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‘I predict we’ll lose’: Venture capitalist John Doerr pessimistic about AI race against China
Venture capitalist and tech giant John Doerr said at a Monday press conference it’s vital that the West wins the Artificial General Intelligence race against China. But he doesn’t think it will.
“I’m not sure we are going to win,” he said. “I predict we’ll lose.”
AGI is about teaching machines how to learn for themselves. Enormous amounts of data must be processed for that kind of development, and Doerr said China’s lack of constraints on data use make it easier for the nation to advance AGI.
A study co-authored by Chinese and American researchers from February found AI was better at diagnosing some ailments than humans were. The data analyzed included patient records from 1.3 million hospital visits in Guangzhou, China.
Doerr said it’s going to be difficult to beat the Chinese when American researchers can’t access the same kind or amount of data, and winning the AGI race would allow China to build the ethical scaffolding for the new technology.
“It doesn’t really matter what values the west have if the Chinese have the capability,” he said.
AI ethics have become a burning issue over the past few years as reports of China using AI as a surveillance tool on its citizens emerged. Now, American companies face an ethical reckoning.
After outcry within Google about the company using its AI to help the U.S. Department of Defense interpret drone footage, Google chose not to renew its contract with the Pentagon. Doerr said he thinks Microsoft will win it.
As the world wrestles with the ethical significance of AI, Doerr said its most important that the U.S. figures out how to gain ground in the race to comprehensive AGI. He said it’s time for the government to get more involved.
“I look forward to there being a big, bold, bipartisan, backed-by-Trump-and-Democrats bill that would put hundreds of millions of dollars of resources into AI technology in the US,” he said.
President Trump issued an executive order in February that redirected some federal resources toward AI and called for America to lead the global AI ethics debate. Experts have criticized the bill for being too broad and not creating any new funding for research.
Doerr said another crucial step toward AI dominance is ensuring people who study it in the U.S. don’t leave the country. He said a green card should be stapled to the diploma of every student who graduates with an AI-related degree.
“We’ve got a crazy national strategy, right?” he asked. “’Let’s educate these people and then tell them they can’t stay.’ That’s stupid.”
Ultimately, Doerr said, it’s going to come down to who has more funding and more people researching AI.
“I can try to argue that the U.S. AI researchers are more creative or higher quality,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want to bet on that today.”
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John Doerr hopes to leave blunders in the past
People have called John Doerr the internet’s “center of gravity.” They’ve said he “burns brighter than mere mortals.” He, like so many promising tech minds, is often elevated to godlike status.
Many Americans would have a difficult time picking the billionaire’s bespectacled face out of a lineup. But without his early investments, they might not be Googling anything, let alone having Amazon overnight them hair gel.
Doerr is a venture capitalist who helped light the match for the internet boom, a choice he is both blamed and lauded for.
He’s an ideas man. A cheerleader for innovation.
Doerr hoisted companies such as Twitter and Uber up on his shoulders. He also poured millions into duds. He preached the gospel of goal-setting and created a new generation of believers. He was also called to answer for his venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, when it was sued for gender discrimination in 2012.
Now 67, John Doerr is surveying his legacy.
His name still carries heft, but Silicon Valley is rumbling with speculation that the once-unsurpassable Kleiner Perkins, an empire Doerr built, now can’t keep up with its competitors.
Tech gods age, too.
Doerr was born at a time when a computer could fill an entire room. The original Star Trek debuted when he was just old enough to drive. He grew up in lockstep with modern technology.
But before his name was plastered across Forbes’ billionaires lists, before Jeff Bezos branded him the internet’s “center of gravity,” he was a radio geek from a middle-class St. Louis family.
He and his college sweetheart graduated from Rice University with matching bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering before getting married and having two daughters.
Bart Sinclair, Doerr’s friend and college roommate, said he was constantly impressed by how focused Doerr was.
“He’s a person who burns the candle at three ends,” Sinclair said. “He also didn’t seem to need the amount of sleep that most humans require.”
The duo worked on a project to design and build a new research computer toward the end of their time at Rice. Sinclair said they would go to the lab for hours at a time and sit on either side of the computer’s frame, doing the tedious work of pin-placing and wire-soldering.
Doerr would eventually forgo the mop of hair he sported in college, but he would never lose the focus Sinclair described. That focus, alongside a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University, an ever-churning mind and surely some amount of intangibles, landed him at Intel in the golden days of the 8080 8-bit microprocessor.
The revolutionary chip has been credited with starting the personal computer craze. Tech writer and historian Michael Malone called it the single most important product of the twentieth century.
Against the advice of former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who was also Doerr’s mentor and idol, he left the company in 1980 to join Kleiner Perkins.
He carved out a place for himself at Kleiner Perkins by investing early in companies such as Amazon and Google, earning him legend status in Silicon Valley and beyond. He now chairs the firm.
But Doerr’s highlight reel narrows in on his early investments. Not every company can be Amazon.
During the early 2000s, Doerr directed Kleiner Perkins’ attention and funds toward green and clean tech. The decision backfired.
He then faced a public relations nightmare in 2012 when his former chief of staff, Ellen Pao, sued Kleiner Perkins.
