father explained me that it was a machine and invented by scientists. In particular, I came across of fame and name of Jagadish Chandra Bose connected with its invention from my very early childhood. So, when the opportunity came to make a radio set with only a blade, safety-pin, variable condenser, a long wire and an ear-phone, I got very much excited!  I was then in my sixth grade and a friend of mine brought a torn page from ‘Kishore Bharati’ (a magazine for the kids), where this wonderfully simple circuit was sketched. My friend was very proficient in model making. He was also of my age, but was very good at making paper toys, cars with card-boards, in short, he had a pair of skillful and artistic hands. So, both of us decided to get started with our project radio from safety-pin and blade. We had almost everything. My father took us to one of his acquaintances, who was knowledgeable in repairing radios. From him we could collect a resistance and a variable condenser. But we faced an uphill task to get the earphone. It did not exist in our town. Once again, our parents came to our rescue. We went to Kolkata with my father, and walked a few miles in Esplanade east to get a piece of ear phones in various shops in the New Market. Finally, we could manage to get it in one of these shops – a little white piece, a real treasure to us. We returned with a lot of excitement. To our utter dismay, the circuit failed. We could not get a single sound from it. We read that page over and over again, but could not make it. So, we went to my father’s friend again, who gave a broad smile and told us that he knew that circuit would not work. He gave us a relatively simple circuit with a piece of transistor and diode. Even with that circuit we struggled a lot. One evening my friend got an idea. We hanged a long stretch of wire in our roof and made it the aerial of the set. It worked! We could listen to the magical sound of Vividh Bharati by tuning with the variable condenser and played across the ear phone. A magical moment indeed!

My fascination and imagination with scientific experiments and inventions have been growing steadily. I could sense that science is the key to my magical world! In the first year of my middle school (in my fifth grade) I came across of a list of inventions and their inventors. I was eager to know magic behind them! Those inventors were my heroes then! Once I asked my father who was the greatest scientist in our recent times. He readily named Einstein. But I did not quite agree with him. His name was not included in my list. I thought he should have named Thomas Alva Edison, the greatest hero to me in those days.

I was hungry to get a feel of those inventions! I was mostly an outsider in this world. It was partly due to my age, partly due to my socio-economic constraints and underdevelopment of my country. We had no electricity at our home. There was no television set around us. Hardly could we find a telephone receiver in our neighborhood! My hungry eyes would keep looking at flying aero-plane over the sky. I longed to see working of X-Rays, television tubes, cameras, microscopes, periscopes, telescopes, like so many different gadgets.  So, in their absence, I let my imagination fly and dreamt about a magician who would see even the tiniest object or watch an event from a farthest corner of this world, could travel at the speed of lightning, or make himself invisible among the multitude of people.

My interest was further nurtured by my school. In the beginning of the session in my eighth grade, one day our Head Sir called me and asked me to join a few of my seniors to participate in a science quiz competition, which was to be organized by Birla Science Museum at Kolkata. The exciting part of this participation was that we made several trips to the Museum accompanied by one of our teachers. In my very first visit, I was enchanted looking at large portraits of famous scientists including Galileo and Newton. We were asked to note every bit of facts from the galleries for preparing ourselves for the competition. It was exciting to see working models and their live demonstrations through active participation on pressing a button or switch and observe its working and effects. I was very much thrilled by watching a model of Geiger counter and listening to the beeping sound as it was making during the movement of the sensor and getting exposed to radioactive particles. The most exciting part of our visit was a live demonstration of a Television studio and the live video transmission that we could see over the screen of a TV. That was the first time when I could watch a TV. In the later part of the year, first TV transmission took place through Dooradarshan in Kolkata and adjoining areas in our state. Incidentally quiz competitions were held in this studio and visitors could watch on a TV outside. Though we were eliminated in the second round, it gave me exposure to various facets of modern science, and gave me the taste of several gadgets I was eager to know about and watch their workings.

