Thursday, February 7, 2008

Barefoot victories and stick magic

As India turns 60 and we are reminded of the many red-letter days that marked our freedom struggle, pre-independence India's sporting prowess fails to find a suitable mention.

Long before Gandhiji's successful Satyagraha movement, long before Bhagat Singh and his comrades shook the British Government, long before Netaji Bose's INA took on the British Army, a band of 11 bare-footed men dared to achieve the impossible - defeat the British in their own game.

July 29, 1911 will surely be remembered as the first red-letter day in the annals of Indian sports.

It was on this day that Mohun Bagan beat the East Yorkshire team 2-1 to win the IFA Shield.

An Indian team completely composed of 'natives', trounced the regimental team in Kolkata, capital of British India, on a ground barely one km from the Viceroy's residence.

En route to the finals, Bagan registered two memorable wins. The Kolkata team beat the Rifle Brigade and the 1st Middlesex Regiment. It may seem romanticising the game a bit too much if one were to say that the result of the final match forced the British to shift their capital to Delhi in 1911, but suggestions in the past have been made to the effect that Bagan's win would have given further impetus to the militant nationalism in Bengal at that time. And surely that factor would have played on the minds of the rulers, even though a decision to shift the capital had been approved by London earlier.

At that time, the free press, even in England, had acknowledged and congratulated Mohun Bagan. The Empire reported: "All honours to Mohun Bagan. Those 11 players are not only a glory to themselves, but the whole nation deserves the billing."

As another story goes, during the city-wide celebrations of the triumph, one man pointed to the Union Jack atop Fort William and asked: "When will that come down?" Someone replied that it will come down when Bagan wins the shield again. It may be a coincidence, but Bagan won their next shield in 1947. In between Bagan made it to the Rovers Cup final in 1923.

Thirteen years later, Mohammaden Sporting won the IFA Shield and in 1937 Bangalore Muslims won the Rovers Cup. Md Sporting then won the Durand Cup, previously won only by the army teams, for the first time in 1940 in New Delhi. There were many other red-letter days in pre-independence Indian sports. The Indian hockey team won gold in the 1928 Amsterdam, 1932 Los Angeles and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hockey wizard Dhyan Chand was part of all three teams. Legend has it that after seeing him play at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler offered Dhyan Chand, a major in the British Indian Army, German citizenship and a senior army post. The prolific striker politely turned down his request.

Dhyan Chand's deft stick-work and amazing ball control left fellow players and spectators awestruck. In one of the most fitting tributes, residents of Vienna built a statue of the mercurial player with four hands and four sticks, signifying his unparalleled control over the ball.

Basketball great Michael Jordan wrote in his autobiography: "I wish everybody had fire. But they don't. You have players who have the talent but not the heart, you have players who have the heart but not the talent."

Pre-independence India's sportsmen had both.

(In celebration, In memorium - 15th Aug, 2007)

The three laws of robotics, human cloning and the biological robot

Isaac Asimov, life, the universe and everything else has played a huge role in boosting the imagination of the author for a considerable period of time. At one point, it was believed by the author that the only way to make the grade in school was through artificial intelligence. At other times, he wished someone looking like him could sit for his exams, face his father at the PTA and so on.

These coupled with whatever else he learnt in a managing new media module and some facts became the seed for this article on the three laws of robotics, human cloning and the biological robot. The year 2005 ended on a notable down note when the landmark findings of South Korean cloning pioneer Dr Hwang Woo-Suk were found to be fabricated. Over the past two years, Dr Hwang became a hero in South Korea and an international celebrity. In 2004, he had claimed to be the first to clone a human cell. In 2005, he said he had done the same thing in 11 patients. And for good measure, he said he had cloned a dog as well.It was also a big year for genome decoding. Scientists deciphered the DNA of man’s best friend, along with humankind’s closest relative, the chimp. Such findings are becoming so routine, however, that one might not have even noticed that the genome of rice was revealed too. The ongoing investigation into our own DNA, meanwhile, revealed that identical twins are not so identical. Other researchers reported that about nine percent of human genes are undergoing rapid evolution.

Another kind of an evolution was happening in Japan. A Honda robot was traveling in a suburban train in that country. As the train came to a stop at a station, an old lady got into a compartment where all the seats were taken. The robot got up and offered her a seat. She in turn offered it an apple. The robot got down at the next stop, perplexed what to do with the fruit.But before the author goes any further, it’s important to define what cloning really means.

Clones are two, or more, exactly alike persons, animals or plants. The technique were originally used to clone orchids and other expensive, beautiful flowers. Scientists have succeeded in cloning frogs and other reptiles and Dolly the sheep. But can you clone humans? And should they be cloned?The law states that nothing should be done that will go against public order and morality and therefore, cloning of humans is still not allowed by fellow humans.

But actually, human clones already exist. Agreed, they are created by a freak of nature and not by people in white robes in a laboratory. They are created when a foetus, during a very early stadium, is split in two by the cell division in the uterus. They are called identical twins.Perhaps, this is the time to introduce the concept of environment. When identical twins are born, they are exactly like each other, but if you split them and let them grow up in different environments, they will change. Actually, they change even if they stay together, but then you have to observe them quite closely.The next requirement is to define artificial intelligence. It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programmes. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but artificial intelligence or AI as it is called does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.

But what is intelligence? It is the computational part of the ability to achieve goals in the world. Varying kinds and degrees of intelligence occur in people, many animals and some machines.Now begin integrating all these ideas, right from the Honda robot to the apple to artificial intelligence to human cloning.

