Tag: ethics

Who betrayed Ekalavya?

Sometimes, historical and literary narratives shed more light on the silent spectators to the events described than on the main actors.

One such narrative is that of Ekalavya in the Indian epic “Mahabharata”.

Ekalavya’s tale is a deeply distressing one.

It is the story of a young man and of his society’s inexplicable indifference to quality (inexplicable because their indifference is bad for them).

In the story, Ekalavya is sentenced to lose his thumb for the sole reason that he is a better archer (through his own efforts) than the royal princes of the land.

The story is scary because if you put a little thought into it, you realise that:

a) the people around Ekalavya valued the influence represented by the princes more than the quality represented by Ekalavya.

b) they failed to realize that should their country ever be invaded, there would be one less good archer to defend them.

c) they proved incapable of realizing how demotivating the sentence would have been to all the other archers in the land (whose help they’d need in times of trouble).

d) they did not stand up for one of their own – did not defend a vulnerable member of their team – did not protect a kid.

e) they condoned nepotism.

f) they approved of a teacher misusing a student’s trust.

Each time we retell the story of Ekalavya without realizing this, we become, in a sense, complicit in it.

Corruption in India leads to a situation where low quality is very likely to be rewarded.

We had written about a model of corruption (involving three parties https://aiaioo.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/tools-for-the-mind-and-how-you-can-change-the-world/) where the person offering the lowest quality of service is the one who is most likely to be rewarded.

Here is a brief description of the same:

Man-In-The-Middle Corruption

This is corruption where someone is appointed a trustee over a common pool of resources.   He is now a middle-man who must allocate those resources fairly.

In the realm of public services, like the construction of roads and schools, that middle-man is government.

In the presence of corruption, the middle-man ends up selecting the service-provider who pays the highest bribes, not the service-provider who does the best job.

This leads to a market where the lowest-quality service provider wins and the higher quality providers leave the market altogether – a result that follows from the work of George A. Akerlof (‘The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism’).

But we must remember that there is a price we must pay for choosing low quality.  Bad roads, delays and poor infrastructure can all be traced back to low quality preference.

But another price we pay is poverty.

To illustrate that, I must point you to an article http://boingboing.net/2008/08/08/california-supreme-c-1.html on the California supreme court directive making non-compete clauses unenforceable in California.

The article shows that supporting and protecting quality helps the economy:

“I’m reminded of the study from the Duke Center for the Public Domain that concluded that the reason that the tech corridor on Route 128 near Boston had grown so much more slowly than Silicon Valley was that Massachusetts has enforceable non-competes, while California does not. The researcher concluded that in California, the best talent moved to the best companies, while on Route 128, crummy companies could lock up great people for years at a time through non-compete agreements.”

Each time someone undeserving is preferred for a job, each time kickbacks are given, we have – in a sense – betrayed Ekalavya.


(Here is an article on how one might compute the quality of value systems.  References some very interesting work by Daphne Koller on using graphical models and game theory to model multi-agent decision-making frameworks).

What traffic can reveal about society

The last post was about Socially Optimal Solutions and the Nash equilibrium.

In this post, we examine traffic patterns under the same lens.

It appears bad traffic situations might be avoided if road users a) play by the rules or, b) play fair or, c) are trusted by other participants.

Scenario 1


In Scenario 1, the North-South traffic is waiting for the light to turn green.  Cars 1 and 2 are going South.  Cars 3 and 4 are going North.

Now, if the drivers of Cars 2 and 4 try to cheat by overtaking on the wrong side of the road, you could end up with Arrangement 2 (everyone is blocked).

This is what you would get at the Nash equilibrium assuming that there were no policemen at the intersection (the Nash equilibrium is one of many possible equilibriums that can be reached if people don’t cooperate, but just act in their own self-interest).

So, it is only if the drivers all respect the law,  without any trying to cheat, that they would end up with the socially optimal solution (Arrangement 1 rather than Arrangement 2).

Scenario 2


Here, the intersection does not have traffic lights.  The North-South traffic has stopped.  Cars are accumulating in the North-South road, and so Cars 1, 2, 3 and 4 are not going anywhere.  Now, 3 can choose to leave a gap for 5 to pass through.

The game here is between Cars 3 and 4.  If Car 3 feared that Car 4 might try to overtake by taking advantage of the gap, it would move forward and block the intersection.

So, in this case, an expectation of unfairness could lead to a solution that is not socially optimal.

And that would be the Nash equilibrium.

However, if people considered each other to be fair, there could be a socially optimal solution that is better than the Nash equilibrium.

Scenario 3


No traffic lights.  There are two lanes going in the same direction (South to North).  Traffic is stalled in the North-South direction (Cars 3, 4, 8 and 9 are going nowhere).  Cars 3 and 8 have the option of leaving a channel open for Car 5 to pass through.

What’s interesting here is that if Car 3 suspects that Car 8 might close the intersection, Car 3 would do well to close the intersection itself (preventing Arrangement 2).

