A trip to Bengaluru, Robo Revolution workshop

“All’s well that ends well”

  Little did I know that this is going to be the moral of every trip that I set upon until this trip to Bengaluru. As a hobbyist, maker and robotics enthusiast I was fortunate enough to qualify for the “Robo Revolution” workshop organised by Swissnex India, Consulate General of Switzerland and Workbench Projects on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence hosted at Workbench Projects maker space in Bengaluru, India from 12th to 15th August 2015. The first in the series of this workshop saw a participation of around 40 from various parts of India. Joining me was my friend and colleague.

  Our experience of long train journeys and our work schedule tempted us to fly to Bengaluru. It all began with the flight getting delayed by an hour and half and that offset set a chain of events for the night. Our stay for the duration of the workshop was organised at a community centre which had strict rules regarding entry. No one was allowed to enter in the night after 10:00pm and before 6:00am in the morning. We managed to convince them to keep it open till mid night especially for us. As we sat in the waiting area and saw the clock tick by from 9:00pm to 10:00pm our hopes of accommodations diminished exponentially like the graph of cot. Our flight took off from Mumbai at 10.30pm, by then we were expecting to reach Bengaluru.

  We landed in Bengaluru at midnight. 15 minutes later we were out of the airport with our luggage looking for means to travel to the city which stood about 35kms away from the airport. At a distance we spotted some buses waiting. Upon enquiring at the counter, we were informed of the bus no which would take us very close to our accommodations at M G Road. We hoped on and waited another 10mins before the bus was full. The bus seemed to take its own time, partly because our lost hope and partly because of the no of stops it took. About 1:30 in the night we reach the “Aashirvad community centre”. In a small campus it hosted, a garden, the main building three floors tall and few rooms arranged in a chawl fashion on the outside. The gate wasn’t locked, for a moment we hoped it was kept open for us only to find out that everything else in the campus was locked. As we went in, we saw light in one of the rooms on the outside. We went to the room and knocked. A guy opened the door. As it turned out he along with three others in the room were there for some training program and didn’t know whom to contact. One of them called someone who didn’t pick up. We explored the campus in the middle of the night for any door that would welcome us. 20 minutes later we walk out of the campus and came to the main road. We glanced at each other with that look of “Now what?”

  We started browsing our phones for booking a hotel. As we sat around the tree along the road, many cabs passed by each one eyeing us hopefully. About 15mins later we decided on a few hotels and started making calls to enquire. We felt things were in control until a policeman rode straight to us on his bike. He questioned our lonely presence. We tried to explain to him the whole situation but realised the circumstances were against us. I mean who wants to tell a policeman a story this big in the middle of the night. He warned us of threats and attacks and set us afoot. Apparently he was also talking to phone on someone and had been tipped of our presence. Within minutes we took a taxi and asked the guy to drop us to a hotel which isn’t expensive. The taxi guy took advantage of our desperation and asked for a hefty cost of the ride assuring that he would find the right accommodation for us. He took us about 5kms away from our location and we had to visit multiple hotels until we found the right one. By the time we reached hotel and checked-in it was past 3 in the morning. We went straight to the room and slept for what was remaining of the night. Next morning we checked out and reached Aashirvad.

  The four day workshop was an amalgamation of learning, fun, excitement, panic and confusion. It started with a welcome address and an ice-breaker session which made us more comfortable with one another. We were divided into groups of 5-6. Later our mentors and guides Anurag and Raghav from Autonomous Systems Lab, ETH, Zurich took over and briefed us with their work in the lab. We then moved through various sessions on Arduino and kinematics. Everything seemed perfect except for the lunch which felt too exotic for India. But it was the first day and the hope was still on for a better menu from freshmenu.

  The second day saw sessions on Probabilistic based approach for localisation. Raghav took us through the various stages of the approach. We were then asked to decide on the application that we would build. By this time we were provided with electronic components and a Thymio, a ready-made robot platform. The options provided to us were to implement 3 application of localisation using our own robot or digital art application using Thymio robot. Post lunch which was once again exotic but better than the previous day, we discussed through each application and other opinions that came across the table. By the evening of 2nd day we decided to make a selfie robot, a robot which would roam around and when picked up it would take your selfie if you smile. Amit was the only person in the group familiar with CAD design and hence he started working on the design of the robot. Ajith and Dinesh started interfacing the camera module and Arduino. The evening saw a networking session over barbeque and drinks. The rains and the music chilled the atmosphere to savour the grilled chicken and various other recipes served by chef Vindya. This turned out to be the most interesting part so far. I was quite fascinated by the taste of one of the chicken dishes. With my recent endeavour in cooking, I decided to ask Vindya the recipe. In the conversation that followed brought out a huge surprise for both of us. As it turned out before moving to Bengaluru, about 6 years ago, she used to stay in Mumbai and in the same locality where I stay now. Later in the night we met our friends currently in Bengaluru over dinner and had a nice get together.

