Open Source vs Proprietary AI

At a discussion we held in June last year, someone threw the cat among the pigeons by saying that Open Sourcing AI is like giving everyone a nuclear bomb. It’s not a point of view I agree with, given the enablement that generative AI tools provide, but it is a complex issue, with a spectrum of benefits and challenges.

  1. Democratization vs. Monopolization: Open-source AI democratizes access to AI capabilities and spurs innovation, but can also expose AI models to misuse and security vulnerabilities. Closed-source AI safeguards against misuse and protects commercial intellectual property, but it risks concentrating power within high-resource organizations, leading to potential monopolistic consequences. The question arises: How can we strike a balance here?
  2. Security Considerations: Open-source AI, while promoting innovation, presents challenges in patching vulnerabilities, leaving the AI system potentially unsecured. Conversely, closed-source AI allows for identified vulnerabilities to be fixed and safety features to be implemented. The question: How can we ensure the security of AI systems while promoting innovation?
  3. Bias and Performance Disparities: Open-source AI enables the study of risks that can reduce bias and disparate performance for marginalized populations. Essentially, these systems get stress-tested. However, the question remains: How can we ensure that closed-source AI doesn’t inadvertently perpetuate bias and performance disparities?
  4. Future Capabilities: Closed-source AI safeguards against potentially harmful future capabilities. The question then becomes: How can we ensure that open-source AI doesn’t inadvertently lead to the misuse in the future?

The balance between open-source and closed-source AI will continue to be a point of contention, and frankly, we need open-source AI to democratise access, enable development of tools that proprietary AI tools choose not to focus on because of lack of commercial viability. The challenge lies in finding mechanisms for ensuring beneficial usage of AI, and preventing harmful use cases.

Perhaps the only thing more complex than AI itself is deciding how to govern it…

Deepfakes and elections

Two things stood out for me from our discussion on deep fakes and democracy on Wednesday:
Firstly, Gautham Koorma pointed out that detection of deep fakes becomes much difficult when they’re published on social media, because platforms transcode the content. With minor modifications, comparing hashes can become fruitless exercise. This means that on the whole, detecting deep fakes on social media is not possible with 100% accuracy, even if the deep fake is being compared with an existing dataset. Holding safe harbor to ransom is thus not the right approach.
Secondly, where’s the accountability for the perpetrators? Shivam Shankar Singh emphasised that even where cases were filed against politicians for disinformation by the election commission, and even though those were few and far between, they were eventually dropped or withdrawn. On social media, as is also true on the internet, especially with the usage of surrogates for disinformation, attributing accountability is tough. The way regulation is planning out now, it appears that there are going to be no penalties for misinformation, and indeed deep fakes: only for platforms for not taking them down. Of course another critical point that Shivam pointed out was that political parties flood the election commission with complaints, and it becomes very difficult for them to deal with them. There’s a clear capacity issue. Passing the buck to online platforms is easier… Because it’s not the ECs problem anymore.

On OpenAI and warfare

OpenAI has quietly changed its terms to allow it to work with Military and for Warfare. This is a worrying development, especially since OpenAI has scraped a large amount of publicly available data from across the world. While it says that its tech should not be used for harm, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used for purposes that aid military and warfare.

Now how does usage of AI in the military and warfare impact India? I don’t want to be alarmist here but IF this is an indication of intent, some thoughts:
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  1. No data protection: India’s data protection law has an exemption for publicly available personal data. It’s usage in surveillance, training and strategic planning while microtargeting some people is possible. We made this mistake with the data protection law.
  2. Generative AI can be used for analysing large datasets to detect and identify vulnerabilities and strategies for cyberattacks
  3. Data of identifiable security personnel is particularly susceptible. For example, location data of security personnel on patrol. Remember the Strava data leak? It can be used for simulation exercises and mission planning. Strava had patrol data in conflict areas because soldiers were using it.
  4. Can be used to develop and train autonomous reconnaissance systems
  5. Facial data can be used for target recognition

So what can India do?

  1. Amend or issue rules restricting the usage of publicly available personal data for AI, or for military and warfare purposes.
  2. Discourage the usage of foreign AI tools by military and defence personnel
  3. More resources towards developing Indian AI (we’re already doing a good job)
  4. Identify what data of Indian citizens has been collected by OpenAI. Subject them to technical scrutiny with respect to datasets, with the option of forcing them to delete datasets that can compromise Indians.

Our openness cannot be our weakness. Again, what I’m writing here is meant to be something to think about. We don’t have clarity on openAI’s intent & we really shouldn’t trust blindly. The onus is on them to assure users & countries where it’s in use, and on our government to seek information to ensure we’re protected

Usage of AI for military and warfare

OpenAI usage for defence, military, spying and surveillance? OpenAI has quietly changed its terms to allow it to work with Military and for Warfare.

