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As kids worldwide head back to school, I’d like to share my thoughts on the future of education.
Bottom line, how we educate our kids needs to radically change given the massive potential of exponential tech (e.g. artificial intelligence and virtual reality).
Without question, the number one driver for education is inspiration. As such, if you have a kid age 8–18, you’ll want to get your hands on an incredibly inspirational novel written by my dear friend Ray Kurzweil called Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine.
Danielle offers boys and girls a role model of a young woman who uses smart technologies and super-intelligence to partner with her friends to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. It’s perfect to inspire anyone to pursue their moonshot.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the future of educating kids, and a summary of my white paper thoughts….
Just last year, edtech (education technology) investments surpassed a record high of 9.5 billion USD—up 30 percent from the year before.
Already valued at over half a billion USD, the AI in education market is set to surpass 6 billion USD by 2024.
And we’re now seeing countless new players enter the classroom, from a Soul Machines AI teacher specializing in energy use and sustainability to smart “lab schools” with personalized curricula.
As my two boys enter 1st grade, I continue asking myself, given the fact that most elementary schools haven’t changed in many decades (perhaps a century), what do I want my kids to learn? How do I think about elementary school during an exponential era?
This post covers five subjects related to elementary school education:
Five Issues with Today’s Elementary Schools
Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Exponential Technologies in our Classroom
Mindsets for the 21st Century
Excuse the length of this post, but if you have kids, the details might be meaningful. If you don’t, then next week’s post will return to normal length and another fun subject.
Also, if you’d like to see my detailed education “white paper,” you can view or download it here.
Let’s dive in…
Five Issues With Today’s Elementary Schools
There are probably lots of issues with today’s traditional elementary schools, but I’ll just choose a few that bother me most.
Grading: In the traditional education system, you start at an “A,” and every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. At best it’s demotivating, and at worst it has nothing to do with the world you occupy as an adult. In the gaming world (e.g. Angry Birds), it’s just the opposite. You start with zero and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher.
Sage on the Stage: Most classrooms have a teacher up in front of class lecturing to a classroom of students, half of whom are bored and half of whom are lost. The one-teacher-fits-all model comes from an era of scarcity where great teachers and schools were rare.
Relevance: When I think back to elementary and secondary school, I realize how much of what I learned was never actually useful later in life, and how many of my critical lessons for success I had to pick up on my own (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t ever actually had to factor a polynomial in my adult life).
Imagination, Coloring inside the Lines: Probably of greatest concern to me is the factory-worker, industrial-era origin of today’s schools. Programs are so structured with rote memorization that it squashes the originality from most children. I’m reminded that “the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Where do we pursue crazy ideas in our schools? Where do we foster imagination?
Boring: If learning in school is a chore, boring, or emotionless, then the most important driver of human learning, passion, is disengaged. Having our children memorize facts and figures, sit passively in class, and take mundane standardized tests completely defeats the purpose.
An average of 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, totaling 1.3 million each year. This means only 69 percent of students who start high school finish four years later. And over 50 percent of these high school dropouts name boredom as the number one reason they left.
Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
I imagine a relatively near-term future in which robotics and artificial intelligence will allow any of us, from ages 8 to 108, to easily and quickly find answers, create products, or accomplish tasks, all simply by expressing our desires.
From ‘mind to manufactured in moments.’ In short, we’ll be able to do and create almost whatever we want.
In this future, what attributes will be most critical for our children to learn to become successful in their adult lives? What’s most important for educating our children today?
For me it’s about passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and grit.
Passion: You’d be amazed at how many people don’t have a mission in life… A calling… something to jolt them out of bed every morning. The most valuable resource for humanity is the persistent and passionate human mind, so creating a future of passionate kids is so very important. For my 7-year-old boys, I want to support them in finding their passion or purpose… something that is uniquely theirs. In the same way that the Apollo program and Star Trek drove my early love for all things space, and that passion drove me to learn and do.
Curiosity: Curiosity is something innate in kids, yet something lost by most adults during the course of their life. Why? In a world of Google, robots, and AI, raising a kid that is constantly asking questions and running “what if” experiments can be extremely valuable. In an age of machine learning, massive data, and a trillion sensors, it will be the quality of your questions that will be most important.
Imagination: Entrepreneurs and visionaries imagine the world (and the future) they want to live in, and then they create it. Kids happen to be some of the most imaginative humans around… it’s critical that they know how important and liberating imagination can be.
Critical Thinking: In a world flooded with often-conflicting ideas, baseless claims, misleading headlines, negative news, and misinformation, learning the skill of critical thinking helps find the signal in the noise. This principle is perhaps the most difficult to teach kids.
Grit/Persistence: Grit is defined as “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” and it has recently been widely acknowledged as one of the most important predictors of and contributors to success.
Teaching your kids not to give up, to keep trying, and to keep trying new ideas for something that they are truly passionate about achieving is extremely critical. Much of my personal success has come from such stubbornness. I joke that both XPRIZE and the Zero Gravity Corporation were “overnight successes after 10 years of hard work.”
So given those five basic principles, what would an elementary school curriculum look like? Let’s take a look…
An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Over the last 30 years, I’ve had the pleasure of starting two universities, International Space University (1987) and Singularity University (2007). My favorite part of co-founding both institutions was designing and implementing the curriculum. Along those lines, the following is my first shot at the type of curriculum I’d love my own boys to be learning.