  The third day began a bit late for everyone. As Prajwal and Suraj helped Amit with the design, Ajith and Dinesh were still struggling with the camera module. Venkat was busy half-managing the entire space since day 1 and we would seek him whenever we required anything. Our robots design were not yet ready to be laser cut and I could not start with the programming until it was done. I enquired with Amit and he said it would be done in 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes grew to 6 hours and with the assistance of Pavan, an engineer with WP, we were able to get the designs ready and cut in the evening. We then assembled the robot and found that the wheels were small and would have to be cut once again. On the other hand Ajith and Dinesh were unable to interface the camera. Later in the evening, about 10 of us who were staying at Aashirvad gathered along with Anurag and Raghav for dinner.

  On the last day everyone came early in a panic mode realising it’s the day of exhibition. With the failure to interface the camera we decided to put the phone on the selfie-bot, a plan which we had earlier rejected with the hope that we would be able to interface the camera module with the Arduino. This bought another challenge for us. The bot was not designed to hold the phone. Fortunately we managed to put the phone on with the help of rubber bands, a tweak that will still look good. By 2.00pm our selfie-robot was ready. Post lunch, I started with programming. In an hour the programming was done and it was operating perfectly when connected with a computer.

  The exhibition had started and people started pouring in. The problem we realised was that the 9V battery wasn’t able to take the load of both motors running simultaneously which made the programming board reset every time the motors start moving. Fortunately I was able to find a quick fix. I plugged the Arduino into a 5V power bank which I would use for charging my phone and left the 9V battery to run the motors. It was a eureka movement for everyone as we saw the selfie robot working independently. Finally everything was working. For the next hour and half the selfie robot interacted and entertained people in the exhibition clicking selfies of everyone who smiled at it. In no time, the robot became the sensation of the space. A senior academician from IEEE had the first selfie of his life clicked by the selfie robot.

  The conclusion ceremony had an activity where participants gave certificate to and spoke about what they know about the person. Later a cake cutting ceremony and some group photos saw the last light of the evening.

I am grateful to Anupama, Pavan for having this wonderful setup and encouraging the maker movement. Thank you Swathi for co-ordinating, keeping us informed and reimbursing the travel expenses. Thank you Pavan (PS) for helping with the design and fabrication of the robot. You are the commander-in-chief of the army of machines at the space. Thank you Mala for getting me addicted to your tea. Thank you Satish for capturing this journey. A special thanks to Venkat, the search bar of the space. He knows where the stuff is. My heartfelt thanks to Anurag and Raghav for increasing our probability of implementing probabilistic based localisation on robots. Thank you makers of Thymio robot. I am grateful to Aashirvad community centre for comfortable accommodations. All of this would not have been possible without the efforts of Navya, Maitree and Balz at Swissnex India. Thank you guys and I extend my regards to the Swiss government for supporting the initiative. Not to forget, thank you Freshmenu for providing exotic dishes for Lunch. Every day for those 20 minutes I would feel like I am eating in some European country. A special thanks to the person who made the choice of cookies. As you would have noticed the sweet and salty flavour was the favourite and would exhaust quicker than ginger and the spicy flavour. Something to remember and order more for the next event. Thank you Vindya for the amazing barbeque menu. Thank you to all the participants and visitors for coming forward and collaborating. Last but not the least a big thanks to all my team members Amit, Ajith, Dinesh, Prajwal, Suraj, Venkat and the selfie bot. In the end all’s well that ends well.

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the escape from the end of the world (part 2/2)

From three they were thirteen now, from utter despair it was glittering happiness and their anxious minds sung harmonious rhymes. They reached their destiny and had every reason to celebrate. Not long until the three had enjoyed the mesmerizing beauty of the roaring coast did their glittering eyes met troubled glances. Their hearts ran cold and they stood there like the statue of the mermaid frozen to eternity as they began to realise the silence of their folks. Fear wasn’t just within them, it was all around.