Again, that would be the Nash equilibrium.  However, if everyone agreed and cooperated to keep the intersection open, you would get a much better result (a social equilibrium) than you would with the Nash equilibrium.

So, the socially optimal solution is obtained only if there is strong mutual trust between the participants in this traffic pattern game.


I find these traffic patterns interesting because they could be indicators of local ethics. When you visit a new place, you might be able to get an idea of how fair, trustworthy and rule-abiding the local people are, just by observing the traffic?

Does intuition or logic govern ethics?

I’ve written about intuition and AI before.   Just the other day, I was forced to think the matter through still more thoroughly.

It happened this way.

I was driving down Miller’s Road towards Ulsoor Lake when, on the left hand side, I saw a drunken man slumped on the pavement.  He had passed out completely and his right leg was stretched out a few feet into the road.  I was horrified.  His foot was so far out in the road that he was in grave danger of having his foot run over and crushed by a passing vehicle.  It could happen at any time.

But I absolutely didn’t want to stop and pick up a drunken man.  I felt an incredible reluctance to touch a guy who was dead drunk.  I swerved around the outstretched leg, and then drove past him and away down the road.

Once I had passed the man, it became very very difficult to turn around.

Surely somebody behind me will stop and help the guy.  I’ve gotten past him already.  I will be late if I turn back.  It will be a kilometer’s drive to go back to get to where that man is now.  There’s no easy way to turn around and go back.  Why should I be the one to go all the way back?  It’s too late now.  Maybe a car’s driven over his foot already.   Maybe someone has helped him by now.  I’ll write about this in a blog post, and let everyone know how pathetic I was (we are).  Finally, I thought, if no one else stops to help him, this country deserves to go to hell and it won’t be my fault that it did.

The shocking thing to me was that my intuition said, “Don’t go back.”  So, I began to ask myself what intuition really is.  I had reached Ulsoor Lake and saw the Battle Tank monument on the left.  I passed the gate of the Madras Engineering Group barracks.  Then I stopped my motorbike and thought about it.

Are there times in our lives when we should rely on our intuition less than on logic?

For certain problems in AI,  the best AI algorithms are those that can automatically learn to combine a vast amount of evidence in an ‘intuitive’ manner, without performing explicit logical inference to arrive at the answer.

One example of such a problem is hearing.  We usually manage to recognize words that are spoken to us without really performing logical inference.  Another human endeavor in which intuition might dominate is sports.  Another might be love.

But, when it comes to routine choices, for example, the choice between two modes of transportation to reach a destination, how would a person choose one mode of transportation over the other?  It is to be expected that logical reasoning would be used to pick the alternative that represents the best value in terms of time, cost and convenience.

What about ethical choices?  I recently came across a post on this topic by a blogger friend entitled “What has logic got to do with it” in which the author argues that ethical choices are mere intuition couched in logic (a very Zen perspective on ethics).

But here I was with every nerve in my body telling me to drive away.  What was even more troubling was that just a few years earlier, when I was living in Raleigh, had I seen someone in danger, I would have immediately gone to help.

Anyone would have done the same.

That’s when it struck me that intuition might really be nothing more than your expectation of what anyone in your position might do.  If you expected everyone around you to abandon a man in need, your intuition would dictate that you do the very same thing.  Which brings us to the crux of the problem.  If everyone followed their intuition, everyone would act like the majority and consequently, the majority intuition would become the norm – the only surviving response to a situation.

In this particular situation, that meant that if my intuitive understanding of the situation lead me to drive away, then I could expect everybody else to do exactly the same thing.  If everyone kept driving away, the man could have his leg crushed by a heavy transport vehicle before long.

The danger would increase once darkness fell, and the time was 5 pm.

So, I turned the bike around and drove back the way I had come.  I looked for the man and saw him lying exactly where he had fallen.

No one had stopped to move him.

I was on the other side of the road median (which in Bangalore is a concrete barrier separating the two halves of the road) driving back, when I saw a man on a moped drive right past the drunken man.  It was interesting to see how the moped rider reacted because it was like watching a replay of what I must have done fifteen minutes before.  I saw the moped rider stare at the man lying on the road.  The rider look horrified, swerved to avoid the outstretched leg, and then drove past and away, with not a look backward thereafter.

I drove around the barrier, stopped the motorbike, went up to the fallen man and gently woke him up.  I explained to him slowly that his leg was sticking out in the road, and could get run over.   He seemed to understand, but he couldn’t move.

I told him what I was going to have to do, then put my arms under his arm-pits and pulled him up off the ground and back a few feet away from the road.

When I put him down again, he said, “Thank you, Sir”, and he seemed fully bewildered and surprised.  Then he signed to me that he had had too much to drink and that he had to go to sleep.  He rolled back, his eyes closed and he became oblivious of everything around him once more.  He was just a young lad, probably from Kerala.

When solving simple problems in AI, the kind of things humans solve without thinking, we can use algorithms based on intuition.

Once we start dealing with more complex problems, it appears we need to use more complicated algorithms based on logic, planning and inference.