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A digital afterlife may soon be within reach, but it might not be for your benefit.
The reams of data we’re creating could soon make it possible to create digital avatars that live on after we die, aimed at comforting our loved ones or sharing our experience with future generations.
That may seem like a disappointing downgrade from the vision promised by the more optimistic futurists, where we upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever in machines. But it might be a realistic possibility in the not-too-distant future—and the first steps have already been taken.
After her friend died in a car crash, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Russian AI startup Luka, trained a neural network-powered chatbot on their shared message history to mimic him. Journalist and amateur coder James Vlahos took a more involved approach, carrying out extensive interviews with his terminally ill father so that he could create a digital clone of him when he died.
For those of us without the time or expertise to build our own artificial intelligence-powered avatar, startup Eternime is offering to take your social media posts and interactions as well as basic personal information to build a copy of you that could then interact with relatives once you’re gone. The service is so far only running a private beta with a handful of people, but with 40,000 on its waiting list, it’s clear there’s a market.
The whole idea may seem eerily similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, in which a woman pays a company to create a digital copy of her deceased husband and eventually a realistic robot replica. And given the show’s focus on the emotional turmoil she goes through, people might question whether the idea is a sensible one.
But it’s hard to say at this stage whether being able to interact with an approximation of a deceased loved one would be a help or a hindrance in the grieving process. The fear is that it could make it harder for people to “let go” or “move on,” but others think it could play a useful therapeutic role, reminding people that just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they’re gone, and providing a novel way for them to express and come to terms with their feelings.
While at present most envisage these digital resurrections as a way to memorialize loved ones, there are also more ambitious plans to use the technology as a way to preserve expertise and experience. A project at MIT called Augmented Eternity is investigating whether we could use AI to trawl through someone’s digital footprints and extract both their knowledge and elements of their personality.
Project leader Hossein Rahnama says he’s already working with a CEO who wants to leave behind a digital avatar that future executives could consult with after he’s gone. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until you’re dead—experts could create virtual clones of themselves that could dispense advice on demand to far more people. These clones could soon be more than simple chatbots, too. Hollywood has already started spending millions of dollars to create 3D scans of its most bankable stars so that they can keep acting beyond the grave.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea; imagine if we could bring back Stephen Hawking or Tim Cook to share their wisdom with us. And what if we could create a digital brain trust combining the experience and wisdom of all the world’s greatest thinkers, accessible on demand?
But there are still huge hurdles ahead before we could create truly accurate representations of people by simply trawling through their digital remains. The first problem is data. Most peoples’ digital footprints only started reaching significant proportions in the last decade or so, and cover a relatively small period of their lives. It could take many years before there’s enough data to create more than just a superficial imitation of someone.
And that’s assuming that the data we produce is truly representative of who we are. Carefully-crafted Instagram profiles and cautiously-worded work emails hardly capture the messy realities of most peoples’ lives.
Perhaps if the idea is simply to create a bank of someone’s knowledge and expertise, accurately capturing the essence of their character would be less important. But these clones would also be static. Real people continually learn and change, but a digital avatar is a snapshot of someone’s character and opinions at the point they died. An inability to adapt as the world around them changes could put a shelf life on the usefulness of these replicas.
Who’s Calling the (Digital) Shots?
It won’t stop people trying, though, and that raises a potentially more important question: Who gets to make the calls about our digital afterlife? The subjects, their families, or the companies that hold their data?
In most countries, the law is currently pretty hazy on this topic. Companies like Google and Facebook have processes to let you choose who should take control of your accounts in the event of your death. But if you’ve forgotten to do that, the fate of your virtual remains comes down to a tangle of federal law, local law, and tech company terms of service.
This lack of regulation could create incentives and opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. The voice of a deceased loved one could be a highly persuasive tool for exploitation, and digital replicas of respected experts could be powerful means of pushing a hidden agenda.
That means there’s a pressing need for clear and unambiguous rules. Researchers at Oxford University recently suggested ethical guidelines that would treat our digital remains the same way museums and archaeologists are required to treat mortal remains—with dignity and in the interest of society.
