Who’s Responsible? — Quotidian — 399

(Transcript of video originally posted on 6 Jun 2022)

In Greek mythology, there is this sorry story of Pandora’s Box. A lady, by name Pandora, is “gifted” a box, a locked box, by God. To punish her. To punish mankind, in fact! Unable to contain her curiosity, this lady opens the box, against all instructions, and out comes sorrow.. disease.. pain.. regret.. all kinds of negative emotions and feelings and demotivating things. And that is when mankind started suffering, the story goes! There is a small side-story too, to this. She hurriedly locks the box once again, fearing that she has done something very wrong. There is a little, faint knocking sound that she still hears, and she carefully opens it… with trepidation. And the little thing that comes out is the only good thing… and it introduces itself as “I am Hope. If you have to face all these, and battle them, and win over them, you need me! Hope!” What is this Pandora’s Box, and how many Pandora’s Boxes have we opened in this world?!

Namaste!

Who’s actually responsible! Let’s go back in history, let’s look at some very important moments in history and let us ask this question again and again.

This is The Mahabharatha War. Can you look at it and recognise which particular moment this is? This is the time where Arjuna fights with Ashwatthaama. Ashwatthaama is the son of Drona, the Guru of Arjuna. And, Ashwatthaama is very angry because his dad, his father, has been assassinated, murdered, by immoral means. And, he is challenging Arjuna using immoral means. His anger is uncontrollable. Because his anger is unbearable, he does something he shouldn’t be doing. He launches the Brahmasthra. The “kill-all” most-powerful weapon. This weapon is so powerful that it has been “banned” from use! He sends this out towards the Pandavas. Arjuna, realising that only a Brahmasthra can counter another Brahmasthra, sends out a Brahmasthra with all respect. But, as you can see, Veda Vyaasa and Sage Narada look from above, and say, “This is wrong. This will destroy the whole world! You shouldn’t be doing this! Take it back! Take it back!” Arjuna obeys and takes it back. Ashwatthaama wants to obey, but because he has not learned it properly, he doesn’t know to undo what he has done, he says, “I can’t take it back. I have sent it out. I can only redirect it somewhere else! Okay, let me redirect it towards a womb. The Bala Pandavas.. The little ones of the Pandavas.. Let me redirect it to the womb that carries the progeny of the Pandavas.” and sends it to the womb of Abhimanyu’s wife. He is not able to undo something that he did. And, to be able to undo is considered the primary learning you need to have, regarding doing something. Pay attention to that.

Albert Einstein. He wasn’t part of the Atomic Bomb project. But, he created that original momentum by discovering that energy and mass are interchangeable. That cute little equation where E equals mc-squared. He discovered that from that insignificantly small atom, unbearable, unimaginable amounts of energy can be obtained.. When he realises what Man has done with it… the advent of the atomic bomb, the bombing of Japan, the threat of universal destruction… Man had brought the world to the brink of extinction. It has changed everything.. Atomic energy has changed everything, except Man’s way of THINKING. It hasn’t changed his idiocy alone. Concerned about it, regretting what had happened, he is supposed to have said, “Had I known, I would have become a watchmaker!” Had I known…

Genetic Engineering is the central, focal theme of the famous book, Jurassic Park. A book by Michael Crichton. It appeared as a movie too. The movie is probably more famous today, but the book is simply amazing as a science fiction story where the science is stranger than fiction. Everything that the book talks about is actually possible today. Having written such an amazing book, the author talks about a mosquito that bites a dinosaur, and an amber drop imprisons the mosquito, and scientists extract the dinosaur blood from inside the mosquito, they do genetic magic, and recreate the dinosaur. But, before the story gets into Jurassic Park, the author tells, as a prologue, that scientists have already started engineering trout to be lighter coloured so that fishing is easier. Today, they are engineering trees to not be circular, and instead to be square in cross-section because it is easy to make them into lumber. And, if you are a Big Bang Theory watcher, you will remember that there is a story where Sheldon tries to grow a glowing goldfish. Silly, harmless experiments, one would think. But, do you remember what happened at The Jurassic Park? It started as a silly, harmless scientific experiment. But, they didn’t know how to undo what they had done.

I don’t want to glorify these two people by telling you their names. They are a husband and wife pair. And, in a place called San Bernardino, in 2015, these two terrorists opened fire.. They were a husband and wife pair who worked in a medical institution — they opened fire on their colleagues. Fifteen people died. Sixty others were badly injured. They got away in an SUV. They were chased by the police, and unable to capture them alive, … the police shot them dead. Among the many things the police discovered in their house — they see a lot of armaments, enough to start a small war, one quips — among those things, they also discover an iPhone. Unfortunately, it is locked. And, that was the story of how the FBI tried to arm-twist Apple into unlocking the phone of this dead man. They are hoping that hidden inside the iPhone are details about who he has messaged, what terrorist networks he has called, etc. And, the FBI wants it. They know that ten failed tries will automatically lock the phone and auto-erase all content in it. They want a backdoor into it. We need to protect the country, the FBI tells Apple, and you need to help me do that. Apple empathised with the victims of San Bernardino. But Apple said, “Sorry, I cannot unlock that phone. I can’t write software that will compromise my own software. If I give a backdoor, if I give a key just for the government to use, it is easily possible that a thousand more hackers will come and prey upon not just the bad guys, but on so many other good guys. Privacy will become a thing of the past. We cannot do it”. That was the stance Apple took. Became a raging court case, and eventually Apple didn’t budge, it did get a bad rap from the government, but if today, Apple is famous for its security and privacy, it is because of the epochal moment that started then. “Once opened up, it is like the Pandora’s Box. We have no idea who will end up using it for what. There is too much grey. And, so, let me be black and white, I can’t open it. Sorry!”

