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John Doerr believes the U.S. will lose the race to artificial intelligence
Legendary venture capitalist John Doerr believes the United States is losing to China in the race to develop and capitalize on artificial intelligence, he said at a press conference Monday.
Doerr — whose notable investments include Google, Uber and Amazon — fears a lack of public support in America will lead to China becoming the first country to fully realize the potential of machine learning, meaning the communist nation will set the standards of ethics surrounding the technology.
“We are in a worldwide race for leadership of AI with China,” Doerr said. “There are no voluntary or mandatory ethical standards that apply to how the Chinese are going to develop and propagate and use AI technologies. … Right now, I’d predict we’ll lose.”
Companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Google and Apple brought about the recent series of technological breakthroughs that began with the microchip and personal computer in the 1980s, continued in the 1990s with the internet and, to this point, culminated with the smartphone in 2007.
“Imbued in that is a set of sensibilities and values that we have in the West,” Doerr, 67, said.
Speaking at the Menlo Park office of Kleiner Perkins, the investing firm he has worked at for nearly 40 years, Doerr predicted American companies won’t be able to replicate their successes from previous eras, and therefore won’t define the terms surrounding the usage of artificial intelligence.
The lack of privacy he worries Chinese artificial intelligence will exploit, Doerr explained, is also a significant advantage in the race against the United States.
“The Chinese have way more data and far fewer constraints on how that data is used,” Doerr said. “If I want to get to all the medical records in China to develop AI’s that will do a better job of lowering healthcare costs … I only have to go to one place to get that data. You can’t get that data in the U.S.”
That data disparity isn’t the only explanation for China’s perceived lead in the artificial intelligence race. A study published in January by the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization found that Chinese universities and public research organizations account for more than 100 of the top 500 artificial intelligence patent applicants worldwide, the most of any country. The United States, which ranks second in the world, has just 20.
The lack of public support for artificial intelligence in the U.S. is something Doerr hopes will be rectified, which would give America a better chance at catching up to China. Even if American researchers are better than their Chinese counterparts, Doerr offered, the numbers game is likely to render that moot.
“I look forward to there being a big, bold, bipartisan … bill that would put hundreds of billions of dollars of resource into AI technology in the U.S.,” Doerr said. “Why wouldn’t we as a country invest way, way more than we are in research, and in training, and in application of these technologies?”
John Doerr’s flexibility got him to the top, but he faced turmoil once there
For its first several years of existence, Rice University’s student radio station, KOWL, was barely audible outside of the building it broadcasted from.
John Doerr, then an undergraduate in electrical engineering and a member of KOWL, wanted to do better.
Doerr and other members of KOWL began asking local radio stations to donate their old equipment. When it arrived, Doerr would figure out how best to incorporate it with the mashup of various other transmitters and soundboards KOWL had acquired. Doerr lobbied the student body to increase the station’s funding and, eventually, the station changed from KOWL to KTRU and from AM to FM, allowing the signal to carry further.
While his undergraduate classmates said they didn’t foresee Doerr becoming one of the most accomplished venture capitalists in history, his oversight of the station’s switchover, and his treatment of the staff he managed, displayed the same willingness to change and caring nature that has propelled him to the upper echelon of investors in big tech, though that reputation has taken a hit in recent years.
“He has much more optimism and long-term view than other venture capitalists,” said Jennifer Miller, chief legal officer of Renmatix, an alternative energy startup Doerr has invested in. “He can also morph. He’s willing to morph what that long-term view is along with the company.”
The backstory of Amazon, one of Doerr’s biggest success stories, can be explained by that vision for what a company could be, rather than what it is.
“It was pretty clear [selling] books was going to work on the Internet,” Doerr said Monday, sitting in the same room where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos first pitched him and Kleiner Perkins. “The harder part was, ‘Do we go into records? Do we go into music? Do we go into toys? And why would Amazon do well in those things?’”