 In the same year, I was encouraged by our Head Sir to participate in a competition where a seminar to be presented with charts and models on a topic on the quest of new energy sources.  He told me to go to library and search for relevant books and magazines to get ideas. There were a few popular science books in our library, though they were in English, which was not my medium of instruction. There was also a Bengali science monthly. From them, the closest realizable model that came to my mind was of a windmill. No sooner I spelt my idea to my Head Sir, he called Kalipadada, our teacher of work education, and requested to help me in making the model. My school had excellent facilities of workshops. It housed three sections, smithy, carpentry and lathe machinery. Kalipadada was in charge of the lathe workshop. He designed the whole model. I was almost a spectator, while he did the machining and built the model of four bladed windmill, which drove a small rotating magnet using pulley and shaft mechanism.  A voltmeter was connected to a coil of copper wires, encircling the magnet. One afternoon I was put on a van-rickshaw (a human driven tricycle with a wooden platform to carry load) with my model for participating the event, which was held in my home town, about 8 km away from my school. My excitement knew no bounds, when with the speeding rickshaw, the blades of the model were also rotating fast and the rotating magnet was making cracking sound (as we find in the generators) shooting the needle of the galvanometer to its extreme right positions.


Now we are living in such a magical world, that I lost my sense of surprise at knowing or hearing any sort of human accomplishment, which were thought to be impossible even in early nineties of the past century. The boundary of science fiction of our childhood days and the real-world happenings is getting blurred day by day. I bear with great fortitude my passive submission to this magical world. But I never imagined the greatest trick that was waiting for me in one sunny morning, which left me stunned and dumbfounded.

The morning was bright and full of sunshine. The festive mood was prevailing everywhere.  Durga puja, the greatest annual festival in our state, was knocking at the door. In my morning shower, I was humming a popular Bengali tune, “Ek jhank pakhider moto kichhu roddur … (A beam of Sun-rays spreading their wings like a flock of birds ..)”. I would be visiting my mother who was recovering from her broken ribs. She had to be admitted to the hospital in our campus.  The doctors advised her complete rest. She had to wear a specially molded guard made of a synthetic fiber wrapped around her chest to keep the broken ribs fixed. Initial hurdle was to get the wrapper done. As during the measurement for making the cast of wax, my mother was so restless, breathless, and writhing with pain, that she had to be admitted to our hospital. Even in that condition she was objecting vehemently by waiving her hands, and was reluctant to lie on the stretcher. That was about ten days ago. Later she got stabilized and the chest guard was finally made. She had been using it, and feeling more comfortable in her movement. In that Morning, she had to go through an USG test of abdomen. She was having breathing problem and the doctors were not able to find any diagnosis of that condition. She had a chest X-Ray the day after admission. But the X-Ray was not very clear due to some movement during imaging. It was planned also before taking her to the diagnostic clinic, which was around 2 Km. from our hospital, there would be another chest X-Ray for her. As she was having occasional breathing problem, an ambulance fitted with oxygen cylinder had been arranged for her. Usually I would visit her early Morning as I was used to carry her breakfast and tea from my residence. In that Morning, she needed to be with an empty stomach. So, I went to visit her after getting ready for my office. I planned to go to my office directly from the hospital. My young friends, Chhotu and Shashaank, would be meeting us in her cabin. They would accompany my mother to the diagnostic clinic. My wife is a doctor. She works in a hospital close to the clinic. She would be joining them from her hospital. Everything looked to me in order and under control. I was in peace, and enjoying the freshness of morning air and sunshine.

For past three weeks, my mother went through terrific experience due to a fall from her bed while sleeping. She told me, she had a sweet dream, and went to her younger days playing with two of her friends. One of them pushed her, and she found herself on the ground wrapped with the mosquito net. Initially she was reluctant to tell anything to anybody. My parents lived in their own house at our home town. My sister with her family also lived quite nearby, and they would regularly visit my parents. For three days, my mother did not mention anything about the fall. She was hoping for a natural remedy. She was always reluctant to visit a doctor and run through a series of tests. Even my father did not know for a whole day. He came to know a day afterward when he noticed my mother was having difficulty in movement. She admitted that she fell from her bed, but asked my father not to tell anyone. She had a dominating personality, specially over my father. So, my father kept quiet. Only when the pain became unbearable, she disclosed it to my sister. My sister immediately called me, “Where is Boudi (sister-in-law)?”

