In late December I had a chance to attend the International Symposium on Robotics Research (ISER) in New Delhi, India. We presented our work on human-robot interaction, a paper co-authored by my student Junaed Sattar and myself that dealt with the value and positive impact of allowing a robot to ask questions when it was given commands that it was unsure about.
ISER is a relatively small meeting that attracts a good number of high quality papers and well-established people. Since it is a less-visible meeting, the work that shows up there is sometimes less mature and perhaps more exploratory than what appears at, say, RSS and so you can get a view of upcoming ideas before they hit the mainstream. In addition, for groups like ours that have a particular interest in experimental issues, it is a valuable venue.
This year it seemed that there was increased attention to issues of interaction between robotic systems and humans, a trend that has been occurring across several venues. This is symptomatic of the fact that robotic systems are become more and more potentially useful in practice.
Visiting India was both a huge boon, since I have always wanted to go there, and also a huge chore since it takes a lot of time, money and energy to make such a trip. I was only able to spend a few days on the subcontinent, but managed to visit the Taj Mahal, shop on the incredibly energetic Chadni Chowk in Old Delhi, and see a couple of other impressive sights.
Chadni Chowk is a major shopping street in Old Delhi. It is often listed as one of the "sights to see," but it is very much not a touristic venue. I walked it's length one day (despite brutal jet lag) and don't think I saw another person who was conspicuously a tourist. Most of the stores open in the late morning or early afternoon and by 3pm things are very very busy. The sidewalk is jam packed and using it means being jostled frequently and often obstructed by either a delivery, a mess on the sidewalk, or some other event. Many people use the edges of the road to walk, but this involves contenting with deliver carts, water buffalo, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, cars and even the odd truck. It's exciting but requires constant alertness to avoid getting into an accident. For a single guy it's great, but i would think twice before doing it as a single female tourist or with youngsters.
Getting a genuinely good deal shopping on Chadni Chowk probably depends on not looking conspicuously like a tourist: that's not an option for most visitors. Not only is skin color a factor, but when I was there with a friend the mere fact that his Hindi didn't "sound right" marked him as somebody who should pay elevated prices. This doesn't mean that as a visitor you shouldn't bargain, or that you won't get a good price for things you buy, it's simply that you won't get as good a price as the local people. Given the difference is standards of living between India and Canada, that's seems fair to me. Moreover, my impression that that even a moderate deal on Chadni Chowk is comparable to the prices in more touristic stores: the key thing, as with any bargaining, is to have some idea what you are asking for, and what kinds of price you should be seeking.
One of the striking features of India, based on my superficial visit, is the extreme contrasts between splendor and ugliness, poverty and richness, and the multi-layered diversity of ... well, everything! Even the electrical wires in Old Delhi exemplify this, as there are layers and layers of wires that have been successively imposed. Normally we rant about the wiring in some of our facilities, so the photo below should be an object lesson regarding how lucky we really are.