What I learnt at Google I/O 2017

The biggest was the realization that whilst on one end of the planet there were discussions around Tensor Flow and AI on chip, the same day glancing through the various news papers in my own home land we were still busy holding expos, international university recruitment seminars, immigration consultants promising a future abroad and various FB posts around awards and shields to the so called elite in various walks of life. A regular day in the neighborhood.

I didn’t see any stories on patents filed or any net new innovation or any Pakistani doing some thing remarkable some where in the fields of science, engineering, technology or education at home in Pakistan.

I did read about power outages and how our political regime had been told to attend a conference in Saudi Arabia while using taxpayer dollars in valuable FX that we don’t have a lot of. I wonder if some of them came to I/O it would have done them good. They would have learnt lessons on how technology is a force for democratization. But alas, they only believe in the democracy that funds their pockets.

We are doomed because of hero worship and because most of us don’t know any better. The ones masquerading or with access to resources have the scales tipped in their favor and the AWAM at best is sinking in debt.

We are truly wasting our time. But I digress.

The first thing I learnt was that the Halal and Kosher meals put Muslims and Jews in the same line up for food every day, twice a day, for three days. Else where in the world major differences of religion/political affiliation or just pure lack of knowledge would pit these two crowds against each other. But not at I/O. It was fascinating to observe that the best of civility comes through when people have a base line education and thus respect and an attitude to focus on what is important. Yes I said it right the first time, Line up, every one of the 7000 people got in line to collect their lunches and snacks.

In this case most people were at I/O with the dreams, hopes or aspirational targets of being innovators or they were innovators who were showcasing what they had done. The common thread binding them was a desire to learn or a desire to share their learning’s. Beautiful things happen when such is the case. When humility is the base line.

No one was there to show off their new Bunto jora, or to arrive in their new Mercedes and put up a show. The clear difference was that even with an all access pass I took a Lyft to the venue and walked the 2 miles to the entrance. What I/O does so well was that it democratizes all aspects of access. Every one is the same, every one has a common goal, there is shared learning no one is better than any one, only people who are willing to help others and their success is measured by the impact of their work.

This post is not about the 30+ big announcements Google made, those can be well, Googled. This is about all the things no one said and the things Pakistanis and entrepreneurs need to focus on.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of wealth and wealthy people, but it was subtle. When Fei Fei Li was introduced and came out on stage the only thing I marveled at was the introduction that described what she did at Google.

Chief Scientist of AI/ML, Google Cloud it was about 5 minutes into her talk I realized the size of the Diamond on her ring, clearly visible on the giant screen only because it was catching the beautiful morning sun at the Shoreline Amphitheater. I do not intend for her to be apologetic for being successful. But the thing is, I would be equally happy if half the Banto wearing aunties could just spell Stanford as opposed to being Associate Professor of Computer Science and Head of AI.

The thing is, the rest of the world has moved on, they are conquering different beasts, whilst we are stuck in the wrong kind of game. Our aspirational target is the diamond, but not the hard work that goes in to being successful to produce minds like Fei Fei Li’s . We are happy with our under invoicing and our non tax paying nature, easily justifying it to our selves why it is ok to do so. We are hard at work but at these small time cons.

Plus we are easy to judge “she must have married rich” btw her husband Silvio Savarese, is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and director of the SAIL-Toyota Center for AI Research at Stanford with research interests including computer vision, robotic perception and machine learning J . Perhaps the reverse could also hold true in this case.

An other key component of I/O was that seasoned entrepreneurs with multi million and billion dollar exits were in the code lab sessions and sand box sessions asking questions as aggressively as the next guy. They may have done it before but the still hunger for more, it is this drive – that separates them from the rest of us.

I also learnt that the world is moving away from ride hailing service clones and airbnb clones and away from drop ship technologies. People are trying to solve challenges of speed and challenges around bringing the next billion people online. People whose first device will be a low end smart phone, whose needs, wants and experiences will be fundamentally different from the vast majority of the English speaking internet users from the West. So its time to solve for that challenge. There is no need for yet an other ratings app, a ticket app, an e-commerce comparison site etc etc.

There is still hope, Pakistani innovators have done a phenomenal job in the valley no less. But we need more of those, they have been successful in spite of their challenges and not because of any concessions being afforded to them for being Pakistani.

For our part of the world we need technologies that help bringing affordable health care, technologies that exploit smart phones to make remote health care affordable and universal. Technologies that bring education to the masses in the languages they know already. Technologies that solve problems vs technologies that incrementally make life better. The next billion are not looking for incremental change, they are looking for fundamental change. Lets put our energies to solve for things that address those challenges.

I was compelled to share my views because this morning the first thing I saw on TV was a feature on college students from a tier 2 city on an equally local/regional channel around an exhibition the students were doing. Predominantly girls, they had used recycled house hold goods(boxes, rope, plastic spoons) to make models of rural and urban scenes and an Army camp. The first thing I thought of was how badly we had let down these kids because every one of them being interviewed shared how proud they were of our armed forces (no reason to not be proud) and how their camp and model showed how brave they were(I still didn’t get how a stick and paper tent showed that). Not a single one of them could explain what their exhibition was about.

A Project of this nature would be apt for the 4th grade not to be on TV no less and that too at the college level. We have a long road ahead. It has to start some where. The world has a clear and distinct lead on us so unless we use technology, common sense and a whole sale educational and political reform to bridge the gap, we will not even be qualified to run call centers in the next few years because AI and ML would have dibs on that work too.







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