Jhuma was in Kolkata for puja marketing that whole week. I was alone in my residence. It was a Saturday. Next day, I would be going to Delhi for taking a PhD viva examination. I told, “She is in Kolkata. Why?”
“Mother fell down from her bed. She is moving with a lot of difficulties. I am telling her to take rest and engage a cook. She is not listening. She is not able to sleep. Not able to lie down. Yet reluctant to visit a doctor, to get the X-Ray done.”
I told her to give the phone to my mother. My mother responded meekly with a sound of hello. I told her, “Oh! You fell down! Are you feeling pain? Is there any fracture?”
She tried to assure me, “It should be okay. When I move, or stand, I do not feel any pain. Only when I lie down, it is paining too much. I am not able to sleep.”
“Please go to a doctor and get X-Rays done.”
“I do not think, I have anything to do with a fracture. My problem is that for last three days my bowel is not getting cleared. It is so uncomfortable. Only if it gets cleared, I should be completely fit. I tried all kinds of totkas (traditional remedial measures), Isabgol’s husk, Nature Care, Cremafin, nothing worked! I need a good laxative. That is why I asked Mana (my sister) to call Jhuma.”
“Go to a doctor. Get his advice.”
“I will. Today Laltu (my brother-in-law) would be bringing glycerin tube. If it does not work, I will go to a doctor.”
“You need to take rest. Keep a cook. Do not cook by yourselves.”
“I cannot. I feel better working.”
“Do not be stubborn. When you will not be able to move at all, what will happen? Keep a cook immediately and take as much rest as  possible. You might have a fracture. Get the X-Ray done.” I insisted.
I asked my Sister, whether I should cancel my Delhi trip. She told me, “I do not think that would make much difference. We will be taking her to a doctor. The only problem is that she is not willing. I hope now she will cooperate.”
I also called Jhuma and apprized her about the situation. She told me that she had talked with my sister and asked them to get her admitted in a nursing home. She would be visiting my home town before returning back to Kharagpur. I also called my brother. He was quite upset to know about it.
He said, “None told me so.”
“I got it just now. Mother did not want to bother us.”
My brother told me he would be going home next day to visit my mother and take care of her treatment.
We had planned to visit Andaman that year during Puja break with our parents. My parents were very much excited about this trip and were collecting information from all sorts of magazines about those beautiful islands. Occasionally I would get some of those tips from my mother. So, when I heard from my sister about her fall, immediately it struck to me that our trip to Andaman was under a big question mark. It was not that we were apprehensive about such a scenario. But we never thought it would be due to my mother. We were always worried about our Father, as he had his occasional complaints of dizziness and unstable movement. We noticed, before any such trip, his complaints would take a serious turn and he would be pleading to cancel his tickets. However, with some encouragement he would agree to join. But, we had no worry about our mother, as she kept herself fit by doing regular Yoga and Pranayama in the Morning, which usually ran for a session of more than an hour. My mother ardently followed Baba Ramdev’s programs in TV channels, and had complete faith in Pranayama’s preventive and even curative effect in keeping her fit. She had been practicing them for more than ten years, since when she had to go through different tests and was put into several nursing homes about a month. I was abroad in that full year. When I came back, she told me that it was a terrible experience for her. She was almost suffocating in those cylindrical drums of CT and MRI machines. All those tests were unnecessary, as they could not diagnose any disease in her. They were all money-making ploys. By resorting to Yoga and Pranayama, she could lead a normal life. I advised her still to go for regular checkup with the doctors, specially the cardiologist she was consulting then. She did it for a few years, and then declared even the cardiologist acknowledged the fact that she became more than fit, and did not require that many frequent visits. Later she switched to one of our local specialists, who was also a friend of my sister, though her visits were infrequent. As she did not complain any other ailment and carried on with her usual energy in daily activities, we were also less worried about her health. Our worries were mostly centered around our father as he had a major complaint of vertigo, and at times he had to be admitted to nursing homes for a day or two in past few years. Moment I got the news of my mother’s fall, I apprehended that our trip to Andaman might have to be cancelled.