The cause was lost in the moment. No more was it the whole new welcoming world they met on arrival. The guards at the coast had warned their folks of the danger of being around the coast at such a time. The night turned darker as they began a search for shelter. Finally, there was a place that could provide them shelter. There was no carrier around except the one they had arrived in. Except for two who preferred to walk the others hopped in. A carrier supposed to carry three was now carrying eleven. The shelter wasn’t far and they reached in no time.

Barely had all of them made out of the carrier and into the open air once again did they realise that the shelter was closed for the night. They tried to call out but it was all in vain. The thirteen grouped once again to ponder upon a place for them to take shelter for the night. Meanwhile the driver of the carrier was infuriated with their behaviour.

Then one amongst them placed a call for help to his kinsmen who lived in the city, a call which could have asked for more questions than answers. Amongst the confusion of different opinions, it was decided that they take shelter at his kinsmen place. The carrier was now carrying thirteen and the driver. The void silence in the carrier was slowly filling with hope as they travelled for a last time. As others wondered the happenings of the night, one amongst them frequently insisted to go to “Pankaj”.

Finally after quite some time of travel they reached the place. The kinsmen were waiting for their arrival. All of them entered the house with heads bent down more in guilt than gratitude. They slept for what remained of the night and were greeted with tea in the morning. They thanked the host and left the house still wondering what had just happened. Just a week earlier they had travelled from different kingdoms and barely knew each other. And now they leave with memories that will last with them forever. That was the beauty of the night.

the escape from the end of the world (part 1/2)

Amongst the silent streets of Nalanchira echoed the laughs of three odd gentlemen walking their way out of misery and chaos. It was past midnight and the oxford of the south was puzzled at the vocabulary of these men. The empty roads wore a perilous look and the dark gaze of the clouds watched their solemn efforts to walk. The street lamps held down their heads in utter despair and houses bore an unwelcoming look.

It was their last night and it was decided. They had fought their way out from the guardian of the end of the world into the wilderness of the night. It was time to rejoice and they were headed for the sea. They were to meet their friends at the sea. It was a long way for the sea and yet their warm souls sparked the way towards their only hope. Despite their loneliness, the joys were endless. The chilled air froze a misty recollection of their life. It was very rarely that the trees of Nalanchira got to see their fellow life forms at this time. They carried on.

After some time it was sparkling colours red and blue at a distance. A rush of adrenaline turned their laughter to silence. Apparently they were not alone anymore. The source grew closer and closer until a point where it stopped right beside them. It was a carrier. There were guards sitting inside the carrier. They were bold and strong. They gazed at the three like an eagle gazing at its prey. One of them spoke with utter confidence and asked to justify the presence of these three men at such a time. A series of words exchanged ears and finally the guards left them alone to pursue their freedom.

They were alone yet again and growing tired of the walk. At a distance they spotted a carrier, one which could take them to the seas. They met the driver of the carrier. He was a fat man and his words spoke wisdom. He agreed to take the trio to the seas in his carrier and off they zoomed for the seas.

Inside the carrier the three waited in anticipation as the carrier blazed its way in the still night. Finally they reached. The coast was brightly lit welcoming them to a whole new world. There were people making preparations for ceremony and guards patrolling the area. The cold breeze from the sea smelled of success. The waves smashed with vigour celebrating their success. Finally they were united.

Does this make sense?

Apart from the fact that writing makes no sense when you start to write randomly, it also gives you a sense of satisfaction that you are writing something. Writing often can stream your thoughts and take you from one dimension to other. A moment ago I was thinking what to write about, later I started writing and now my mind flows to wonder why people write. At times I wonder why the existence of humans makes the world more artificial. How is it that the level of smartness between humans and any other living animal varies on such a large scale that human can overpower any animal on this world. If we have evolved from apes where is the link between humans and apes? Something like an ape with the smartness of humans or a human with the smartness of the ape. If any such link were to exist, what happened to that link, where is it lost? Was it destroyed by the apes or the human? If so is the current generation not a link to the future sapiens? Which eventually implies that someday we shall be replaced by our future generations? Hold on, isn’t that the feeling deeply embedded in our generations. The feeling that we are so smarter than our parents and grandparents and the fact that we start to hate them as we grow up. Which makes me wonder, why do we have this feeling? Oh! My bad, of course, we are humans and with that comes the potential smartness of domination. A highly likely cause of why we will destroy our own kind.