I’d love your thoughts, I’ll be looking for them here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DDRWZ8R
For the purpose of illustration, I’ll speak about ‘courses’ or ‘modules,’ but in reality these are just elements that would ultimately be woven together throughout the course of K-6 education.
Module 1: Storytelling/Communications
When I think about the skill that has served me best in life, it’s been my ability to present my ideas in the most compelling fashion possible, to get others onboard, and support birth and growth in an innovative direction. In my adult life, as an entrepreneur and a CEO, it’s been my ability to communicate clearly and tell compelling stories that has allowed me to create the future. I don’t think this lesson can start too early in life. So imagine a module, year after year, where our kids learn the art and practice of formulating and pitching their ideas. The best of oration and storytelling. Perhaps children in this class would watch TED presentations, or maybe they’d put together their own TEDx for kids. Ultimately, it’s about practice and getting comfortable with putting yourself and your ideas out there and overcoming any fears of public speaking.
Module 2: Passions
A modern school should help our children find and explore their passion(s). Passion is the greatest gift of self-discovery. It is a source of interest and excitement, and is unique to each child.
The key to finding passion is exposure. Allowing kids to experience as many adventures, careers, and passionate adults as possible. Historically, this was limited by the reality of geography and cost, implemented by having local moms and dads presenting in class about their careers. “Hi, I’m Alan, Billy’s dad, and I’m an accountant. Accountants are people who…”
But in a world of YouTube and virtual reality, the ability for our children to explore 500 different possible careers or passions during their K-6 education becomes not only possible but compelling. I imagine a module where children share their newest passion each month, sharing videos (or VR experiences) and explaining what they love and what they’ve learned.
Module 3: Curiosity & Experimentation
Einstein famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity is innate in children, and many times lost later in life. Arguably, it can be said that curiosity is responsible for all major scientific and technological advances; it’s the desire of an individual to know the truth.
Coupled with curiosity is the process of experimentation and discovery. The process of asking questions, creating and testing a hypothesis, and repeated experimentation until the truth is found. As I’ve studied the most successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies, from Google and Amazon to Uber, their success is significantly due to their relentless use of experimentation to define their products and services.
Here I imagine a module which instills in children the importance of curiosity and gives them permission to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”
Further, a monthly module that teaches children how to design and execute valid and meaningful experiments. Imagine children who learn the skill of asking a question, proposing a hypothesis, designing an experiment, gathering the data, and then reaching a conclusion.
Module 4: Persistence/Grit
Doing anything big, bold, and significant in life is hard work. You can’t just give up when the going gets rough. The mindset of persistence, of grit, is a learned behavior I believe can be taught at an early age, especially when it’s tied to pursuing a child’s passion.
I imagine a curriculum that, each week, studies the career of a great entrepreneur and highlights their story of persistence. It would highlight the individuals and companies that stuck with it, iterated, and ultimately succeeded.
Further, I imagine a module that combines persistence and experimentation in gameplay, such as that found in Dean Kamen’s FIRST LEGO league, where 4th graders (and up) research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, and so on, and are challenged to develop a solution. They also must design, build, and program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS®, then compete on a tabletop playing field.
Module 5: Technology Exposure
In a world of rapidly accelerating technology, understanding how technologies work, what they do, and their potential for benefiting society is, in my humble opinion, critical to a child’s future. Technology and coding (more on this below) are the new “lingua franca” of tomorrow.
In this module, I imagine teaching (age appropriate) kids through play and demonstration. Giving them an overview of exponential technologies such as computation, sensors, networks, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, genetic engineering, augmented/virtual reality, and robotics, to name a few. This module is not about making a child an expert in any technology, it’s more about giving them the language of these new tools, and conceptually an overview of how they might use such a technology in the future. The goal here is to get them excited, give them demonstrations that make the concepts stick, and then to let their imaginations run.
Module 6: Empathy
Empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” has been recognized as one of the most critical skills for our children today. And while there has been much written, and great practices for instilling this at home and in school, today’s new tools accelerate this.
Virtual reality isn’t just about video games anymore. Artists, activists, and journalists now see the technology’s potential to be an empathy engine, one that can shine spotlights on everything from the Ebola epidemic to what it’s like to live in Gaza. And Jeremy Bailenson has been at the vanguard of investigating VR’s power for good.
For more than a decade, Bailenson’s lab at Stanford has been studying how VR can make us better people. Through the power of VR, volunteers at the lab have felt what it is like to be Superman (to see if it makes them more helpful), a cow (to reduce meat consumption), and even a coral (to learn about ocean acidification).
Silly as they might seem, these sorts of VR scenarios could be more effective than the traditional public service ad at making people behave. Afterwards, they waste less paper. They save more money for retirement. They’re nicer to the people around them. And this could have consequences in terms of how we teach and train everyone from cliquey teenagers to high court judges.
Module 7: Ethics/Moral Dilemmas
Related to empathy, and equally important, is the goal of infusing kids with a moral compass. Over a year ago, I toured a special school created by Elon Musk (the Ad Astra school) for his five boys (age 9 to 14). One element that is persistent in that small school of under 40 kids is the conversation about ethics and morals, a conversation manifested by debating real-world scenarios that our kids may one day face.
Here’s an example of the sort of gameplay/roleplay that I heard about at Ad Astra, that might be implemented in a module on morals and ethics. Imagine a small town on a lake, in which the majority of the town is employed by a single factory. But that factory has been polluting the lake and killing all the life. What do you do? It’s posed that shutting down the factory would mean that everyone loses their jobs. On the other hand, keeping the factory open means the lake is destroyed and the lake dies. This kind of regular and routine conversation/gameplay allows the children to see the world in a critically important fashion.