The day after my mother agreed to go through the checkups. She was admitted to a nursing home, and consulted by an orthopedics. They did X-Ray on her back, but apparently could not find any fracture. In the nursing home, they took care of clearing her bowel and she was feeling okay. So, they released her. I came to know the details from Jhuma, after she returned to Kharagpur. Eventually the orthopedician advised rest, and suggested a belt around her waist, which my mother should put on for a few weeks while making any movement. Over the phone, my mother sounded relieved, and even asked whether it was possible for her to join the Andaman trip. I assured her, given the doctor’s advice we would take all necessary measures in the trip.

In the following weekend, I went home to visit my mother. I found her seated on her bed wearing the belt and gossiping with my sister in a lighter mood. Seeing me the first thing she asked, “Will I be able to go to Andaman?” I told her, “Sure. Why not? As there is no fracture, you should be recovering pretty soon. You need to take complete rest.”
She laughed, “The person who came here to deliver the belt, told me “Didimoni! ( An address to a female teacher. My mother was a teacher.) Do not listen to anyone’s junk advice. I checked your X-Ray. Nothing to worry. No fracture. Even you may not require this belt.”
I warned her, “Still you need to take rest and wear the belt.”
She told me, “Only problem is that I am not able to lie down. It is so painful.”
I asked, “Still now!”
She nodded. I was quite bewildered. I had already planned to take her to Kharagpur, where she could be put in proper rest, and if needed, we could easily admit her to our hospital. I told her so. But she was reluctant. My father looked very much worried. He told me, “She is not listening. But she requires a thorough checkup. Get her admitted to a good hospital.”
I told him, “I am planning to take her to Kharagpur. One of Jhuma’s colleagues is a reputed orthopedician. He should be able to treat her. Jhuma also can supervise her treatment. We would carry out all the checkups there, and if needed, get her admitted to a hospital in Kolkata. It appears, she only requires to be rested for a considerable period.”
That night I could see how my mother was writhing with pain and did not sleep at all. Many a time she had to go to the toilet with great effort. Next Morning, she herself told me that she needed to be admitted to a hospital. She would not be able to manage on her own. I asked her, whether it would be possible to travel by a car to Kharagpur. In that case, we would be able to look after her better. She readily agreed. So, I called the travel agency, from whom I used to hire cars. They sent a car in the afternoon. I also asked my father, whether he would be coming with us. He told, “I have some pending works in the bank and post office. I will join later.”
Before leaving, my mother told my father not to worry, and asked him to come to Kharagpur when his pending works were over.
Finally, the orthopedician in Kharagpur informed us that there were two fractures in her ribs. He consulted the same X-Ray plate taken a week ago in our home town. For some reason, previously the diagnosis was not proper. Even the belt suggested by the orthopedician at my home town was of no use, as it was not protecting the ribs fractured. So, she was advised to wear a guard, to be molded specially after taking measurements on her body, that I already mentioned before. I wanted to get my mother admitted to our hospital directly for providing her complete rest. But the superintendent doctor told that without any concrete reason, it would not be possible to get her admitted. Providence must have been listening to our conversation then. Within a day, we had to admit my mother as she was becoming breathless and restless, when the team, assigned for making the mold, came to our residence and tried to take measurements of her chest and ribs. Since then, my mother was in the hospital. My daily routine was to visit her thrice and carry her food prepared at our home. She got quite friendly with two Aiahs (female assistants to a patient), who were looking after her round the clock. First few days, she was put under an oxygen cylinder. My mother told me, “What I require is this cylinder. I feel so better with it. I should have a few in our house. Then I need not come here.”
Her pain got reduced, and was having good sleep in most of the nights. In the meantime, the team again visited her cabin and could take all the necessary measurements and prepared the cast of wax. Three days later, we could get her chest guard. I asked her whether she was feeling better with it. She told me, “I am having good time here.”
