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      What are the 2 biggest business/technology disruptions you are facing this year?

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      Paula KleinCreated by Paula Klein on Feb 26, 2015 in Public Site: MIT IDE

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      There are some striking similarities shared by Mustafa Suleyman co-founder of DeepMind, and Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo: Both are young, idealistic, non-U.S.-born entrepreneurs pushing the envelope of new technologies that also have groundbreaking social implications. DeepMind was founded in 2011 and bought last year by Google for $400 million, while three-year-old Duolingo is one of the most popular free apps on Google Play and on iPhones. 7ad4c756-ae69-4d3e-8bdc-5e45c9fcfd97-2060x1236.jpeg

       

      The stories part ways when it comes to approach, however: Duolingo’s claim to fame is the crowdsourcing nature of its iterative methodology for learning a foreign language.

       

      London-based DeepMind takes a rigorous, programming-intensive dive into the world of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and machine learning. Both co-founders described their products and dreams at recent IDE events.

       

      At the IDE annual meeting in May, Suleyman (pictured below at left) explained how his AGI systems employ neural networks and deep learning methods to solve tasks without prior programming. Using Atari computer games as its test case, DeepMind programs learned automatically--from recognizing raw images--how

      Mustafa-Suleyman_IMG_0721-e1432300484446.jpgto reach high game scores with only pre-training instructions. The program figured out how to succeed at nearly 50 Atari games without any foreknowledge of how to play them.

       

      Suleyman has high goals for AGI. Rather than fearing its power to replace humans and perform devious actions, he sees AGI tackling some of the world’s biggest problems including clean water access, financial inequality, fraud detection and reducing stock market risks. “Maybe AGI can shape a better world,” he claimed. Discussions over ethics and safety measures are certainly needed, along with verification and security methodologies, he acknowledged.

       

      Google sees huge commercial potential in the technology and already has used AGI in its Streetview map app, photo apps and to replace 60 hand-crafted systems across the company. AGI has also made huge strides in speech recognition as in Android phones and Google Translate, which Suleyman said reduces transcription errors by 30 percent.

       

      Clearly, “AI has arrived,” he said at the IDE event, though AGI’s full potential is still a long way off. The programs are weak at conceptualization, an area where humans can work with AI to add more abstract thinking.

       

      Crowdsourcing Language Learning

      Guatemalan native Von Ahn (pictured below at right) also aimed high when he tinkered with app dev as a young software designer. He created and sold two companies to Google (including reCAPTCHA) while still in his 20s before creating, Duolingo with co-founder Severin Hacker, and he also teaches at Carnegie-Mellon University.Screen_shot_2011-07-08_at_11.42.53_PM vonahn.png

       

      His initial goal was universal education, he told attendees at the July 10 IDE Platform Strategy Summit. When he stumbled on the fact that two-thirds of the world’s 1.2 billion language learners are studying English to rise up from poverty, he decided that a free or low-cost app was the key to their success. Duolingo was the result.

       

      His plan was to make it simple and game-like (offering bonus points and incentives for to move to the next level, for instance), to attract and keep learners. Soon, the site scaled rapidly and began crowdsourcing methods and tips so that students also become the teachers. Today, more than 100,000 schools are using the program and it has 40 million registered users—mostly outside of schools.

       

      What’s evident from these two examples is the rapid-fire pace and unlimited potential of many digital technologies. Not incidentally, maybe they will improve the world along the way.

       

       

       

      For more about MIT's robotic efforts, read the blog here.

       

      For more on DeepMinds see:

       

      For more on Duolingo see:

      A group I’m part of made a strong claim recently. A number of executives, entrepreneurs, and investors from the high tech industries, along with some economists (who tend to believe that technological progress is the only free lunch around) got together to draft an “open letter on the digital economy”.

       

      One of our main goals with it was to advocate a set of policies to deal with the fact that, as we wrote, “the benefits of [the current] technological surge have been very uneven.” I’ve written about these policies before; they include education and immigration reform, infrastructure investment, and greater support for basic research.

       

      But we also wanted to make the case that technology is not the enemy, and should not be demonized or thwarted. Hence our strong claim: “The digital revolution is the best economic news on the planet.”

       

      To back this up I could cite a lot of relatively dry research about the quality and productivity benefits of technology investment by companies, or about the sustained and huge quality improvements and cost declines of digital products themselves. I could also refer to historical research about the big and positive changes brought on by previous technology surges such as steam power and electrification.

       

      But I want to be more vivid than that. So to make my case I’m going to point to two pieces of research that looked closely and carefully at what happens when digital technologies arrive at the base of the pyramid — the billions of people living in the world’s emerging economies.

       

      The first is a study I consider a classic: Robert Jensen’s “The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance, and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector,” published in 2007. [Mr] Jensen was able to document what happened when the fishermen in the state of Kerala got mobile phones for the first time in the late 1990s. As he puts it, their adoption “was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.”

       

      This is circumspect economist-speak for “important things got much better, right away.”

      The material conditions of people’s lives improved, and also became more predictable. And [Mr] Jensen’s work makes clear that this improvement was due to the phones, and not to any other factors like policy changes or increased aid.

       

      The second is what we’re learning about mobile phone-based cash transfer programmes like GiveDirectly. Ample research shows that giving very poor people money, even with no conditions or strings attached, helps them greatly. They tend not to mis-spend it, and it leads to long-lasting positive changes in their lives. Mobile phones allow these transfers to go directly to intended recipients without middlemen; this keeps overhead low and reduces bribes and theft.

       

      We’re making great strides toward reducing dire poverty around the world. The spread of ever-more powerful technology throughout the base of the pyramid will accelerate this — I believe more quickly than any other possible intervention.

       

      So I’m confident in our letter’s claim that tech progress is the best economic news on the planet. It brings with it challenges that we need to acknowledge and confront, but so do all good things.

       

       

      This post originally appeared in my Financial Times blog here. More on the letter --and its signers--can be found here.

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