Module 8: The 3R Basics (Reading, wRiting & aRithmetic)
There’s no question that young children entering kindergarten need the basics of reading, writing, and math. The only question is what’s the best way for them to get it? We all grew up in the classic mode of a teacher at the chalkboard, books, and homework at night. But I would argue that such teaching approaches are long outdated, now replaced with apps, gameplay, and the concept of the flip classroom.
Pioneered by high school teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams in 2007, the flipped classroom reverses the sequence of events from that of the traditional classroom.
Students view lecture materials, usually in the form of video lectures, as homework prior to coming to class. In-class time is reserved for activities such as interactive discussions or collaborative work, all performed under the guidance of the teacher.
The benefits are clear:
Students can consume lectures at their own pace, viewing the video again and again until they get the concept, or fast-forwarding if the information is obvious.
The teacher is present while students apply new knowledge. Doing the homework into class time gives teachers insight into which concepts, if any, that their students are struggling with and helps them adjust the class accordingly.
The flipped classroom produces tangible results: 71 percent of teachers who flipped their classes noticed improved grades, and 80 percent reported improved student attitudes as a result.
Module 9: Creative Expression & Improvisation
Every single one of us is creative. It’s human nature to be creative… the thing is that we each might have different ways of expressing our creativity.
We must encourage kids to discover and to develop their creative outlets early. In this module, imagine showing kids the many different ways creativity is expressed, from art to engineering to music to math, and then guiding them as they choose the area (or areas) they are most interested in. Critically, teachers (or parents) can then develop unique lessons for each child based on their interests, thanks to open education resources like YouTube and the Khan Academy. If my child is interested in painting and robots, a teacher or AI could scour the web and put together a custom lesson set from videos/articles where the best painters and roboticists in the world share their skills.
Adapting to change is critical for success, especially in our constantly changing world today. Improvisation is a skill that can be learned, and we need to be teaching it early.
In most collegiate “improv” classes, the core of great improvisation is the “Yes, and…” mindset. When acting out a scene, one actor might introduce a new character or idea, completely changing the context of the scene. It’s critical that the other actors in the scene say “Yes, and…” accept the new reality, then add something new of their own.
Imagine playing similar role-play games in elementary schools, where a teacher gives the students a scene/context and constantly changes variables, forcing them to adapt and play.
Module 10: Coding
Computer science opens more doors for students than any other discipline in today’s world. Learning even the basics will help students in virtually any career, from architecture to zoology.
Coding is an important tool for computer science, in the way that arithmetic is a tool for doing mathematics and words are a tool for English. Coding creates software, but computer science is a broad field encompassing deep concepts that go well beyond coding.
Every 21st century student should also have a chance to learn about algorithms, how to make an app, or how the internet works. Computational thinking allows preschoolers to grasp concepts like algorithms, recursion and heuristics. Even if they don’t understand the terms, they’ll learn the basic concepts.
There are more than 500,000 open jobs in computing right now, representing the number one source of new wages in the US, and these jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of all other jobs.
Coding is fun! Beyond the practical reasons for learning how to code, there’s the fact that creating a game or animation can be really fun for kids.
Module 11: Entrepreneurship & Sales
At its core, entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem (an opportunity), developing a vision on how to solve it, and working with a team to turn that vision into reality. I mentioned Elon’s school, Ad Astra: here, again, entrepreneurship is a core discipline where students create and actually sell products and services to each other and the school community.
You could recreate this basic exercise with a group of kids in lots of fun ways to teach them the basic lessons of entrepreneurship.
Related to entrepreneurship is sales. In my opinion, we need to be teaching sales to every child at an early age. Being able to “sell” an idea (again related to storytelling) has been a critical skill in my career, and it is a competency that many people simply never learned.
The lemonade stand has been a classic, though somewhat meager, lesson in sales from past generations, where a child sits on a street corner and tries to sell homemade lemonade for $0.50 to people passing by. I’d suggest we step the game up and take a more active approach in gamifying sales, and maybe having the classroom create a Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe campaign. The experience of creating a product or service and successfully selling it will create an indelible memory and give students the tools to change the world.
Module 12: Language
A little over a year ago, I spent a week in China meeting with parents whose focus on kids’ education is extraordinary. One of the areas I found fascinating is how some of the most advanced parents are teaching their kids new languages: through games. On the tablet, the kids are allowed to play games, but only in French. A child’s desire to win fully engages them and drives their learning rapidly.
Beyond games, there’s virtual reality. We know that full immersion is what it takes to become fluent (at least later in life). A semester abroad in France or Italy, and you’ve got a great handle on the language and the culture. But what about for an eight-year-old?
Imagine a module where for an hour each day, the children spend their time walking around Italy in a VR world, hanging out with AI-driven game characters who teach them, engage them, and share the culture and the language in the most personalized and compelling fashion possible.
Exponential Technologies for Our Classrooms
If you’ve attended Abundance 360 or Singularity University, or followed my blogs, you’ll probably agree with me that the way our children will learn is going to fundamentally transform over the next decade.
Here’s an overview of the top five technologies that will reshape the future of education:
Tech 1: Virtual Reality (VR) can make learning truly immersive. Research has shown that we remember 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, and up to 90 percent of what we do or simulate. Virtual reality yields the latter scenario impeccably. VR enables students to simulate flying through the bloodstream while learning about different cells they encounter, or travel to Mars to inspect the surface for life.