This is a worrying development, especially since OpenAI has scraped a large amount of publicly available data from across the world. While it says that its tech should not be used for harm, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used for purposes that aid military and warfare .

Now how does usage of AI in the military and warfare impact India? I don’t want to be alarmist here but IF this is an indication of intent, some thoughts:

1. No data protection: India’s data protection law has an exemption for publicly available personal data. It’s usage in surveillance, training and strategic planning while microtargeting some people is possible. We made this mistake with the data protection law.
2. Generative AI can be used for analysing large datasets to detect and identify vulnerabilities and strategies for cyberattacks
3. Data of identifiable security personnel is particularly susceptible. For ex, location data of security personnel on patrol. Remember the strava data leak? It can be used for simulation exercises and mission planning. Strava had patrol data in conflict areas because soldiers were using it.
4. Can be used to develop and train autonomous reconnaissance systems
5. Facial data can be used for target recognition

So what can India do?
1. Amend or issue rules restricting the usage of publicly available personal data for AI, or for military and warfare purposes.
2. Discourage the usage of foreign AI tools by military and defence personnel
3. More resources towards developing Indian AI (we’re already doing a good job)
4. Identify what data of Indian citizens has been collected by OpenAI. Subject then to technical scrutiny wrt datasets, with the option of forcing them to delete datasets that can compromise Indians.

Our openness cannot be our weakness

Again, what I’m writing here is meant to be something to think about. We dont have clarity on openAI’s intent, but we really shouldn’t trust blindly. Onus on them to assure users & countries where it’s in use & on our govt to seek information to ensure we’re protected. Link

On streaming and censorship

Wrt Netflix removing Annapoornani, why are we even surprised? This is the rule of the mob, and we’ve seen this before when theaters used to be attacked in India, for films that, at times, people hadn’t even watched, but came along because everyone loves a riot. As someone who had once participated in one once told me, beheti ganga mein haath dho liye.

It’s the duty of the law to protect freedom of expression, but more often than not, actions taken to enforce “public order” works in favor of mobs. There appears to be nothing illegal about the movie.

There also isn’t a law for censoring online content yet, but I expect that India will soon have one, especially with the draft Broadcast Law in place.

The IT Rules exist, and there are “self regulatory organisations” that have gone beyond what the IT rules even mandate… but the problem with the IT Rules 2021 is that they create a legal structure for regulating online streaming without the backing of a law. Essentially, they’re not legally valid, and news organisations, which are also covered under these rules, have challenged them in court.

What we’re also seeing is the expected capitulation of streaming services, but that was to be expected: they haven’t challenged the rules in court and they’re unlikely to push back against any kind of bullying or censorship, even though there is no law in India that allows such censorship of streaming services, which are essentially private viewing.

It’s no surprise that Netflix has taken the movie down. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do this again in the future, or if others also follow suit.

Two ideas for social media platforms to protect users who are receiving targeted abuse.

A journalist for another publication just rang me up asking about what can be done in India for addressing online abuse against the LGBTQI community. I really don’t have community specific solutions, but I do feel that there are two product changes that social media platforms can make in order to provide users with agency to protect themselves against targeted abuse online:

  1. Safe Mode: Sometimes targeted abusive campaigns last for an hour, sometimes for a week. For a user, a large part of their hurt comes from abuse they are unable to ignore because they’re being tagged, or their posts are being commented on. Platforms should allow a safe mode for accounts, which they can enable with just one click, which prevents others from tagging them or commenting on all of their social media updates. Essentially gives them the freedom to post updates, but blocks out the world so that they’re not exposed to hateful conduct.
  2. Targeted abuse reporting: Reporting abuse on platforms is often a struggle for users. Twitter now involves multiple tedious steps, as if they intend to discourage reporting. Imagine if you have to report each abusive account one by one, and highlight each abuse from that account. It’s painful for people to read such updates. One approach that platforms can take is allow users to report mass targeting, and define a period during which they were being targeted, so that all updates and accounts targeting them can be scrutinised for abuse by platforms.

Also, it’s important for platforms to have reviewers of abuse that understand local languages and local lingo, because often abuse can be in a manner that person who doesn’t understand the local culture will not be able to comprehend.

On the Broadcast Bill and its impact on online streaming

I was on an excellent panel discussion a couple of days ago organised by CCAOI, about India’s Broadcast Bill which seeks to change the way online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are regulated, and create a framework for regulating online news in India.

The Bill is regressive and will restrict freedom on speech both in online video and online news, especially forcing content platforms and news publishers to create an internal body for censorship content before it’s made available to the public. It seeks to regulate online content in public interest which is an unreasonable and unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.

