Circle of LifeMarch 18, 2017
Jambo Señor Bernard Lagat! Greetings from inside the Maasai Mara where I got to see the whole cast of the Circle of Life. Before coming for my first trip to Africa, my knowledge of the continent, like nearly all Americans, was pretty much completely derived from The Lion King. As I was psyching myself up for the journey, I played a medley of songs from the film along with “Dry Your Tears, Afrika.”
However, once I got here, it was not Africa that was drying its tears, but me, as I explained to a member of the Clinton Health Access Initiative how the kindness of the American people over the last 70 years has led directly to our family’s and my being in the position we are in. Whether we take Sam Higginbottom and Mason Vaugh’s Allahabad Agricultural Institute that gave Baba his first job and encouraged his growth, the sponsors that allowed him to come to Illinois for higher studies with Bill Perkins not once but twice, the granters of the tuition waivers that allowed Papa to study there himself, the policymakers whose policies encouraged someone like him to work and gain lawful residence in the U.S., the agency program managers who funded Papa’s research, or the people behind the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that allowed both of us to thrive in graduate school, the American people have consistently encouraged achieving the dream through hard work and the rewarding of skill, knowledge, and expertise regardless of caste or creed.
But it seems like we’re going through a “cultural revolution” that some point to having arisen from the hollowing out of the middle class and rising income inequality due to increased automation of jobs by technological solutions. I don’t think anyone should be promoting extreme income inequality, but solutions should come from the science and technologies themselves rather than from crippling advances in the science and technologies that have gotten us to this point. As Stefano Ermon says, “It’s very important that we make sure that [artificial intelligence] is really for everybody’s benefit.” Last October I submitted a proposal for an artificial intelligence grand challenge for IBM Research to work on, ultimately not selected, on exactly this topic: reducing economic inequality. Given all that has transpired in the intervening months, my belief that such a project should be undertaken has only strengthened.
Here in Kenya, I had the pleasure of visiting the startups Soko and mSurvey who are both doing their part in democratizing production and the flow of information. Both have developed profitable technology-based solutions that happen to push back against inequalities in the developing world. Back in March 2013, I had submitted a proposal “Production by the Masses” for inclusion in IBM Research’s longer-term vision for the corporation, also not selected, which has some of the elements that these two companies and others like them epitomize. However, it also failed to fully anticipate some of the things that have taken hold recently like the ridiculously high value of data and the power of the blockchain’s distributed ledger, and over-emphasized the distinction between rural and urban populations. I now see that the same sort of stuff is needed everywhere there are inequalities, which is everywhere.
Yes there is an ideal inclusive Circle of Life (fragile enough to be Scarred). Let us all strive for that ideal by valuing knowledge and by using existing and new science and technology.