To make this a reality, Google Cardboard just launched its Pioneer Expeditions product. Under this program, thousands of schools around the world have gotten a kit containing everything a teacher needs to take his or her class on a virtual trip. While data on VR use in K-12 schools and colleges have yet to be gathered, the steady growth of the market is reflected in the surge of companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) solely dedicated to providing schools with packaged education curriculum and content.
Add to VR a related technology called augmented reality (AR), and experiential education really comes alive. Imagine wearing an AR headset that is able to superimpose educational lessons on top of real-world experiences. Interested in botany? As you walk through a garden, the AR headset superimposes the name and details of every plant you see.
Tech 2: 3D Printing is allowing students to bring their ideas to life. Never mind the computer on every desktop (or a tablet for every student), that’s a given. In the near future, teachers and students will want or have a 3D printer on the desk to help them learn core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles. Bre Pettis, of MakerBot Industries, in a grand but practical vision, sees a 3D printer on every school desk in America. “Imagine if you had a 3D printer instead of a LEGO set when you were a kid; what would life be like now?” asks Mr. Pettis. You could print your own mini-figures, your own blocks, and you could iterate on new designs as quickly as your imagination would allow. MakerBots are now in over 5,000 K-12 schools across the US.
Taking this one step further, you could imagine having a 3D file for most entries in Wikipedia, allowing you to print out and study an object you can only read about or visualize in VR.
Tech 3: Sensors & Networks. An explosion of sensors and networks are going to connect everyone at gigabit speeds, making access to rich video available at all times. At the same time, sensors continue to miniaturize and reduce in power, becoming embedded in everything. One benefit will be the connection of sensor data with machine learning and AI (below), such that knowledge of a child’s attention drifting, or confusion, can be easily measured and communicated. The result would be a representation of the information through an alternate modality or at a different speed.
Tech 4: Machine Learning is making learning adaptive and personalized. No two students are identical—they have different modes of learning (by reading, seeing, hearing, doing), come from different educational backgrounds, and have different intellectual capabilities and attention spans. Advances in machine learning and the surging adaptive learning movement are seeking to solve this problem. Companies like Knewton and Dreambox have over 15 million students on their respective adaptive learning platforms. Soon, every education application will be adaptive, learning how to personalize the lesson for a specific student. There will be adaptive quizzing apps, flashcard apps, textbook apps, simulation apps and many more.
Tech 5: Artificial Intelligence or “An AI Teaching Companion.” Neil Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age presents a fascinating piece of educational technology called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.”
As described by Beat Schwendimann, “The primer is an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions (spoken in natural language), teach through allegories that incorporate elements of the learner’s environment, and presents contextual just-in-time information.
“The primer includes sensors that monitor the learner’s actions and provide feedback. The learner is in a cognitive apprenticeship with the book: The primer models a certain skill (through allegorical fairy tale characters), which the learner then imitates in real life.
“The primer follows a learning progression with increasingly more complex tasks. The educational goals of the primer are humanist: To support the learner to become a strong and independently thinking person.”
The primer, an individualized AI teaching companion is the result of technological convergence and is beautifully described by YouTuber CGP Grey in his video: Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education.
Your AI companion will have unlimited access to information on the cloud and will deliver it at the optimal speed to each student in an engaging, fun way. This AI will demonetize and democratize education, be available to everyone for free (just like Google), and offering the best education to the wealthiest and poorest children on the planet equally.
This AI companion is not a tutor who spouts facts, figures and answers, but a player on the side of the student, there to help him or her learn, and in so doing, learn how to learn better. The AI is always alert, watching for signs of frustration and boredom that may precede quitting, for signs of curiosity or interest that tend to indicate active exploration, and for signs of enjoyment and mastery, which might indicate a successful learning experience.
Ultimately, we’re heading towards a vastly more educated world. We are truly living during the most exciting time to be alive.
Mindsets for the 21st Century
Finally, it’s important for me to discuss mindsets. How we think about the future colors how we learn and what we do. I’ve written extensively about the importance of an abundance and exponential mindset for entrepreneurs and CEOs. I also think that attention to mindset in our elementary schools, when a child is shaping the mental “operating system” for the rest of their life, is even more important.
As such, I would recommend that a school adopt a set of principles that teach and promote a number of mindsets in the fabric of their programs.
Many “mindsets” are important to promote. Here are a couple to consider:
Nurturing Optimism & An Abundance Mindset:
We live in a competitive world, and kids experience a significant amount of pressure to perform. When they fall short, they feel deflated. We all fail at times; that’s part of life. If we want to raise “can-do” kids who can work through failure and come out stronger for it, it’s wise to nurture optimism. Optimistic kids are more willing to take healthy risks, are better problem-solvers, and experience positive relationships. You can nurture optimism in your school by starting each day by focusing on gratitude (what each child is grateful for), or a “positive focus” in which each student takes 30 seconds to talk about what they are most excited about, or what recent event was positively impactful to them. (NOTE: I start every meeting inside my Strike Force team with a positive focus.)
Finally, helping students understand (through data and graphs) that the world is in fact getting better (see my first book: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think) will help them counter the continuous flow of negative news flowing through our news media.
When kids feel confident in their abilities and excited about the world, they are willing to work harder and be more creative.
Tolerance for Failure:
Tolerating failure is a difficult lesson to learn and a difficult lesson to teach. But it is critically important to succeeding in life.