Whether those kinds of guidelines are ever enshrined in law remains to be seen, but ultimately they may decide whether the digital afterlife turns out to be heaven or hell.
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The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.
Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.
Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.
As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”
The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.
The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?
Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.
“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.
It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.
Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.
Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”
Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.
The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”
During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.
“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”
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In the next 30 years, virtually all net population growth will occur in urban regions of developing countries. At the same time, worldwide food production will become increasingly limited by the availability of land, water, and energy. These constraints will be further worsened by climate change and the expected addition of two billion people to today’s four billion now living in urban regions. Meanwhile, current urban food ecosystems in the developing world are inefficient and critically inadequate to meet the challenges of the future.
Combined, these trends could have catastrophic economic and political consequences. A new path forward for urban food ecosystems needs to be found. But what is that path?
New technologies, coupled with new business models and supportive government policies, can create more resilient urban food ecosystems in the coming decades. These tech-enabled systems can sustainably link rural, peri-urban (areas just outside cities), and urban producers and consumers, increase overall food production, and generate opportunities for new businesses and jobs (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The urban food value chain nodes from rural, peri-urban and urban producers
to servicing end customers in urban and peri-urban markets.
Here’s a glimpse of the changes technology may bring to the systems feeding cities in the future.
A technology-linked urban food ecosystem would create unprecedented opportunities for small farms to reach wider markets and progress from subsistence farming to commercially producing niche cash crops and animal protein, such as poultry, fish, pork, and insects.
Meanwhile, new opportunities within cities will appear with the creation of vertical farms and other controlled-environment agricultural systems as well as production of plant-based and 3D printed foods and cultured meat. Uberized facilitation of production and distribution of food will reduce bottlenecks and provide new business opportunities and jobs. Off-the-shelf precision agriculture technology will increasingly be the new norm, from smallholders to larger producers.
As part of Agricultural Revolution 4.0, all this will be integrated into the larger collaborative economy—connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things and powered by artificial intelligence. It will more efficiently and effectively use resources and people to connect the nexus of food, water, energy, nutrition, and human health. It will also aid in the development of a circular economy that is designed to be restorative and regenerative, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling and reuse to build economic, natural, and social capital.
In short, technology will enable transformation of urban food ecosystems, from expanded production in cities to more efficient and inclusive distribution and closer connections with rural farmers. Here’s a closer look at seven tech-driven trends that will help feed tomorrow’s cities.
1. Worldwide Connectivity: Information, Learning, and Markets
Connectivity from simple cell phone SMS communication to internet-enabled smartphones and cloud services are providing platforms for the increasingly powerful technologies enabling development of a new agricultural revolution. Internet connections currently reach more than 4 billion people, about 55% of the global population. That number will grow fast in coming years.
These information and communications technologies connect food producers to consumers with just-in-time data, enhanced good agricultural practices, mobile money and credit, telecommunications, market information and merchandising, and greater transparency and traceability of goods and services throughout the value chain. Text messages on mobile devices have become the one-stop-shop for small farmers to place orders, gain technology information for best management practices, and access market information to increase profitability.
Hershey’s CocoaLink in Ghana, for example, uses text and voice messages with cocoa industry experts and small farm producers. Digital Green is a technology-enabled communication system in Asia and Africa to bring needed agricultural and management practices to small farmers in their own language by filming and recording successful farmers in their own communities. MFarm is a mobile app that connects Kenyan farmers with urban markets via text messaging.
2. Blockchain Technology: Greater Access to Basic Financial Services and Enhanced Food Safety
Gaining access to credit and executing financial transactions have been persistent constraints for small farm producers. Blockchain promises to help the unbanked access basic financial services.
The Gates Foundation has released an open source platform, Mojaloop, to allow software developers and banks and financial service providers to build secure digital payment platforms at scale. Mojaloop software uses more secure blockchain technology to enable urban food system players in the developing world to conduct business and trade. The free software reduces complexity and cost in building payment platforms to connect small farmers with customers, merchants, banks, and mobile money providers. Such digital financial services will allow small farm producers in the developing world to conduct business without a brick-and-mortar bank.
Blockchain is also important for traceability and transparency requirements to meet food regulatory and consumer requirement during the production, post-harvest, shipping, processing and distribution to consumers. Combining blockchain with RFID technologies also will enhance food safety.