Zuckerberg launched the Metaverse recently. That is probably his greatest leap forward. Such a great leap, in fact, that he has rechristened his company itself from Facebook to Meta. He calls it his new focus. He says this is the New Web. He is investing billions of dollars. A lot of his mindtime. All of his energy.

Right in the welcome note itself, realising that he is actually opening yet another Pandora’s Box, remembering that the last time he was in the news, it was because of an image-tarnishing court case… the government wanted to know what he was doing with user-data.. Did he sell it? Did he make money off it? Did he violate user privacy? The government vilified and lacerated Mark Zuckerberg! And, knowing that privacy and Mark are not really connected deeply, Zuckerberg tried to reset and this is what he did. He said, “We are launching the Metaverse. And, from now on, whatever else we launch too, we will follow responsible innovation principles. These are those principles, and we will follow them to the letter”. And, he cites four principles.

Principle Number One:- Never Surprise People! We have encountered multiple times in earlier Quotidians, the exact opposite of this. Delight your customers. Surprise your customers. Let your users discover and stumble upon things. But, all that is for conventional software. Here, the world is completely new. They don’t even know what world they are getting into. The augmented reality, the virtual reality. Lots of data is getting collected. Continuously. So, he says, “We will collect all data transparently. There will be tradeoffs. To get something, you may have to give up something. And so on. But, we will explain it to you. And, you are entering a new world, so, we will teach you every step of the way how to be safe, and how to be responsible in this world. We will not surprise you. We will tell you everything that is going to happen. It may reduce some delight. But, this is important, because we want to be responsibly innovative”.

Principle Number Two:- Provide Controls That Matter! What does that mean? He says, “Please understand that this world you are getting into, what is a virtual reality experience, what is a metaverse, it is still developing. We don’t know everything yet. You don’t understand everything either. Only from now on, bit by bit, we are creating this world together. And so, as these expectations are still developing, we will provide you controls every step of the way, we will allow you to set personal boundaries… If you enter a specific world, we will alert you about what information you are going to be sharing… What has to be shared, what need not be shared, what should not be shared… We will let you control all these. Because, that is this new world you are getting into. We will innovate responsibly, we will provide you controls that matter”.

Principle Number Three:- Consider Everyone! This one really wowed me! I felt this was an amazing insight! What have we studied till now? Don’t just build the product. Look at the user. Find out more about the experience they are going through. And, where it can be improved. But this guy is saying, “Hey, you are creating software for a new world. You are creating software for a world where your software will touch non-users! Take a camera for instance. Does the camera “trouble” only the person with the camera? It impacts even that common man seated under that tree, who says he has nothing to do with a camera and wants nothing from it. This camera intruded into his life. The same thing happened with a cellphone. You are listening to a concert. And, you don’t even have a cellphone. But, that ringtone intruded into your world. And, much much more than the intrusion that a cellphone and a camera brought in the physical world, the mischief you do in the metaverse will intrude into the world of people who are not even in the metaverse. And so, consider everyone! Consider even those who don’t even use your product!”
I thought this was a truly amazing insight! Consider everyone! Innovate responsibly!

And, finally, the fourth, .. I wonder if this should be the first one or the fourth… The principle is:- Put People First! You are running a business, calling it the metaverse… Surely, you would be doing something that brings your business some profit. And, surely, you would be doing something that benefits the individual end customer. And, perhaps, your work may even have an impact on the society at large. So, Business Impact. Individual Impact. Societal Impact. He says, “We will prioritise it, and we will always put the greatest good for the greatest number in the community first. And then, the greatest good for the individual next. And, only later, business profit will be considered.” Altruistic, you may want to call it. Perhaps Mark is alluding to the famous Sanskrit saying, “Paropakaaraartham Idham Shareeram” — This whole body of mine, this life of mine, is to be spent in the service of others! But, it is not a win-loss kind of zero-sum game. There are countless examples of businesses that thrive even while doing great good for the world, as well as helping the individual customer truly benefit from the product. Mark seems to say that he is headed in that direction, with Meta. So, four beautiful principles. Timeless principles. Which we can just borrow from Meta, and imbibe in our own product design, is what I would like to say.

As a closing thought, there was this beautiful quote I bumped into. A science-fiction fantasy sort of book. Robin Hobb had mentioned this in this book titled “Assassin’s Apprentice”. You need to perhaps read it twice to understand, but it was lovely. “Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it”! Before doing something, evaluate all the things you can no longer do if you do this thing, analyse, weigh the options, and then do things!

We will meet again next week. Until then Namaste!

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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

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Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.