Astro Teller, who runs Google’s innovation branch “X,” talks a lot about encouraging failure. At X, they regularly try to “kill” their ideas. If they are successful in killing an idea, and thus “failing,” they save lots of time, money and resources. The ideas they can’t kill survive and develop into billion-dollar businesses. The key is that each time an idea is killed, Astro rewards the team, literally, with cash bonuses. Their failure is celebrated and they become a hero.
This should be reproduced in the classroom: kids should try to be critical of their best ideas (learn critical thinking), then they should be celebrated for ‘successfully failing,’ perhaps with cake, balloons, confetti, and lots of Silly String.
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Recently, I picked up Kai-Fu Lee’s newest book, AI Superpowers.
Kai-Fu Lee is one of the most plugged-in AI investors on the planet, managing over $2 billion between six funds and over 300 portfolio companies in the US and China.
Drawing from his pioneering work in AI, executive leadership at Microsoft, Apple, and Google (where he served as founding president of Google China), and his founding of VC fund Sinovation Ventures, Lee shares invaluable insights about:
The four factors driving today’s AI ecosystems;
China’s extraordinary inroads in AI implementation;
Where autonomous systems are headed;
How we’ll need to adapt.
With a foothold in both Beijing and Silicon Valley, Lee looks at the power balance between Chinese and US tech behemoths—each turbocharging new applications of deep learning and sweeping up global markets in the process.
In this post, I’ll be discussing Lee’s “Four Waves of AI,” an excellent framework for discussing where AI is today and where it’s going. I’ll also be featuring some of the hottest Chinese tech companies leading the charge, worth watching right now.
I’m super excited that this Tuesday, I’ve scored the opportunity to sit down with Kai-Fu Lee to discuss his book in detail via a webinar.
With Sino-US competition heating up, who will own the future of technology?
Let’s dive in.
The First Wave: Internet AI
In this first stage of AI deployment, we’re dealing primarily with recommendation engines—algorithmic systems that learn from masses of user data to curate online content personalized to each one of us.
Think Amazon’s spot-on product recommendations, or that “Up Next” YouTube video you just have to watch before getting back to work, or Facebook ads that seem to know what you’ll buy before you do.
Powered by the data flowing through our networks, internet AI leverages the fact that users automatically label data as we browse. Clicking versus not clicking; lingering on a web page longer than we did on another; hovering over a Facebook video to see what happens at the end.
These cascades of labeled data build a detailed picture of our personalities, habits, demands, and desires: the perfect recipe for more tailored content to keep us on a given platform.
Currently, Lee estimates that Chinese and American companies stand head-to-head when it comes to deployment of internet AI. But given China’s data advantage, he predicts that Chinese tech giants will have a slight lead (60-40) over their US counterparts in the next five years.
While you’ve most definitely heard of Alibaba and Baidu, you’ve probably never stumbled upon Toutiao.
Starting out as a copycat of America’s wildly popular Buzzfeed, Toutiao reached a valuation of $20 billion by 2017, dwarfing Buzzfeed’s valuation by more than a factor of 10. But with almost 120 million daily active users, Toutiao doesn’t just stop at creating viral content.
Equipped with natural-language processing and computer vision, Toutiao’s AI engines survey a vast network of different sites and contributors, rewriting headlines to optimize for user engagement, and processing each user’s online behavior—clicks, comments, engagement time—to curate individualized news feeds for millions of consumers.
And as users grow more engaged with Toutiao’s content, the company’s algorithms get better and better at recommending content, optimizing headlines, and delivering a truly personalized feed.
It’s this kind of positive feedback loop that fuels today’s AI giants surfing the wave of internet AI.
The Second Wave: Business AI
While internet AI takes advantage of the fact that netizens are constantly labeling data via clicks and other engagement metrics, business AI jumps on the data that traditional companies have already labeled in the past.
Think banks issuing loans and recording repayment rates; hospitals archiving diagnoses, imaging data, and subsequent health outcomes; or courts noting conviction history, recidivism, and flight.
While we humans make predictions based on obvious root causes (strong features), AI algorithms can process thousands of weakly correlated variables (weak features) that may have much more to do with a given outcome than the usual suspects.
By scouting out hidden correlations that escape our linear cause-and-effect logic, business AI leverages labeled data to train algorithms that outperform even the most veteran of experts.
Apply these data-trained AI engines to banking, insurance, and legal sentencing, and you get minimized default rates, optimized premiums, and plummeting recidivism rates.
While Lee confidently places America in the lead (90-10) for business AI, China’s substantial lag in structured industry data could actually work in its favor going forward.
In industries where Chinese startups can leapfrog over legacy systems, China has a major advantage.
Take Chinese app Smart Finance, for instance.
While Americans embraced credit and debit cards in the 1970s, China was still in the throes of its Cultural Revolution, largely missing the bus on this technology.
Fast forward to 2017, and China’s mobile payment spending outnumbered that of Americans’ by a ratio of 50 to 1. Without the competition of deeply entrenched credit cards, mobile payments were an obvious upgrade to China’s cash-heavy economy, embraced by 70 percent of China’s 753 million smartphone users by the end of 2017.
But by leapfrogging over credit cards and into mobile payments, China largely left behind the notion of credit.
And here’s where Smart Finance comes in.
An AI-powered app for microfinance, Smart Finance depends almost exclusively on its algorithms to make millions of microloans. For each potential borrower, the app simply requests access to a portion of the user’s phone data.