During one of Bezos’ subsequent trips to Silicon Valley, he and Doerr wandered through Fry’s Electronics, a big-box retailer.
The question: What, if anything, did Fry’s sell that Amazon shouldn’t?
Doerr and Bezos decided firearms were off limits, but just about everything else was fair game. The vision was far removed from Bezos’ original pitch of planting headquarters near a book distributor and using that proximity to deliver books quickly.
“If Jeff had those ambitions before,” Doerr, 67, said, “then he kept them a secret from me.”
Renmatix has gone through transformation of its own since Doerr became one of the company’s founding investors. Miller said his willingness to stick with Renmatix for the long haul rather than focus on his exit figures has allowed the company to make a smooth transition from a producer of biorenewable fuels to a licensor of biomass products.
Beyond his business acumen, Doerr’s personability also sticks out to Miller and others who know him. Doerr is known to keep a tight itinerary when visiting a company he’s investing in, so he can make it back home to enjoy dinner with his wife, Miller said.
Buddy Trotter, who preceded Doerr at station manager at KTRU, lived off-campus and sometimes had Doerr over to his mother’s house for dinner. For Christmas of Trotter’s senior year, Doerr spliced together a long tape of Trotter’s broadcasts, which his mother had never before heard due to her distance from campus.
“That’s just the kind of guy he was,” Trotter said.
During another instance, some of the KTRU workers were making untoward comments about one of the women who also worked at the station. A concerned Doerr approached Trotter and said, “Buddy, I wouldn’t let them talk like that. That’s just not right.”
That anecdote is particularly notable given the events of recent years. In 2012, Ellen Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins junior partner and protégé of Doerr, filed a lawsuit alleging the firm discriminated against women and retaliated against them if they called attention to it.
Pao lost the case and later dropped her appeal, but Kleiner Perkins took a reputation hit as the poster child of an industry often chastised for overflowing with white men. Doerr, though, says that critique is better reserved for venture capital firms other than Kleiner Perkins, which he touts as having a strong commitment to diversity that “way predates Ellen Pao.”
Pao’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
“Right issue, wrong case,” Doerr said. “But I don’t take any comfort in that. Kleiner might be among the best of the VC’s, but we know until we get to a 50/50 world, I’m not going to be satisfied with our partnership or the quality of the decisions that we make in our portfolio.”
Regardless, he knows the damage done in the public eye.
“It was not good for the Kleiner image,” Doerr said.
Doerr does believe it’s a positive that the Pao case brought attention to the widespread lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, another example of his optimistic worldview. Doerr credited that outlook to his dad, who was also an engineer and who placed a high value on solving problems.
“My belief is you divide the world into things that matter and then those that don’t,” Doerr said. “Focus on the things that matter and then, within those, try to find the places where you can make a difference.”
Today, that means tackling climate change, education, healthcare and biorenewable energy.
In a previous era, as Doerr was coming into adulthood, he applied that problem-solving focus to making his campus radio station more accessible, so he and his classmates could share news and music from Rice University with a wider audience.
“A lot of people that eventually acquire a lot of money are assholes,” Trotter said. “They’re vengeful. They stomp on people. They do anything, leave people in their wake to do what they want. John never struck me like that.”
Fillmore’s black churches reconcile with new role in new community
Early one Sunday afternoon in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, smiling churchgoers chatted as they trickled out of Bethel AME Church and onto the sidewalk of Laguna Street. Then, they packed into one of the church’s vans, made their way to their cars or awaited rideshares, going their separate ways, some traveling as far as Vallejo.
For much of the storied history of the city’s oldest black church, its parishioners would have walked home after services. But after decades of rising housing costs that disproportionately affected African Americans, Bethel AME and other black churches in Fillmore no longer serve the residents in their backyards — despite owning much of the housing in the area.
The exodus of African Americans from Fillmore, and San Francisco as a whole, has left the city’s black churches without a centralized base to draw from. And as property values have continued to rise, and church attendance has continued to dwindle, the role of the black pulpit has shifted more and more to that of a landlord, though they still struggle to keep African Americans in the neighborhood.