A few things to note…

  1. The Broadcast Bill exists because there is a need by the government to legitimise the regulation of streaming services that was included in the IT Rules 2021, which are illegal and not backed by law. This is probably to address court cases against the IT Rules that challenge their legality because the IT Act doesn’t enable such regulation of online streaming.
  2. MIB wants to ensure that it retains all jurisdiction over streaming services and online news, and other government departments like the Ministry of Health don’t start creating their own regulations. There was also a version of the Telecom Bill wherein the department of Telecom tried to take over jurisdiction of online streaming
  3. The Broadcast Bill will end up replacing the existing regulatory framework for online news and streaming
  4. Online streaming is not broadcast. It is private viewing on personal devices, and content is pulled by the user. This is censorship of private video consumption, and there’s no valid reason for this regulation.
  5. Content Evaluation Committees will act as private censors within media companies, and will apply to online news.
  6. There are 67 areas for which rules will be made. The Bill gives the executive disproportionate freedom to make rules. Expect regular rule creation from MIB if this Bill is passed. We’re seeing this with the Data Protection Bill as well, and will see it with the Digital India Act
  7. Expect fewer documentaries about India to be released in India once this passes, because documentaries will be screened for how they represent facts/India
  8. The usage of the phrase “Public Interest” for restriction of content is unconstitutional. It’s not a restriction to free speech under the Constitution of India
  9. The Bill is lazily worded. It expands several provisions for broadcast creative content to news content.
  10. We’re seeing overreach and censorship coming from “Self Regulatory Organisations” already in place, even though the IT Rules don’t require enable such censorship.
  11. Try applying a broadcast censorship code to online streaming and so many of your favourite shows will become unwatchable because of the nanny state.

The real problem with AI fakery

As we hurtle towards India’s Deep Fakes Elections, I write in today’s Time of India about the risk of 2024 being India’s Deep Fake Elections. A few points:

1. The rise of deep fakes presents both exciting and concerning implications for entertainment and societal discourse. From resurrecting iconic stars in movies, and having your favorite singers sing songs they never did, to enabling multi-language political campaigns, the technology’s potential is profound.

2. However, the same technology that enables creative applications in advertisement and translation also holds the potential for malicious use, as seen in the spread of fake videos for fraud, hate speech, and political manipulation. The impending “Deep Fake Elections” in India in 2024 highlight the urgent need to address the dissemination of manipulated content, which can significantly impact the outcome of crucial events.

3. The government’s efforts to combat deep fakes last month are commendable, but they face significant challenges, including the difficulty of discerning intent in deep fake content (what if it’s satire or a fact-check?) and the scale of content moderation on online platforms.

4. The proposal of mandatory watermarking for AI-generated content won’t be foolproof, as tools for removing watermarks can counteract these measures, leading to an evolving arms race between detection and evasion technologies.

5. The spread of deep fake content in encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Signal leads to a problematic push for removing end-to-end encryption, which impacts our privacy.

6. Attributing liability to platforms is problematic, since detection and removal can never be 100% accurate, and no platform can survive the ensuing liability.

7. We need nuanced strategies for mitigating the harmful effects of deep fakes, encompassing public awareness initiatives, R&D for detection technologies, and collaborative efforts between the government, platforms, and academia, and platforms should be required to remove deep fakes on a “best efforts” basis. A balanced approach, avoiding over-regulation to protect internet freedom, should be pursued, fostering a synergy between technological advancements and democratic values.

8. While the government’s actions are important, a public consultation could facilitate the identification of additional measures to address the challenges posed by deep fakes and ensure a holistic societal response.

The full article is at…/the-real-problem…/

Surveillance Reform and India’s new Telecom Act

The recent Telecom Act in India has sparked concerns over potential surveillance implications, especially for their lack of surveillance reform. I was on CNBC-TV18 with Ashmit Kumar towards the end of the year, discussing the act (link in the comments). I’ve had some time to think about this more, so a few points: :

1. Unchecked Power to do surveillance: The Telecom Act lacks sufficient checks on government surveillance, enabling unrestricted access to personal communications, which is a privacy concern. Government officials both issue and evaluate surveillance orders, creating a situation where the entity in power polices itself, leading to a clear conflict of interest.

2. Ubiquity of requests for call data records: Call Data Records (CDRs) are obtained by local police in almost 90% of cases by local police without adequate oversight, compromising the privacy of countless individuals.

3. Intrusive CMS: The Centralised Monitoring System, which is embedded in telecom networks, enables extensive monitoring capabilities of non-WhatsApp calls and messages, without necessary limitations, potentially leading to abuse under the guise of security.

4. Lack of proportionality in surveillance: As per previous reports, around 300 orders per day for surveillance were issued. How can there be adequate application of mind? Also, there needs to be a graded approach: under what circumstances, and based on what kind of information, and what kind of threat, what level of surveillance and for how long, is permitted. As of now, there’s no such limitation.

5. Lack of definition of National Security: There is no definition in law, in terms of what National Security means. It could mean whatever the government wants it to mean. Can snooping on an opposition politician during elections be seen as a national security issue? Currently, it can.