She looked quite happy. She loved to talk with my sister, her brother, who lived in our hometown with his daughter and son-in-law, and a few of her close relatives and friends. She talked with her cousin sister, who lived in the place where she spent her childhood. But her communication with my father was very cryptic and rare. In fact, my sister advised me initially not to inform my father about her admission as he would be very much worried and nervous, which I obliged for a few days. Then I told her to apprise him about the situation and ask him not to worry.  I also called my father to assure that everything was under control.
That day I was about an hour and a half late from my usual visit to my mother in the Morning. As I was climbing the stair case of the hospital to visit her cabin, I could find my phone was ringing and my mother was calling me. She was quite eager to see me, “Why so late?”
I said, “As you are not taking breakfast today, I came here after getting ready to go to my office.”
She told me, “There is a good news. Tania (my cousin sister) has a baby son.”
My cousin sister in my hometown was expected. My mother was quite worried and enquiring every day to her brother about the progress. Last evening also she was talking to him and told him, however late at night it may be, he should inform her. She was feeling very happy. I asked her, “Did you have a good sleep?”
“Very much. Actually, I had a happy dream. I dreamt my mother last night. She was caressing my hair.”
Then she became quiet. After a while she hesitantly told me, “Probably I will not be able to go to Andaman. You should cancel my ticket.”
I replied, “I have already cancelled our tickets.”
She got very upset, “Why so? All of you could have made the trip. I thought of asking Mana to come here, and stay with me.”
“We do not want that. Rather all of us will spend here Puja together. All of them will be visiting us here during puja. That is the plan.”
Still I could see, she was feeling very sad and guilty for the cancellation of the trip.
 I told her, “Chhotu and Shashaank would come now to take you to the diagnostic clinic for USG. Before going to the clinic, there will be another chest X-Ray here. Are you ready?  Do not forget to wear your chest guard.”
She laughed, “It looked like an armor, as if I will be going to fight a war.”
Then she said again, “Is it necessary to go? I am feeling quite okay. I should be able to go back to your quarter soon.”
“Your trouble with breathing is worrying the doctors. They could not diagnose the cause. They advised this investigation. We should follow their advice.”
My mother smiled at me, and accepted the verdict. Chhotu and Shashaank came a few minutes later. I gave them the money and bade good bye to my mother, “I will come during the lunch time again.”
I got absorbed in day’s proceedings. I had a meeting with one of my students and a colleague. About an hour later, I called Chhotu, “Is the USG done?”
“Not yet. Jethima’s (aunt) bladder is not full. They gave her water to drink, and we are now waiting for the turn.”
After half an hour Jhuma called me, “Her USG is done. It appears there is a problem in her chest X-Ray done today. So, the doctor is suggesting for a CT. But mother is not willing to go through.”
I told her, “If she does not want, do not pressurize her.”
A few minutes later, she told me, “We are bringing back to her hospital. Will you come?”
I told, “Now? Okay I will be there.”
After a while, Shashaank called me, “Sir, I am with the car. Please come downstairs.”
I apologized to my student and colleague with whom I was discussing, “I have to leave. My mother is in the hospital.”
They were quite surprised to know, as I never mentioned it before. I told them, “She is doing fine. She had broken her ribs, and now she is recovering.”
Shashaank was driving me quite fast to the hospital. I asked him to slow down, “You should not drive with this speed in the campus.”
I found the ambulance was at the step of the hospital, and the doctors were waiting there. No sooner my mother was carried into the emergency room, they rushed there. A green curtain was drawn, and the doctors were treating my mother inside. I was sitting in the bench outside. I knew this procedure. Ten days before my mother came for admission. She was taken to the room, and was performed preliminary investigations then. I was waiting for the curtain to be drawn open, and my mother would be taken to her cabin. Jhuma was inside. A few minutes later, she came outside looking very troubled. She told me, “I do not know what will happen? Her condition becomes very critical.”
I was dumb founded. I rushed to the room, and found a doctor was frantically giving message to my mother’s chest. There was a machine where a red dot was jumping here and there. I was looking at that dot and hoping that it would show all the energy of resurgence. But it did not. It became flat and dead.

When everybody left the room, I went to see my mother, still warm sleeping in peace without any sign of pain in her face. Probably my mother had no idea that she was leaving this world without a word of good bye to anyone. Within a few minutes without giving any notice, the great magician vanished my mother, and left me mesmerized. He turned my world upside down – a world without my mother.

10/9/2017