On the basis of variables as subtle as your typing speed and battery percentage, Smart Finance can predict with astounding accuracy your likelihood of repaying a $300 loan.
Such deployments of business AI and internet AI are already revolutionizing our industries and individual lifestyles. But still on the horizon lie two even more monumental waves— perception AI and autonomous AI.
The Third Wave: Perception AI
In this wave, AI gets an upgrade with eyes, ears, and myriad other senses, merging the digital world with our physical environments.
As sensors and smart devices proliferate through our homes and cities, we are on the verge of entering a trillion-sensor economy.
Companies like China’s Xiaomi are putting out millions of IoT-connected devices, and teams of researchers have already begun prototyping smart dust—solar cell- and sensor-geared particulates that can store and communicate troves of data anywhere, anytime.
As Kai-Fu explains, perception AI “will bring the convenience and abundance of the online world into our offline reality.” Sensor-enabled hardware devices will turn everything from hospitals to cars to schools into online-merge-offline (OMO) environments.
Imagine walking into a grocery store, scanning your face to pull up your most common purchases, and then picking up a virtual assistant (VA) shopping cart. Having pre-loaded your data, the cart adjusts your usual grocery list with voice input, reminds you to get your spouse’s favorite wine for an upcoming anniversary, and guides you through a personalized store route.
While we haven’t yet leveraged the full potential of perception AI, China and the US are already making incredible strides. Given China’s hardware advantage, Lee predicts China currently has a 60-40 edge over its American tech counterparts.
Now the go-to city for startups building robots, drones, wearable technology, and IoT infrastructure, Shenzhen has turned into a powerhouse for intelligent hardware, as I discussed last week. Turbocharging output of sensors and electronic parts via thousands of factories, Shenzhen’s skilled engineers can prototype and iterate new products at unprecedented scale and speed.
With the added fuel of Chinese government support and a relaxed Chinese attitude toward data privacy, China’s lead may even reach 80-20 in the next five years.
Jumping on this wave are companies like Xiaomi, which aims to turn bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms into smart OMO environments. Having invested in 220 companies and incubated 29 startups that produce its products, Xiaomi surpassed 85 million intelligent home devices by the end of 2017, making it the world’s largest network of these connected products.
One KFC restaurant in China has even teamed up with Alipay (Alibaba’s mobile payments platform) to pioneer a ‘pay-with-your-face’ feature. Forget cash, cards, and cell phones, and let OMO do the work.
The Fourth Wave: Autonomous AI
But the most monumental—and unpredictable—wave is the fourth and final: autonomous AI.
Integrating all previous waves, autonomous AI gives machines the ability to sense and respond to the world around them, enabling AI to move and act productively.
While today’s machines can outperform us on repetitive tasks in structured and even unstructured environments (think Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas or oncoming autonomous vehicles), machines with the power to see, hear, touch and optimize data will be a whole new ballgame.
Think: swarms of drones that can selectively spray and harvest entire farms with computer vision and remarkable dexterity, heat-resistant drones that can put out forest fires 100X more efficiently, or Level 5 autonomous vehicles that navigate smart roads and traffic systems all on their own.
While autonomous AI will first involve robots that create direct economic value—automating tasks on a one-to-one replacement basis—these intelligent machines will ultimately revamp entire industries from the ground up.
Kai-Fu Lee currently puts America in a commanding lead of 90-10 in autonomous AI, especially when it comes to self-driving vehicles. But Chinese government efforts are quickly ramping up the competition.
Already in China’s Zhejiang province, highway regulators and government officials have plans to build China’s first intelligent superhighway, outfitted with sensors, road-embedded solar panels and wireless communication between cars, roads and drivers.
Aimed at increasing transit efficiency by up to 30 percent while minimizing fatalities, the project may one day allow autonomous electric vehicles to continuously charge as they drive.
A similar government-fueled project involves Beijing’s new neighbor Xiong’an. Projected to take in over $580 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 20 years, Xiong’an New Area could one day become the world’s first city built around autonomous vehicles.
Baidu is already working with Xiong’an’s local government to build out this AI city with an environmental focus. Possibilities include sensor-geared cement, computer vision-enabled traffic lights, intersections with facial recognition, and parking lots-turned parks.
Lastly, Lee predicts China will almost certainly lead the charge in autonomous drones. Already, Shenzhen is home to premier drone maker DJI—a company I’ll be visiting with 24 top executives later this month as part of my annual China Platinum Trip.
Named “the best company I have ever encountered” by Chris Anderson, DJI owns an estimated 50 percent of the North American drone market, supercharged by Shenzhen’s extraordinary maker movement.
While the long-term Sino-US competitive balance in fourth wave AI remains to be seen, one thing is certain: in a matter of decades, we will witness the rise of AI-embedded cityscapes and autonomous machines that can interact with the real world and help solve today’s most pressing grand challenges.
Webinar with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee: Dr. Kai-Fu Lee — one of the world’s most respected experts on AI — and I will discuss his latest book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the world as we know it. With U.S.-Sino competition heating up, who will own the future of technology? Register here for the free webinar on September 4th, 2018 from 11:00am–12:30pm PST.
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By now, you’ve probably seen Google’s new Duplex software, which promises to call people on your behalf to book appointments for haircuts and the like. As yet, it only exists in demo form, but already it seems like Google has made a big stride towards capturing a market that plenty of companies have had their eye on for quite some time. This software is impressive, but it raises questions.