3. Uberized Services: On-Demand Equipment, Storage, and More
Uberized services can advance development of the urban food ecosystem across the spectrum, from rural to peri-urban to urban food production and distribution. Whereas Uber and Airbnb enable sharing of rides and homes, the model can be extended in the developing world to include on-demand use of expensive equipment, such as farm machinery, or storage space.
This includes uberization of planting and harvesting equipment (Hello Tractor), transportation vehicles, refrigeration facilities for temporary storage of perishable product, and “cloud kitchens” (EasyAppetite in Nigeria, FoodCourt in Rwanda, and Swiggy and Zomto in India) that produce fresh meals to be delivered to urban customers, enabling young people with motorbikes and cell phones to become entrepreneurs or contractors delivering meals to urban customers.
Another uberized service is marketing and distributing “ugly food” or imperfect produce to reduce food waste. About a third of the world’s food goes to waste, often because of appearance; this is enough to feed two billion people. Such services supply consumers with cheaper, nutritious, tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables that would normally be discarded as culls due to imperfections in shape or size.
4. Technology for Producing Plant-Based Foods in Cities
We need to change diet choices through education and marketing and by developing tasty plant-based substitutes. This is not only critical for environmental sustainability, but also offers opportunities for new businesses and services. It turns out that current agricultural production systems for “red meat” have a far greater detrimental impact on the environment than automobiles.
There have been great advances in plant-based foods, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, that can satisfy the consumer’s experience and perception of meat. Rather than giving up the experience of eating red meat, technology is enabling marketable, attractive plant-based products that can potentially drastically reduce world per capita consumption of red meat.
5. Cellular Agriculture, Lab-Grown Meat, and 3D Printed Food
Lab-grown meat, literally meat grown from cultured cells, may radically change where and how protein and food is produced, including the cities where it is consumed. There is a wide range of innovative alternatives to traditional meats that can supplement the need for livestock, farms, and butchers. The history of innovation is about getting rid of the bottleneck in the system, and with meat, the bottleneck is the animal. Finless Foods is a new company trying to replicate fish fillets, for example, while Memphis meats is working on beef and poultry.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a “general purpose technology” used for making, plastic toys, human tissues, aircraft parts, and buildings. 3D printing can also be used to convert alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or insects into tasty and healthy products that can be produced by small, inexpensive printers in home kitchens. The food can be customized for individual health needs as well as preferences. 3D printing can also contribute to the food ecosystem by making possible on-demand replacement parts—which are badly needed in the developing world for tractors, pumps, and other equipment. Catapult Design 3D prints tractor replacement parts as well as corn shellers, cart designs, prosthetic limbs, and rolling water barrels for the Indian market.
6. Alt Farming: Vertical Farms to Produce Food in Urban Centers
Urban food ecosystem production systems will rely not only on field-grown crops, but also on production of food within cities. There are a host of new, alternative production systems using “controlled environmental agriculture.” These include low-cost, protected poly hoop houses, greenhouses, roof-top and sack/container gardens, and vertical farming in buildings using artificial lighting. Vertical farms enable year-round production of selected crops, regardless of weather—which will be increasingly important in response to climate change—and without concern for deteriorating soil conditions that affect crop quality and productivity. AeroFarms claims 390 times more productivity per square foot than normal field production.
7. Biotechnology and Nanotechnology for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
CRISPR is a promising gene editing technology that can be used to enhance crop productivity while avoiding societal concerns about GMOs. CRISPR can accelerate traditional breeding and selection programs for developing new climate and disease-resistant, higher-yielding, nutritious crops and animals.
Plant-derived coating materials, developed with nanotechnology, can decrease waste, extend shelf-life and transportability of fruits and vegetables, and significantly reduce post-harvest crop loss in developing countries that lack adequate refrigeration. Nanotechnology is also used in polymers to coat seeds to increase their shelf-life and increase their germination success and production for niche, high-value crops.