“If a black church in this city does not stand up — if we don’t hold on to what we have, this city of Saint Francis will be a horrible, horrible expression of racism, of evil gentrification,” said Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter and pastor of Third Baptist Church. “The black base has been destroyed.”
Third Baptist’s involvement in Fillmore housing dates back to the 1960s, when the church created a nonprofit to own and bolster affordable housing, as the neighborhood attempted to recover from the urban renewal of the post-World War II era.
In some ways, the plan worked. The churches have preserved large swaths of affordable housing in the area.
Third Baptist is the founder and longtime owner of Frederick Douglas Haynes Gardens, a 104-unit affordable housing complex. Bethel AME has 733 affordable housing units in a four-block radius around the church, according to Bobby Sisk, the president of the church’s housing nonprofit. El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, another black church in the area, has multiple senior communities with at least 100 units, according to court records.
But Sisk and Brown say the demographics of those apartments — located in the heart of what was once one of the most prominent African American neighborhoods in the city — don’t reflect Fillmore’s history.
“There are very few blacks in those buildings,” Sisk said. “There are Russians, there are other [minorities.] … I appreciate the growth and development, but when you look at the real growth and the real development, they’re not with people that look like me.”
Brown estimated some buildings in the area have African American populations as low as 11 percent.
That causes a problem for the churches, with attendance and participation far below what it was in previous eras.
“They don’t invite the same people in that got kicked to the curb,” said Sisk’s wife, Tamara, who is also a Bethel AME member. “They open the door for other types of minorities, which is fine, but we’ve got an African American church here, planted in the middle of the city. So that’s affecting us, and it’s affecting the demographics in the area.”
The Sisks themselves are examples of the African American exodus, having moved to San Carlos to raise their children. Bobby has been attending Bethel AME his entire life, and like many churchgoers, he now commutes to services.
With their children having reached adulthood, the Sisks have a desire to return to the city limits. But they know achieving that will be a challenge even for them, despite being relatively well-off.
“The effect of the redevelopment back in the early ‘60s and ‘70s, those effects back then are still present today,” Bobby Sisk said. “Our people that moved out thinking that they could come back with a voucher, or a Section 8 program, or some special preference, once they find themselves situated someplace else, it’s hard to come back.”
The lack of avenues for African Americans to return to the city, Brown said, is a continuation of the racism that kicked them out of it.
“Unfortunately, America has still not come to grips with its sin of public policy being established to the disadvantage and the detriment of black people,” Brown said. “The solution is to get reparation and preferential treatment. Play catch up, make amends. That’s got to have the public will, and the city has not shown the will.”
Supervisor Vallie Brown, whose district includes Fillmore, did not respond to an interview request, nor did the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
Declining African American population and church attendance, along with skyrocketing property values, has left the churches in an increasingly fraught situation.
Third Baptist recently sued its nonprofit after the board attempted to sell the Douglas Haynes complex.
“There are other churches in the community that are having similar problems where there’s a lot of pressure to change the housing from being affordable to making it market value,” said Louise Renne, a former San Francisco city attorney who represented Third Baptist in the lawsuit. “If properties that the black churches owned were put on the market, it would be very, very substantial money.”
The parties settled by entirely replacing the nonprofit’s board with new members. Sisk, meanwhile, said Bethel AME will keep its pledge to only sell the properties to an owner that will keep them classified as affordable housing.
So, for now, the churches continue to open their doors each Sunday, all the while facilitating much of the neighborhood’s affordable housing. If there continues to be less and less overlap between the people taking advantage of those services, however, Fillmore may add another dim chapter to its cautionary tale of gentrification.
“It started 40, 50 years ago, and the effects of it is still rolling today,” Sisk said. “We haven’t caught up with the numbers. … Thank God for the church, because the church holds onto those properties.”