Many of you will be familiar with the stilted, robotic conversations you can have with early chatbots that are, essentially, glorified menus. Instead of pressing 1 to confirm or 2 to re-enter, some of these bots would allow for simple commands like “Yes” or “No,” replacing the buttons with limited ability to recognize a few words. Using them was often a far more frustrating experience than attempting to use a menu—there are few things more irritating than a robot saying, “Sorry, your response was not recognized.”
Google Duplex scheduling a hair salon appointment:
Google Duplex calling a restaurant:
Even getting the response recognized is hard enough. After all, there are countless different nuances and accents to baffle voice recognition software, and endless turns of phrase that amount to saying the same thing that can confound natural language processing (NLP), especially if you like your phrasing quirky.
You may think that standard customer-service type conversations all travel the same route, using similar words and phrasing. But when there are over 80,000 ways to order coffee, and making a mistake is frowned upon, even simple tasks require high accuracy over a huge dataset.
Advances in audio processing, neural networks, and NLP, as well as raw computing power, have meant that basic recognition of what someone is trying to say is less of an issue. Soundhound’s virtual assistant prides itself on being able to process complicated requests (perhaps needlessly complicated).
The deeper issue, as with all attempts to develop conversational machines, is one of understanding context. There are so many ways a conversation can go that attempting to construct a conversation two or three layers deep quickly runs into problems. Multiply the thousands of things people might say by the thousands they might say next, and the combinatorics of the challenge runs away from most chatbots, leaving them as either glorified menus, gimmicks, or rather bizarre to talk to.
Yet Google, who surely remembers from Glass the risk of premature debuts for technology, especially the kind that ask you to rethink how you interact with or trust in software, must have faith in Duplex to show it on the world stage. We know that startups like Semantic Machines and x.ai have received serious funding to perform very similar functions, using natural-language conversations to perform computing tasks, schedule meetings, book hotels, or purchase items.
It’s no great leap to imagine Google will soon do the same, bringing us closer to a world of onboard computing, where Lens labels the world around us and their assistant arranges it for us (all the while gathering more and more data it can convert into personalized ads). The early demos showed some clever tricks for keeping the conversation within a fairly narrow realm where the AI should be comfortable and competent, and the blog post that accompanied the release shows just how much effort has gone into the technology.
Yet given the privacy and ethics funk the tech industry finds itself in, and people’s general unease about AI, the main reaction to Duplex’s impressive demo was concern. The voice sounded too natural, bringing to mind Lyrebird and their warnings of deepfakes. You might trust “Do the Right Thing” Google with this technology, but it could usher in an era when automated robo-callers are far more convincing.
A more human-like voice may sound like a perfectly innocuous improvement, but the fact that the assistant interjects naturalistic “umm” and “mm-hm” responses to more perfectly mimic a human rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. This wasn’t just a voice assistant trying to sound less grinding and robotic; it was actively trying to deceive people into thinking they were talking to a human.
Google is running the risk of trying to get to conversational AI by going straight through the uncanny valley.
“Google’s experiments do appear to have been designed to deceive,” said Dr. Thomas King of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab, according to Techcrunch. “Their main hypothesis was ‘can you distinguish this from a real person?’ In this case it’s unclear why their hypothesis was about deception and not the user experience… there should be some kind of mechanism there to let people know what it is they are speaking to.”
From Google’s perspective, being able to say “90 percent of callers can’t tell the difference between this and a human personal assistant” is an excellent marketing ploy, even though statistics about how many interactions are successful might be more relevant.
In fact, Duplex runs contrary to pretty much every major recommendation about ethics for the use of robotics or artificial intelligence, not to mention certain eavesdropping laws. Transparency is key to holding machines (and the people who design them) accountable, especially when it comes to decision-making.
Then there are the more subtle social issues. One prominent effect social media has had is to allow people to silo themselves; in echo chambers of like-minded individuals, it’s hard to see how other opinions exist. Technology exacerbates this by removing the evolutionary cues that go along with face-to-face interaction. Confronted with a pair of human eyes, people are more generous. Confronted with a Twitter avatar or a Facebook interface, people hurl abuse and criticism they’d never dream of using in a public setting.
Now that we can use technology to interact with ever fewer people, will it change us? Is it fair to offload the burden of dealing with a robot onto the poor human at the other end of the line, who might have to deal with dozens of such calls a day? Google has said that if the AI is in trouble, it will put you through to a human, which might help save receptionists from the hell of trying to explain a concept to dozens of dumbfounded AI assistants all day. But there’s always the risk that failures will be blamed on the person and not the machine.
As AI advances, could we end up treating the dwindling number of people in these “customer-facing” roles as the buggiest part of a fully automatic service? Will people start accusing each other of being robots on the phone, as well as on Twitter?
Google has provided plenty of reassurances about how the system will be used. They have said they will ensure that the system is identified, and it’s hardly difficult to resolve this problem; a slight change in the script from their demo would do it. For now, consumers will likely appreciate moves that make it clear whether the “intelligent agents” that make major decisions for us, that we interact with daily, and that hide behind social media avatars or phone numbers are real or artificial.
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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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Technology evangelists dream about a future where we’re all liberated from the more mundane aspects of our jobs by artificial intelligence. Other futurists go further, imagining AI will enable us to become superhuman, enhancing our intelligence, abandoning our mortal bodies, and uploading ourselves to the cloud.
Paradise is all very well, although your mileage may vary on whether these scenarios are realistic or desirable. The real question is, how do we get there?