Also, let us look at what may or may not constitute public order and morality, or what constituted it till very recently and does not do so any more.The generally accepted view is that god creates living creatures and they should act according to what society and law constitute as ‘normal’ and ‘legal’.But imagine a situation, where a couple cannot have a baby for a host of medical reasons. What do they do? Agree that god does not want them to have a child or go in for in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer and artificial insemination as may be required.‘God-like’ fertility technologies are now cheerfully embraced because we have become accustomed to them. The same logic applies to cases of abortion as well. We go against the so-called rules of god as per convenience and requirement. We can’t give life; we can’t take life –that rule doesn’t apply any more.

Next comes the oft-quoted argument that “science must be regulated by firm laws to preserve humanity and dignity.”Till very recently and in most countries even now, a homosexual is not accorded a ‘dignified’ status. They are looked down, treated as ‘abnormal’, in most cases treated as a criminal. In India, homosexuality is still a crime.

But what happened on December 29, 2005 has changed at least in many places the parameters of public order and morality. As Sir Elton John and his 12-year-long partner David Furnish married under a new law in the UK that allows same-sex couples to form civil partnerships, England celebrated on the streets the legalisation of a human’s right to make any choice and have any preference.The couple’s official union took place in the town hall in Windsor, the Guildhall, where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles had married in April 2005.

The legalisation of a person’s preference of spending his or her life in a civil union with the person of the same sex is a legal victory. Science has opened up options of other victories as well that are fought against society – as all battles have to be – and on some counts within individuals themselves.Truly, “what lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”. The ability and legalisation of sex change is also a recent victory of humankind’s preferences, to be comfortable with oneself as an individual and be accepted by society and law for what that individual truly exists as.

Founder of advertising agency BBDO, Bruce Barton (1886-1967) had probably had “little things” like this in his mind when he had remarked:“Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things…I am tempted to think…there are no little things.”
Obviously, we have decided not to adhere to all that god and religion had ordained for us.

We have been told by researchers that nine percent of human genes are undergoing rapid evolution. The author would like to believe that a majority of that is directly or indirectly related with either the mind or the heart because those are the two most important ‘things’ that need to accept newer order, newer moralities and newer preferences.

Clones will be more alike than twins raised in separate environments, and the author is certainly not suggesting that twins do not have rights or dignity.What we as humankind require is not a black or white answer on whether to allow or disallow human cloning. When our lives are made up of umpteen shades of gray, all that the law should confine itself to it is to enact organizing principles and unifying themes.

It is important to note here that even as governments across the world are pressurizing or are being pressured to bring in legislation that would ban human cloning, they should understand that all governments have limited powers, those which are enumerated in their country’s constitutions. And nothing in those constitutions grant the governments the power to ban research into cloning, or to suppress other types of science.

If one loses a limb, the technology of cloning and artificial intelligence combined could be the answer in the future. It could make an ‘incomplete’ person ‘complete’ once again and AI could ensure that it is not just another embellishment of the body. The limb would then act and react exactly in the way a real limb would.Biological robots and the technology to create them or any of their parts could be the next frontier in medicine and space research, especially fact-finding missions.

Imagine a virtual physician, a Dr. Robot who can treat us in the absence of our physician. The John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, US, is working on robot doctors. Urologist Dr Louis Kavoussi of the John Hopkins University undertook a feasibility study of the same and was reported to have said that he was optimistic that the “robot would be accepted by patients as a mechanism to interact with their physicians.”Several ways in which robots, especially those created from a marriage of AI, robot technology and human cloning come to mind.First, the patient would not have to wonder what being touched by “steely” hands might feel like and would therefore be that much more comfortable being screened by infrared sensors, a movable video screen, a zoom video camera, a microphone and a speaker.Second, the robot will help physicians reach their patients across locations. A physician who works among several urban hospitals or who is traveling could use the ‘biological robot’ to connect with patients throughout the city or from a distance.Third, the robot doctor could extend the provision of healthcare in general. Robots could let physicians serve outlying regions much as telemedicines do now.

Finally, the expanded use of the bio robot or robot doctor might just become another entrepreneurial opportunity.So what is the final issue between law and science in the case of human cloning? The answer might be a simplistic one, but the author here aims to present only some of the unifying themes and organizing principles.

Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics state:
1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Based on the above, three laws of humankind can also be put in place:
1. A human should not harm another human, or through inaction, allow a fellow human to come to harm.

2. A human must obey orders, read: laws of the land, except where such ‘laws’ would conflict with the first law.
3. A human must protect its own existence, read: self-defence and fundamental rights, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

If humans and robots could be trained or made as may be the case to adhere to these rules, biological robots –formed from a marriage of human cloning and robotics technology, could become our knights of the future protecting cities against attacks, taking on “manned” space missions to the farthest frontiers of he universe and beyond and many more such endevours.

Human cloning is not about creating an ‘adult’ person who can begin to work immediately, without the problem of raising a child but it is about forging partnerships and progress.The question of to what use will the technology and expertise be put to is similar to nuclear technology and those associated with it. The decision to pursue human cloning is an inevitable one, sooner than later, but to what use will it be put to and how much humankind will benefit from it will depend on humankind’s integrity.

Eighteenth century polemicist, philosopher, and essayist, Samuel Johnson once said, “There can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity.”The legal, moral, ethical and scientific issues surrounding human cloning will surely test those “friendships” between science and law.

(Meandering thoughts from the beginning of 2006.)


I can feel you around me tonight
The stars shiver in the distance, the night wind sings
I hold you in my arms and kiss you again and again under the endless sky
My voice touched the wind that carries all my love to you
Your bright body
Your infinite eyes
I can almost sight eternity in them
Why can't forever come a little sooner?