Putting It All Together
The next generation “urban food industry” will be part of the larger collaborative economy that is connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. A tech-enabled urban food ecosystem integrated with new business models and smart agricultural policies offers the opportunity for sustainable intensification (doing more with less) of agriculture to feed a rapidly growing global urban population—while also creating viable economic opportunities for rural and peri-urban as well as urban producers and value-chain players.
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Shanghai is a city full of life. With its population of 24 million, Shanghai embraces vibrant growth, fosters rising diversity, and attracts visionaries, innovators, and adventurers. Fintech, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce are booming. Now is a great time to explore this multicultural, inspirational city as it experiences quick growth and ever greater influence.
Meet Your Guide
Qingsong (Dora) Ke
Singularity University Chapter: Shanghai Chapter
Profession: Associate Director for Asia Pacific, IE Business School and IE University; Mentor, Techstars Startup Weekend; Mentor, Startupbootcamp; China President, Her Century
Your City Guide to Shanghai, China
Top three industries in the city: Automotive, Retail, and Finance
1. Coworking Space: Mixpace
With 10 convenient locations in the Shanghai downtown area, Mixpace offers affordable prices and various office and event spaces to both foreign and local entrepreneurs and startups.
2. Makerspace: XinCheJian
The first hackerspace and a non-profit in China, Xinchejian was founded to support projects in physical computing, open source hardware, and the Internet of Things. It hosts regular events and talks to facilitate development of hackerspaces in China.
3. Local meetups/ networks: FinTech Connector
FinTech Connector is a community connecting local fintech entrepreneurs and start-ups with global professionals, thought leaders, and investors for the purpose of disrupting financial services with cutting-edge technology.
4. Best coffee shop with free WiFi: Seesaw
Clean and modern décor, convenient locations, a quiet environment, and high-quality coffee make Seesaw one of the most popular coffee shops in Shanghai.
5. The startup neighborhood: Knowledge & Innovation Community (KIC)
Located near 10 prestigious universities and over 100 scientific research institutions, KIC attempts to integrate Silicon Valley’s innovative spirit with the artistic culture of the Left Bank in Paris.
6. Well-known investor or venture capitalist: Nanpeng (Neil) Shen
Global executive partner at Sequoia Capital, founding and managing partner at Sequoia China, and founder of Ctrip.com and Home Inn, Neil Shen was named Best Venture Capitalist by Forbes China in 2010–2013 and ranked as the best Chinese investor among Global Best Investors by Forbes in 2012–2016.
7. Best way to get around: Metro
Shanghai’s 17 well-connected metro lines covering every corner of the city at affordable prices are the best way to get around.
8. Local must-have dish and where to get it: Mini Soupy Bun (steamed dumplings, xiaolongbao) at Din Tai Fung in Shanghai.
Named one of the top ten restaurants in the world by the New York Times, Din Tai Fung makes the best xiaolongbao, a delicious soup with stuffed dumplings.
9. City’s best-kept secret: Barber Shop
This underground bar gets its name from the barber shop it’s hidden behind. Visitors must discover how to unlock the door leading to Barber Shop’s sophisticated cocktails and engaging music. (No website for this underground location, but the address is 615 Yongjia Road).
10. Touristy must-do: Enjoy the nightlife and the skyline at the Bund
On the east side of the Bund are the most modern skyscrapers, including Shanghai Tower, Shanghai World Financial Centre, and Jin Mao Tower. The west side of the Bund features 26 buildings of diverse architectural styles, including Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, and others; this area is known for its exotic buildings.
11. Local volunteering opportunity: Shanghai Volunteer
Shanghai Volunteer is a platform to connect volunteers with possible opportunities in various fields, including education, elderly care, city culture, and environment.
12. Local University with great resources: Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Established in 1896, Shanghai Jiao Tong University is the second-oldest university in China and one of the country’s most prestigious. It boasts notable alumni in government and politics, science, engineering, business, and sports, and it regularly collaborates with government and the private sector.
This article is for informational purposes only. All opinions in this post are the author’s alone and not those of Singularity University. Neither this article nor any of the listed information therein is an official endorsement by Singularity University.
Image Credits: Qinsong (Dora) Ke
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It’s that time of year again when our team has a little fun and throws on our futurist glasses to look ahead at some of the technologies and trends we’re most anticipating next year.