6. Ambiguities in Legislation: The Telecom Act’s vague language could extend its reach beyond telecom networks to the internet, impacting digital privacy. If applied to the internet, the Act could validate IT Rules, which have been challenged by WhatsApp for undermining end-to-end encryption, vital for private digital communication. The minister has clarified that online is not impacted, but the wording of the law opens it up to this kind of interpretation.

How do we fix this?

1. Take the internet out of the ambit of telecom surveillance
2. Bring in Parliamentary and Judicial oversight of surveillance agencies.
3. Create a structure of proportionality for surveillance
4. Enhancing Transparency: Mandating detailed reporting on surveillance orders and their rationale, and only a surveillance that is done under high threat perception of national security may be kept out of oversight of courts.

I don’t expect surveillance reform from the executive, but there is an opportunity that courts have, in terms of addressing the Pegasus case which has been pending in the Supreme Court for a while now.

Watch the show here:

The story behind the design

When we organised our first conference #NAMA — and that was the only one we did — it was almost in defiance. For a tiny little team like ours (4 or 5 people then), the idea of running editorial and then organising a large conference, was scary. We knew all potential speakers and all potential speakers knew us. We had never figured out costs for a large conference, never negotiated with a hotel. We had done small events where we had left it to the sponsors to pay the venue directly, and we took a management fee. So it was all new. It was all scary.

How we made that happen is a story for another day, and I’ll tell it sometime, but in my mind it wouldn’t have happened if Vijay Shekhar Sharma hadn’t gone out of his way to come and see me in CP, and help me clear my head and literally made a plan and an agenda on the fly. Vijay is a yaaro ka yaar, as they say, and he came through for me that day.

In the middle of all of this chaos, I wanted to define an identity for MediaNama’s conference: for it to be an annual conference on the lines of the D Conference (which, for me, was a benchmark), and for it to be something that people remembered us for. The name that I had been thinking about for years was “Converge”. It represented the fact that we wanted to be a conference were people come together, and convergence is a telecom+internet phrase. I had an intern design a futuristic logo as well, in 2009. But somehow, it didn’t quite fit for me. There were several conferences globally called converge or convergence, and then there is an Indian conference called “Convergence India”. Finally we zoomed in on NAMA. People referred to MediaNama has Nama in conversations, and the first person I remember calling it Nama in a conversation with me was Sameer Pitalwalla, another old friend in the space. But what made this different. I also thought that we needed a visual symbol, and looked to incorporate the hashtag. At that time, MediaNama’s primary focus was tech, and not tech policy, so we thought we could extend the brand. So the conference was called #NAMA, and if we ever did something on the video industry, that would be VIDEO#NAMA, or on music, would be MUSIC#NAMA. I had some of these domain names, so building independent brands wouldn’t be bad idea. We never did this.

But back to the design, I wanted a design that would stand out. My first plan was a repeated hashtag. So I pinged a designer friend, paid an initial amount, and filled out a long brief within a day about what we wanted. Then she went AWOL. After a few days I got awful designs that in no way reflected how I thought about it. By the time I got through with this designer, we had lost 10-12 days, had 20 days to go for the conference, and with a small team, with mostly me trying to figure out speakers, sponsors, designs, speaker gifts, and much more, without what I wanted as an iconic design in place, I thought it was all falling apart. That evening, after I politely told the designer that we would go elsewhere and she can keep the deposit, I called up another designer friend: Himanshu Khanna of Sparklin.

30 min after my call with Himanshu, I got a lovely, calming email from Deepikah, who led design there then, telling me that she’s got it covered. A few days later, we met at a hotel to discuss it, and she already had 3 options of design that I liked. The backdrop was a bright yellow, with repeated hashes of white, offwhite and yellow. Another had a yellow background with strange pipes of sorts all across the design. The third had a yellow background with all sorts of internet centric emoticons combined.

I looked at all three, and I liked what they brought to vibe of the design. Much to Deepikah’s shock, I asked her to combine the three. I wanted chaos and unpredictability in the design. I didn’t want the basic boiler plate designs. Like an intricate piece of art, I wanted that people to spot something new every time they looked at it, or every part of it that they looked at. Something, that even if people saw without the logo, they’d know its ours.

It’s something that I will always be thankful to Himanshu and Sparklin for: they didn’t just save us at a time when we were left in the lurch, they also gave us a design that I personally love. To me it’s art.

We’ve done several MediaNama events since, and the design, at least offline, has remained the same. It’s been difficult to make this design work over a period of time, for venues of different sizes, because of the lack of repeatability.

So we’re simplifying it now…there’s enough chaos in our lives already, isn’t it? 🙂 I just wanted to leave this here, as a matter of record. I still love this design.

The problem with what’s new?

A question we ask in the editorial team is: is this news? Within that question lies another one: is this new? When a news organisation reports, the focus is often on what’s the latest. It’s what defines what news channels report, what makes the front page of a newspaper, and the home page of a news website.