Information saturation.

  It’s the age of information. It’s the age of knowledge. Inquisitiveness has driven human to explore possibilities. As a result, we have discovered and invented. According to a research by scientists at the University of Southern California in 2002, humankind has stored more than 295 billion gigabytes (or 295 exabytes) of data since 1986 and that is just the stored one. The total knowledge known to us would be a lot more than that.

  At this point we are in an age of information saturation. A proportion of 7 billion minds is still inventing and discovering. Today, there may be quite a few gigabytes of information being updated every day. Two years from now we may have a couple of terabytes each day. This makes me wonder, can we remember all of it? What is it going to be used for? But then not everybody has to know all of it. Still, what we fail to notice is that we are building the database of basics. These basics are, as termed by academicians are, the concepts we should know. These basics lay the foundation of our syllabus. The basics make their way into our curriculum. The progress in knowledge discovery is reflected in academics but what we fail to see is human mind has limitations.

  To site examples, an engineer who graduated in the 70’s had to know FORTRAN and COBOL. The engineers who graduate today have to master at least 2 languages and should know almost all of them. High school graduates today should know everything that Newton, Einstein, Bohr and every other scientist knew together. It took scientists years to learn what students learn in a year today. Today’s young generations have to learn more in less time. As a result, students today are graduating with half-baked knowledge.

  Then, is there an option? Yes, academic interests should be streamlined at an early stage. I should be asked to make a decision before getting into college. I shouldn’t be learning what I don’t like if it is not necessary. In such a case 4 things can happen

       1. I take a stream of my interest and I’m satisfied.

       2. I take a stream of my interest and I’m not satisfied.

       3. I forced myself to take a stream under parental or peer pressure and I’m not satisfied.

       4. I forced myself to take a stream under parental or peer pressure and I’m satisfied.

After joining a course, by the end of a year you get an idea of where you belong. If you are case 1 and 4 then lucky you or your decision. You will enjoy your stay.

If you are case 2 you still have a choice to drop out and select a new stream and it won’t be too late. Although a possibility exists that you like the stream but not the way of learning. The Indian education system is something like that. In an era of applications, your entire childhood is spent on learning in theory. There is very less of practical aspect. There are greater chances of remembering what you did, than what you read.

If you are case 3 you are among the majority of students joining demanding graduate courses such as engineering or medical. In such situations you should drop out. If there is parental pressure, you should convince your parents or ask someone to do it. If they are not convinced, show them 3 idiots. May be it will work. If they are still not convinced then you were born in the wrong place. In any such case, you have to get out of there as soon as possible. You cannot spare being and knowing that you are in the wrong place.

  Majority of the students today are dissatisfied either because of the way of learning or because of their streams. This is reflected in their academics and they tend to somehow get done with it. Every year a set of students graduate with dissatisfaction and end up in places they don’t like and yet we hope to be a superpower in 2020.

Are we independent?

  The other day someone questioned me, are we really independent? This got me into thinking “are we?” Although the very notion of independence in an informal sense varies from person to person, in general it’s the right to express you.

  The idea of our nation’s independence still eludes me. Before independence there were people from outside the border controlling the people inside the border. Now there are people inside the border controlling the people inside the border. The irony is that every other thing except for this has either remained same or has increased. We have the highest levels of corruption, illiteracy and poverty and yet we are independent. We cannot guarantee our own safety and yet we are independent. We are independent when I have to write such a thing on Independence Day and we are independent when the people inside the border are fighting against the people inside the border. Isn’t it chaos?

  A single rule book cannot define independence. Independence does not liberates, rather restricts. When I’m the only person in the world, I have my own rules and I’m independent. When there are two, both of them have their own rules. If they were to co-exist, their independence is restricted. Imagine a population of more than 1.2 billion with their own rules. Imagine you in that 1.2 billion. It’s like you have to restrict yourself with 1.2 billion rules.

  Humanity has agreed to coexist in a society with a set of rules to which we abide. These rules help us live peacefully as opposed to law of the jungle. Independence and peaceful co-existence cannot exist together. And until then “are we independent?”