Whether the implications of a technology are vast or it resonates with one of us personally, here’s the list from some of the Singularity Hub team of what we have our eyes on as we enter the new year.
For a little refresher, these were the technologies our team was fired up about at the start of 2017.
Tweet us the technology you’re excited to watch in 2018 at @SingularityHub.
Cryptocurrency and Blockchain
“Given all the noise Bitcoin is making globally in the media, it is driving droves of main street investors to dabble in and learn more about cryptocurrencies. This will continue to raise valuations and drive adoption of blockchain. From Bank of America recently getting a blockchain-based patent approved to the Australian Securities Exchange’s plan to use blockchain, next year is going to be chock-full of these stories. Coindesk even recently spotted a patent filing from Apple involving blockchain. From ‘China’s Ethereum’, NEO, to IOTA to Golem to Qtum, there are a lot of interesting cryptos to follow given the immense numbers of potential applications. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride in 2018!”
–Kirk Nankivell, Website Manager
There Is No One Technology to Watch
“Next year may be remembered for advances in gene editing, blockchain, AI—or most likely all these and more. There is no single technology to watch. A number of consequential trends are advancing and converging. This general pace of change is exciting, and it also contributes to spiking anxiety. Technology’s invisible lines of force are extending further and faster into our lives and subtly subverting how we view the world and each other in unanticipated ways. Still, all the near-term messiness and volatility, the little and not-so-little dramas, the hype and disillusion, the controversies and conflict, all that smooths out a bit when you take a deep breath and a step back, and it’s my sincere hope and belief the net result will be more beneficial than harmful.”
–Jason Dorrier, Managing Editor
‘Fake News’ Fighting Technology
“It’s been a wild ride for the media this year with the term ‘fake news’ moving from the public’s peripheral and into mainstream vocabulary. The spread of ‘fake news’ is often blamed on media outlets, but social media platforms and search engines are often responsible too. (Facebook still won’t identify as a media company—maybe next year?) Yes, technology can contribute to spreading false information, but it can also help stop it. From technologists who are building in-article ‘trust indicator’ features, to artificial intelligence systems that can both spot and shut down fake news early on, I’m hopeful we can create new solutions to this huge problem. One step further: if publishers step up to fix this we might see some faith restored in the media.”
–Alison E. Berman, Digital Producer
Pay-as-You-Go Home Solar Power
“People in rural African communities are increasingly bypassing electrical grids (which aren’t even an option in many cases) and installing pay-as-you-go solar panels on their homes. The companies offering these services are currently not subject to any regulations, though they’re essentially acting as a utility. As demand for power grows, they’ll have to come up with ways to efficiently scale, and to balance the humanitarian and capitalistic aspects of their work. It’s fascinating to think traditional grids may never be necessary in many areas of the continent thanks to this technology.”
–Vanessa Bates Ramirez, Associate Editor
Virtual Personal Assistants
“AI is clearly going to rule our lives, and in many ways it already makes us look like clumsy apes. Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant are promising first steps toward a world of computers that understand us and relate to us on an emotional level. I crave the day when my Apple Watch coaches me into healthier habits, lets me know about new concerts nearby, speaks to my self-driving Lyft on my behalf, and can help me respond effectively to aggravating emails based on communication patterns. But let’s not brush aside privacy concerns and the implications of handing over our personal data to megacorporations. The scariest thing here is that privacy laws and advertising ethics do not accommodate this level of intrusive data hoarding.”
–Matthew Straub, Director of Digital Engagement (Hub social media)
Solve for Learning: Educational Apps for Children in Conflict Zones
“I am most excited by exponential technology when it is used to help solve a global grand challenge. Educational apps are currently being developed to help solve for learning by increasing accessibility to learning opportunities for children living in conflict zones. Many children in these areas are not receiving an education, with girls being 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school. The EduApp4Syria project is developing apps to help children in Syria and Kashmir learn in their native languages. Mobile phones are increasingly available in these areas, and the apps are available offline for children who do not have consistent access to mobile networks. The apps are low-cost, easily accessible, and scalable educational opportunities.
–Paige Wilcoxson, Director, Curriculum & Learning Design
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