Economist John Maynard Keynes notably argued in favor of active intervention when an economic crisis hits, rather than waiting for the markets to settle down to a more healthy equilibrium in the long run. His rebuttal to critics was, “In the long run, we are all dead.” After all, if it takes 50 years of upheaval and economic chaos for things to return to normality, there has been an immense amount of human suffering first.
Similar problems arise with the transition to a world where AI is intimately involved in our lives. In the long term, automation of labor might benefit the human species immensely. But in the short term, it has all kinds of potential pitfalls, especially in exacerbating inequality within societies where AI takes on a larger role. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has deep concerns about the future of work.
While the report doesn’t foresee the same gloom and doom of mass unemployment that other commentators have considered, the concern is that the gains in productivity and economic benefits from AI will be unevenly distributed. In the UK, jobs that account for £290 billion worth of wages in today’s economy could potentially be automated with current technology. But these are disproportionately jobs held by people who are already suffering from social inequality.
Low-wage jobs are five times more likely to be automated than high-wage jobs. A greater proportion of jobs held by women are likely to be automated. The solution that’s often suggested is that people should simply “retrain”; but if no funding or assistance is provided, this burden is too much to bear. You can’t expect people to seamlessly transition from driving taxis to writing self-driving car software without help. As we have already seen, inequality is exacerbated when jobs that don’t require advanced education (even if they require a great deal of technical skill) are the first to go.
No Room for Beginners
Optimists say algorithms won’t replace humans, but will instead liberate us from the dull parts of our jobs. Lawyers used to have to spend hours trawling through case law to find legal precedents; now AI can identify the most relevant documents for them. Doctors no longer need to look through endless scans and perform diagnostic tests; machines can do this, leaving the decision-making to humans. This boosts productivity and provides invaluable tools for workers.
But there are issues with this rosy picture. If humans need to do less work, the economic incentive is for the boss to reduce their hours. Some of these “dull, routine” parts of the job were traditionally how people getting into the field learned the ropes: paralegals used to look through case law, but AI may render them obsolete. Even in the field of journalism, there’s now software that will rewrite press releases for publication, traditionally something close to an entry-level task. If there are no entry-level jobs, or if entry-level now requires years of training, the result is to exacerbate inequality and reduce social mobility.
Automating Our Biases
The adoption of algorithms into employment has already had negative impacts on equality. Cathy O’Neil, mathematics PhD from Harvard, raises these concerns in her excellent book Weapons of Math Destruction. She notes that algorithms designed by humans often encode the biases of that society, whether they’re racial or based on gender and sexuality.
Google’s search engine advertises more executive-level jobs to users it thinks are male. AI programs predict that black offenders are more likely to re-offend than white offenders; they receive correspondingly longer sentences. It needn’t necessarily be that bias has been actively programmed; perhaps the algorithms just learn from historical data, but this means they will perpetuate historical inequalities.
Take candidate-screening software HireVue, used by many major corporations to assess new employees. It analyzes “verbal and non-verbal cues” of candidates, comparing them to employees that historically did well. Either way, according to Cathy O’Neil, they are “using people’s fear and trust of mathematics to prevent them from asking questions.” With no transparency or understanding of how the algorithm generates its results, and no consensus over who’s responsible for the results, discrimination can occur automatically, on a massive scale.
Combine this with other demographic trends. In rich countries, people are living longer. An increasing burden will be placed on a shrinking tax base to support that elderly population. A recent study said that due to the accumulation of wealth in older generations, millennials stand to inherit more than any previous generation, but it won’t happen until they’re in their 60s. Meanwhile, those with savings and capital will benefit as the economy shifts: the stock market and GDP will grow, but wages and equality will fall, a situation that favors people who are already wealthy.
Even in the most dramatic AI scenarios, inequality is exacerbated. If someone develops a general intelligence that’s near-human or super-human, and they manage to control and monopolize it, they instantly become immensely wealthy and powerful. If the glorious technological future that Silicon Valley enthusiasts dream about is only going to serve to make the growing gaps wider and strengthen existing unfair power structures, is it something worth striving for?
What Makes a Utopia?
We urgently need to redefine our notion of progress. Philosophers worry about an AI that is misaligned—the things it seeks to maximize are not the things we want maximized. At the same time, we measure the development of our countries by GDP, not the quality of life of workers or the equality of opportunity in the society. Growing wealth with increased inequality is not progress.
Some people will take the position that there are always winners and losers in society, and that any attempt to redress the inequalities of our society will stifle economic growth and leave everyone worse off. Some will see this as an argument for a new economic model, based around universal basic income. Any moves towards this will need to take care that it’s affordable, sustainable, and doesn’t lead towards an entrenched two-tier society.
Walter Schiedel’s book The Great Leveller is a huge survey of inequality across all of human history, from the 21st century to prehistoric cave-dwellers. He argues that only revolutions, wars, and other catastrophes have historically reduced inequality: a perfect example is the Black Death in Europe, which (by reducing the population and therefore the labor supply that was available) increased wages and reduced inequality. Meanwhile, our solution to the financial crisis of 2007-8 may have only made the problem worse.
But in a world of nuclear weapons, of biowarfare, of cyberwarfare—a world of unprecedented, complex, distributed threats—the consequences of these “safety valves” could be worse than ever before. Inequality increases the risk of global catastrophe, and global catastrophes could scupper any progress towards the techno-utopia that the utopians dream of. And a society with entrenched inequality is no utopia at all.
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