This is perhaps because people attach a great premium on what is news. Reuters was built around the idea of reporting the news faster than anyone else. The Bloomberg terminal does this too. Short, sharp. New. The short news business does this too.

Two things: Firstly, there’s a significant premium that people attach to what is new. They have a need to know something before anyone else. It moves markets. There’s money there. It’s a favor someone can trade: you tell someone something important that they didn’t know about, and there’s perceived value in the fact that you provided them with some new information.

The problem here is that the value of many things that are new is limited: what works is the dopamine effect it causes, and people then have an addiction to staying on top of everything. The problem for publications is that what is new brings commodified audiences, and the news gets commodified very quickly as well. The new-ness has a transient lifecycle, a very low shelf life. So because people keep chasing what’s new, publications have to keep chasing it too.

Not enough people value what’s deep.

The index is not the market

Over dinner yesterday, an uncle of mine posed an interesting question: if the Sensex, which is an Indian index covering 30 stocks, when up from around 57k to 58k last year, why is it that most investment stock market related mechanisms/instruments, whether ETFs, Index funds, Portfolio Management Systems were down?

The index is not the market: a collection of 30 stocks, (or 50, if you take the NIFTY), can’t account for the price performance of the entire market. It remains representative of only the stocks in question. Apart from this, most investment instruments would have a mix of index and non-index stocks, they might also buy and sell stocks through the year (they don’t just sit and wait), and many will not have the same shares in the same proportion as their weightage in the index.

I was thinking that this statement, of the index not being the market, could apply to other areas as well: for example, the consumer price index or the wholesale price index are also not necessarily an accurate reflection of market prices of products. Naukri’s JobSpeak index is an indication of job posted on, and not the state of the job market in India. These are mere indicators: they’re useful, but they’re not the market.

There is no *real* Evernote alternative

Update: It took a while, but I realised eventually that I was wrong about Obsidian: it does have a hierarchical structure that allows you to store your notes in nested folders. Over this weekend, I’ve managed to switch from Evernote and NotesNook to Obsidian. Firstly, I’m glad to be free of the complications of NotesNook, but more importantly, I’m glad that there is a simple enough tool that gets the basics of moving things around right, even though it lacks a proper quick capture tool, and I still haven’t been able to figure out storing PDFs. I’m also not sure if I’ve done the importation right. Setting up syncing across devices using syncthing was fun 🙂 There appear to be some functionalities missing, but it looks like this was what I was looking for, and then some more.

What’s also cool about Obsidian is the plugins. There are a couple of AI plugins to look into, that add an AI Assistant that uses your Obsidian notes as base. I’m planning to try out bi-directional linking soon, and it should be fun going through YouTube videos on Obsidian.

The “why” I’m obsessing over note-taking is important. In my work, structured notes are a superpower. Connected notes even more so. I was all over the place with notes before Allwin introduced me to them, saying specifically it’s something he thought I’d benefit from. He was right.

The “Why” of note-taking: Structured note-taking enables me to write better, find information, prepare talks, note down some developments for reference. I’ve become so much more efficient at thinking about things and creating outputs because of my note taking. As an example, if I’m called on TV once the data protection bill comes out, I have comments I’ve made on data protection over the past 4 versions, all in Evernote. I’ve got some 70 odd notes for things I’ve said on TV, so basically I can talk about any issue at any time, because it’s easy for me to build on my previous work, by either referencing it for new points, or pointing out how things have changed. The act of going through these notes trigger new ideas or lines of thought. At times, they’re a reflection of what I was prioritising then in what I was going to say. It’s also a dumping ground for useful things: I must have saved over 200 tweets to go through on AI.

July 22: I’ve been experimenting with Evernote alternatives, essentially looking to exit Evernote once and for all. I’ve tried Notion, AnyType, SimpleNote, NotesNook, Obsidian and so many more.

I take notes like a maniac: both written and digital, having been urged to do so repeatedly by both Rajesh Jain and Sanjeev Bikhchandani.

I’m using a modified version of Tiago Forte’s PARA method (I’ve merged Areas and Resources, under Resources, and I’m using “Action” instead…kinda like a someday list of things to do: articles to write, videos to watch, articles to read etc. In addition, I have an “inactive” notebook for projects that are on hold for the time being. This method changed the way I process and store information, and has made me much more effective in my work. When I quick-capture something I move them into inbox, and then every couple of days (though sometimes, it’s a weekly exercise), I move notes from inbox into a notebook…often, into a project note. Once a project is completed, I simply move the entire notebook from Projects to Archives, or if incomplete, into inactive.

Here’s what I need:

  • Quick capture into a basic notebook
  • Cross platform availability, whether Windows, Mac, iOS, Android. I use all of these.
  • Hierarchical structure: Evernote’s hierarchical structure of Stacks > Notebooks > Notes is ideal.

Notion and Anytype are far too complex for simple hierarchical note-taking, Simplenote and Google Keep don’t have hierarchies, Obsidian seems linear too, although notes are interconnected. I don’t like OneNote: it’s too clunky.

