Category: Man versus machine

Note counting machines – Boon or bane?

Note counting machines are relatively new to India. Large wads of currency were earlier counted by hand and verified by another bank employee before they were banded together. And finally counted once at the counter before they were handed to the customer.

Note counting machines were introduced in Indian banks to reduce the time and effort and errors involved in this exercise. More trust was reposed in the machines ability to be accurate than the humans. The initial machines were edge counters, but the newer models feed the entire note and also verifies against counterfeiting. These note counters are also found in ATMs and payment kiosks.

But the way an Indian interacts with these machines gives an insight into the uneasy relationship between man and machine.

Observe a bank teller when you are withdrawing cash. He takes a precounted wad of 100 bills and feeds it to the machine.

And more often than not it shows a few notes less or more. The teller then continues to feed it to the machine till it reads 100 and then hands it to you.

Every time this happens to me, I start wondering. What is going on in the mind of the teller?

Is he so confident that the bundle has 100 notes and the machine wrong that he recounts it till the machine agrees? If he is so confident on manual counting, why not just hand over the bundle?

If the machine is capable of making mistakes, as is evident, how can he accept the final 100 to be correct and not the initial 98?

If these machines are not trustworthy, why buy them at all and add another step in the counting process?

Are the ATMs and cash deposit machines also prone to error?

How do banks trust the ATMs and cash deposit machines to flawlessly identify the denomination and the quantity? What mental stress and agony these guys must be enduring?

This just proves that we Indians habitually distrust machines as this interaction is very new to us. The younger generation reposes more faith in machines. The conclusion would be: If you automate, do it fully. No human intervention or interaction. Use humans only to service the machines, else we will just add another cog in the process.

Shashi Tharoor is wrong. Indians cannot innovate.

This post was long pending and lazily taking form. But a particular incident accelerated its publication – a few tweets exchanged between me and Dr.Shashi Tharoor MP, Diplomat etc.

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[I have been trying to hear his speech but have been unable to do so due to a tech glitch. Not sure if it is at my end (I stay in India) or the host site. Will keep trying. In the meantime I checked tharoor.in for the speech. But they haven’t put it up yet.]

Now the meat of this post. At the outset I cannot accept a superficial opinion of how well India is innovating based on an armchair expert’s understanding of what innovation is. Such well meaning people have unwittingly caused more harm than good. We have been subjected to this lie for centuries. A look at our history (err-mythology?) and our text books which perpetuate this lie are proof. This lie which has been bandied about recklessly for centuries has made us complacent. What we need instead is a jolt of reality, a shocker to wake us from this reverie.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor is basically a well read, well educated, widely traveled diplomat, author and nouveau politician of certain repute. The fact that his only claim to the Indian tag is ancestry and matrimony may be the only dampener. That not withstanding, he should, like many other celebs and politicians, realize that they are basically ‘media magnets’ at such events (Launch of the India Innovation Institute – University of Toronto) . Not experts on each and every institute and organization they inaugurate. What if Mallika Sherawat assumes she is an expert on cancer just because she once inaugurated a cancer hospital.

Why did Shashi Tharoor make this statement? What makes him and his ilk experts on innovation? Why do they mask our lack of innovative spirit as globalization? Is innovation so simple and pedestrian to define and judge? Has such careless talk of big, earth shattering innovations scared and prevented the Indian tinkerer from experimenting? Have such references set the bar too high? What is innovation?

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Thank You – Fiskars

Tailoring. Would you call tailoring, skill or technology? It is a subtle combination of both. If we are talking of custom made clothing, you still need a human to skilfully take measurements, mark and cut. Then technology takes over and helps sew it all together. But before sewing was mechanized, there were seamstresses who possessed the skill of sewing and knotting.

But not so long ago in India, tailors had to have another skill. A skill which would take several years to master. This was the skill of cutting cloth. Not the measuring or the marking, but the very simple act of using a scissor on a piece of cloth. But how did this become a skill? We all do a pretty good job of it today on the very first try.

We Indians never thought of scissors as a machine deserving a high degree of precision. For us it was just 2 pieces of some metal, sharpened at some angle and connected with some bolt or rivet. There were only 2 sizes available for the 2 well known uses. A bi-metal giant, 10-12 inch long, for tailoring and a narrow one for cutting hair.

The bolt or rivet would always loosen after the first few uses and this was when you needed skill. Lots and lots of it. It really was an art, needing all the dexterity possible by human hands – and then some more.

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