Notesnook is the closest I’ve seen to Evernote. Its hierarchy appears to be Notebooks > Topics > Notes, although you can add notes in a notebook without attributing a topic to it. It’s not as intuitive to operate:

  • Moving notes and projects(as topics), in particular, is messed up:
    • There’s no drag-and-drop functionality to move notes around.
    • The hierarchy isn’t visible in the sidebar, and it takes too many clicks to move anything anywhere. Just slows down everything.
  • If you’re doing a quick capture into an inbox notebook, you can’t move it around: Notes here can belong to multiple notebooks, so with each instance of moving a note, you have to add it to a topic in a notebook, and then remove it from another notebook. Double the work for something that should have been drag and drop.

I’ve spent the last half and hour trying to process a weeks worth of notes, in terms of moving it to the correct notebook on NotesNook, and I’m fed up. On an average, I take around 5-10 notes a day, and this is just too painful.

While I still haven’t found something that works, I know that NotesNook is my (painful to use) replacement for the time being. I’m not averse to paying for something here: at present I’m paying for both Evernote and NotesNook.

Evernote has gone downhill over the past few months: it isn’t syncing as well. I’ve lost notes that I’ve typed on a flight, including notes that I culled out notes from a 100 page document, as soon as I’ve come online. Evernote customer service wasn’t very helpful there. In addition to this, Evernote is increasing prices: I really don’t want to pay more for a service going downhill.

I was keen on figuring out AnyType, but their onboarding is non-existent. I still can’t figure out the distinction between Sets and Collections in AnyType, and unfortunately, for both AnyType and NotesNook, there are no tutorials, posts or YouTube videos explaining how to set up the PARA method. AnyType doesn’t even have quick capture.

Meanwhile, earlier this week I decided to stop adding new notes to Evernote: I’ve replaced the quick capture button for Evernote with that for NotesNook on my phones, and removed Evernote from my phone homepage. Now I need somewhere to transfer all of those backed up ENX files with around 5000 notes to shift.

In case anyone has suggestions or a solutions, do let me know. My email address is [my twitter handle] AT gmail DOT com.

Because we’re collateral damage

I was up till late last night trying to make a digital payment for MediaNama, for a critical piece of software for our functioning. The payment was declined twice, despite entering all details, and receiving an SMS for an OTP which I provided.

I called up HDFC Bank customer-care, and after jumping through several hoops — they’ve added an absolutely useless voice to text layer that doesn’t work — when it finally directed the call to a customer care executive, it kept me on hold for an extended period of time before disconnecting the call.

In the meantime, there was nothing from the bank about why the transaction was decline: no email, no message.

Switch to today morning: the transaction gets automatically declined without even soliciting an OTP, and I get a message on email indicating that the merchant doesn’t comply with RBI guidelines for card payments. This is, of course, not new. We’re unable to also use Gravity Forms at MediaNama because they’ve declined to accept Indian cards because of the RBI guidelines on tokenisation.

Surprisingly, the same transaction that was declined by HDFC Bank went through with another bank. Why? Whose responsibility is it to ensure uniformity in application of guidelines? Did the RBI take into consideration issues that Indian companies might face when trying to sign up for global software? Where was their public consultation process?

This is what happens with top-down policymaking, with myopic regulators with limited understanding of how global markets and operations function, ending up stifling and inconveniencing those for whom the impact is the greatest. For all the talk about Digital India and Startup India, we’re still only regulating keeping global Big Tech in mind.

If you think this RBI issue is bad, think of the impact that data localisation will have, where even free-to-use software will stop functioning. What doesn’t help, of course, is a government with China envy, and pliant billionare founders trying to suck up to the powers that be. One spoke at India Internet Day a few years ago, making an emotional case — because a logical case is hard to make — for data localisation. Another wrote a blog post.

Meanwhile, others suffer. We’re just collateral damage.

On 28% GST in “real-money gaming” in India

India has levied 28% GST on the entire amount in case of payments made for gaming and real-money-gaming. It’s a controversial decision, with lobbyists for the Real Money Gaming industry, and some astro-turfing consumer group criticising this development. A comprehensive overview here on MediaNama.

I’ve spoken publicly about this issue:

  1. The Core podcast with Govindraj Ethiraj: Listen
  2. CNN News18: Watch
  3. Russia Today

My take:

  1. The online realmoney gaming industry has essentially been treated equally with gambling, when it comes to taxation. In my opinion, they’re not very different, and many countries across the world regulate online real money gaming in the same way that they regulate gambling.
  2. Lobbying over the last two years has focused on driving a distinction between real-money-gaming and gambling, and even sought to treat is as a type of gaming. Even now, comments from lobbyists suggest that “gaming will be destroyed” by this move. In the past, they’ve tried to position themselves as “eSports”, which failed. What irks me is this false equivalence with gaming: Gaming isn’t dependent on people playing to earn: it’s dependent on people playing to win. There’s a difference.
  3. India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT recognised them as online real-money gaming intermediaries even though:
    • The IT Act doesn’t allow creating these new definitions.
    • Gaming isn’t an intermediary function: there are controls and gameplay, as well as algorithmic behavior, that are determined by the Platform. Traditionally, games are traditionally “publishers”, and creators of entertainment. To the extent, they’re a new form of entertainment, because the environment responds to your behavior.
  4. MEITY seems to have jumped through hoops to twist definitions and processes to accomodate the online realmoney gaming industry as a gaming industry under the IT Act, in the IT Rules. There’s a major case in TN about jurisdiction, and gambling is regulated by states. Given the Levels of addiction, TN passed a bill to ban online realmoney gaming/gambling. Telangana hasn’t been too keen on them either. Hence the forum shopping with MEITY, where they’ve found favour, including with MoS for IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar. I mean, if India wants to legalise gambling, let’s do that. I don’t think MEITY’s “creativity” in dealing with this issue reflects well on those involved.
  5. Over the past year, we’ve seen advertisements without disclaimers about addiction, and promises of making multiples of money, which is an approach similar to gambling. The industry is worried that now, given that consumers are likely to win less, they’ll stop playing…there’s something deeply flawed about an industry that says that their users won’t play if they won’t make enough money when they win.
  6. Credit is due to India’s GST Council and Finance Ministry that they’ve seen through these shenanigans. Clearly there is a worry that this segment is too hot, and its clearly a sin segment. Addiction, indebtedness with payday loan apps, suicides, and they needed to open a valve and release some pressure. Remember crypto? Same kind of gambling situation, with promises of great returns. What did finmin do? In hindsight (and I was very critical of it initially), TDS was a pressure release. Around 60% drop in transactions in the first month. 28% GST will have the same effect on the so called “online realmoney gaming” industry. This is a welcome move. It’s good for consumers. Of course, there are court cases on, both around jurisdiction (state vs centre, gaming vs gambling ). There might be new cases around taxation. Watch this space.

Bring on the unpredictable

The world is rapidly getting inundated with automated content: We’re seeing faceless YouTube videos grow, TV channels are deploying AI anchors. Some services that can ingest hours of someones audio, in order to generate new speech with their voice and intonation. Others allow you to get your entire body mapped to create a lifelike digital replica. The world of deepfakes is here.

The problem here is predictability and lack of personality. What often makes us interested in other humans is not the predictable part of their behavior, but what surprises us about them: what will they say, ask, or do. Some amount of predictability is important for comfort, but really what hooks us is the unpredictable.

The voices may no longer be robotic, the facial movements might now be in sync with the audio, but I’d like to believe that there are some things in a human being that are human, and inspire intrigue and trust at the same time.

So in a world of people playing it safe with AI generated content, with mass generation of how to videos made from scraping Reddit and Wikipedia, I think there’s going to be comfort in personalities, because they are both predictable and unpredictable, in predictable and unpredictable ways.

There is, of course, talk of Artificial General Intelligence that can replicate this human behavior. I’d like to believe that it can’t, for example, replace me. I suppose you’d like to believe that too.

Digital Payments mess: On the impact of recurring payments and tokenisation

I spoke with Suprita Anupam of Inc42 for a story he did on the impact of the Reserve Bank of India’s recurring payments and tokenisation on consumers and businesses. It’s a thoroughly researched article, and I highly recommend reading it.

My comments on the issue:

  • Recurring transactions, both Indian and global, fail often: “Both as a consumer and as a business user of global digital services, I’ve found that recurring transactions fail often. We’ve also had situations where some global services no longer accept Indian credit cards, post the RBI guidelines related to recurring payments, as well as the tokenisation guidelines. As a consumer, I have had to re-enter my credit card details and enable payments for a few Indian services as well, and that’s an inconvenience I wish I didn’t have to deal with.
  • Lack of a proper consultation process creates such issues: “The problem I have with the Reserve Bank of India is that they don’t appear to take into consideration the impact of their regressive regulations on merchants and consumers, and the increasing inconvenience this leads to. There was no impact assessment, no public consultation: just a diktat with a deadline, which eventually got pushed repeatedly because of lack of feasibility.
  • Why only credit cards? We also have to take into account that the RBI has enforced these guidelines on credit cards, which have better customer service, fraud detection and accountability, and yet they’ve failed to do anything to enforce accountability in case of UPI, especially in terms of fraud detection and prevention. There’s a saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In case of the RBI, they broke something that was working — credit card payments– and have failed to fix something that is crying out loud for regulatory intervention — UPI.”

TV Show: The impact of low cost handsets on India’s Internet

On CNBC-TV18, we discussed yesterday the launch of a low cost Reliance Jio handset and its impact on India. My key topic points:

My notes for the show:

  • Handsets are important: Low cost handsets are important for Internet access because they bring access to the internet for users. You cant give 1GB a day for a few hundred rupees a month, and then expect a user to pay Rs 10,000 for a handset. Users also transition eventually from low cost devices to higher cost devices as their understanding of the utility of the Internet increases.
  • India’s internet user base has mostly been stagnating over the last few quarters. So another price war might actually help shake things up a bit.
  • Jio 5G: 6,024 Cities/Towns, but 51 in J&K, 74 in Uttarakhand, 11 towns in Mizoram, 19 in Nagaland, 18 in Manipur
  • Address shared access in low income households: Lower cost handsets also drive personal Internet access, rather than shared Internet access. RIght now many handsets are essentially household internet access, and this makes it difficult for women in these households to get to use the Internet. Lower cost devices address this gap.
  • Downward pricing pressure for other operators: the pricing of the bundle brings Internet pricing down to Rs 123 (around $1.5) per month. Other incumbent mobile operators have increased Internet access pricing recently, and this will probably bring costs down for all users, and other operators feel downward pricing pressure.
  • Great for Startups targeting Bharat: Augurs well for startups targeting Digital Bharat, including agritech startups
  • Jio has been critical for Internet growth in India: if you check the charts, the launch of Jio in 2016 led to a decline in 2G connections and a massive increase in mobile broadband (3G+4G connections). Most people leapfrogged 2G and 3G and went straight to 4G.
  • Ubiquitous infra rollout still needed: We still don’t have adequate 4G infra in all spaces. There are areas in the hills and in between towns and cities where it’s not adequate. At times, in some areas, one mobile operator has better infrastructure than the other, including in case of Jio. I think eventually the availability of network will be more important than pricing of Internet of access in some regions, and that’s where Jio still needs work.
  • Bundling services into the same price and replacing other forms of entertainment also makes a lot of sense. It’s not as if it has not been tried before, like Airtel had Wynk and its own movie services as well… all of this competition is fantastic for consumers.

TV Show: Regulating financial influencers

The influencer ecosystem has been gaining importance in India: they’re better than most media and experts at understanding consumer needs and packaging their content. Many of them are experts at what they do. They monetize their work through advertisements, product placements, and subscription based premium content or advisory models.

They thus replicate many of the functions of media publications.

I was on News9 to discuss a few controversies around the financial influencer space, now referred to as “finfluencers”, and frankly, as long as they don’t play in a regulated space such as stock advisory services, without the required regulatory certification/registration/license met, I think they’re providing an important service of financial education.

I also spoke about the upcoming Digital India Bill in the first part of the show.

More in the video:

Some points from my pre-show preparation about the Digital India Bill:

  • I’d be surprised if the digital India bill is tabled in 15 days. Mr Chandrasekhar a month and half ago said it will be put up for public consultation on June 7th. The dates have been pushed.
  • Very dangerous for Startup India, if safe harbor is removed. Majority of Indian and global companies will not be able to survive
  • The IT Act amendments in 2008, and subsequent court proceedings gave us several freedoms and we should not lose them.
  • I hope we don’t see the revival of 66A
  • Sectoral regulation will hurt innovation: companies take time to find product market fit.

TV Shows: Addressing job loss fears around AI

Are AI tools a boon or a bane. On TV shows and on conference panels, I’ve spoken about how AI tools actually make our work easier, and more efficient. Whether an organisation wants to do more with the greater efficiency or make people redundant is their decision, and no fault of the AI tools. It’s important for people to learn these tools, and add these skill sets.

Two TV shows:

My show notes from the Jan 2023 discussion:

  1. Here’s where AI is being used:
  • Drafting legal contracts
  • Designing rooms according to a theme and size
  • Generating written content, such as articles, blog posts, and scripts
  • Creating dialogue for characters in video games, movies, and TV shows
  • Generating song lyrics and poetry
  • Assisting with brainstorming and idea generation for advertising and marketing campaigns
  • Creating chatbot responses for customer service and virtual assistants
  • Finding the right image for a mood
  • Writing emails
  • Creating proposals
  • Writing marketing content
  • Improving emails you’ve written to be more respectful
  1. ChatGPT AI has a clear bias: the dataset that it references. The final output should always be reviewed and edited by a human to ensure it is of high quality and appropriate for the intended use.
  2. AI is going to get better with time. It uses a feedback loop to understand what humans want and what they dont.
  3. AI can improve efficiency and productivity of individuals but an also lead to job losses for some.  The market will change.
  4. Impact industries like data entry, customer service, and other tasks that rely on language. ChatGPT can be used to quickly and accurately understand and respond to customer queries, allowing companies to improve their customer service and support. This can lead to improved efficiency and cost savings for businesses.
  5. The development and deployment of ChatGPT and other language models can also create new job opportunities in fields such as data science, machine learning, and software engineering. People will need skilling.