Pao alleged that a pattern of gender discrimination at the firm cost her promotions and ultimately her job. She refused to settle and saw the case through to trial.
In Pao’s book, “Reset,” she wrote that Doerr’s actions made her uncomfortable on multiple occasions. She claimed he specifically requested an Asian woman be hired as his chief of staff, only wanted women to babysit his children, and told Pao she had a “female chip” on her shoulder.
Doerr’s book, “Measure What Matters,” emphasizes the importance of a positive workplace culture, but Pao testified that the culture at Kleiner Perkins was toxic.
The nightly news crawl compared Pao’s case to that of Anita Hill when she took on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearings.
An old Doerr quote made headlines during the trial and has been circulating ever since.
In a 2008 speech to the National Venture Capital Association, he described the world’s greatest entrepreneurs as “white, male nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford, and they absolutely have no social life.”
Though Kleiner Perkins won the lawsuit, the firm’s — and Doerr’s — public image did not emerge unscathed.
Sinclair, Doerr’s college roommate and friend, remembered a near-disaster when their group left a class project to the last minute, burned out its transistors and couldn’t get new ones from the school lab because it was the weekend.
Doerr, Sinclair said, found an electronics supply company that opened early on Saturday mornings and had swapped out the defunct transistors by the time the rest of the group returned to the lab. The project was saved.
It was then that Doerr vowed to never let the group get caught in another bind, Sinclair said. The next semester, they finished their final project within the first month of the term.
John Doerr is not a man who makes the same mistakes twice. He likes to sign tweets, memos and emails with “Onward!” There’s no time to sulk about past miscalculations.
Kleiner Perkins has been pushing its diversity initiative more forcefully since the Pao trial. Doerr has published a book on his beloved goal-setting system. Green tech investments in companies such as Beyond Meat have paid off for the company.
Doerr said in an interview that he’s looking forward, not back, but he realizes both his and Kleiner Perkins’ reputations were dulled by the past few years.
He’s trying to put all of that behind him.
Countless Californians forced to part with pets as housing crisis tightens grip
Marley spent his Monday smearing peanut butter all over his cage.
Despite his graying snout and advanced age — 91 in dog years — the Shar-Pei pit bull mix still has his rowdy moments. Mostly, though, he just lounges on his tartan blanket, looking pensive.
“I am a sweet gentleman,” the sign posted on his kennel reads.
He’s not a showoff. He doesn’t whine and jump like some of his peers do as onlookers crouch down to coo at him.
His golden ears prick up a little when a potential new parent gets close, but that’s all.
Marley’s old family gave him to the shelter willingly. In his file under “reason for surrender,” it just says “landlord.”
As California’s housing crisis swung into full gear, humans, dogs, cats and guinea pigs alike found themselves without homes.
Deb Campbell from San Francisco Animal Care and Control said her agency saw a spike in owners forced to give up their pets around 2008. Though the numbers have leveled off since then, she still hears nightmare housing stories almost daily.
The crisis squeezes pet owners from all sides, Campbell said. Some just can’t find housing that’s within their budget and pet friendly. People who are pushed out of the city by soaring costs often have to give up animals as lengthy commutes eat up their free time. Rainy day funds are drained by rent and left empty for veterinary emergencies.
Pet parents in situations like these often turn to trusted shelters to take over the care of their animals.
Voluntary surrender numbers jump at the end of each month, Campbell said, as owners are evicted from their homes and left without options.
Jessica Lefebvre knows people who choose to remain homeless because they can only find lodging that would force them to give up their pets.
She said it’s a crime that they’re forced to make that decision.
Lefebvre helped found People, Animals, Love and Support East Bay, a nonprofit that helps pet owners in Oakland whose face tough situations. It helps provide food, flea treatment, vaccines and more to dogs living in homeless camps.
One nonprofit estimated that in some parts of the county, up to 24 percent of homeless people have pets.
Local initiatives to feed homeless people’s pets in the Bay Area started after food kitchen volunteers noticed some people were giving their meals to their dogs.
“They take better care of their dogs than themselves,” Lefebvre said.
Pet-specific food banks run by groups like Feeding Pets of the Homeless and other resources have sprung up around San Francisco and Oakland in recent years.
Lefebvre said her organization started focusing on helping the pets of people experiencing homelessness when she noticed outbreaks of Parvovirus in some of Oakland’s homeless camps a few years ago.
Now, she gets calls every day about litters born at camps, pets that need new homes and dog fights.
Campbell said she’s noticed that when the homeless have to give up their dogs, they often wait until the very end of the day to come in to the shelter. They walk through the doors five minutes before the building closes.
“They hold on as long as possible,” she said.
Campbell said she’d live in her car before she would part with Schatzi, her pit bull-Chihuahua mix.
Lefebvre said she recently found a microchipped dog at one of the Oakland camps. She thought it was a runaway, but when she contacted the dog’s owner, they begged her not to return it.
“We just can’t take care of her anymore,” they told her.
At San Francisco Animal Care and Control, the employees who work the center desk are on the front lines of the housing crisis. They see it all.
“They have to be counselors, psychiatrists,” Campell said.
Susi Leni has heard every housing-fueled reason someone would ever need to give up an animal. People worried about backlash from their landlords, people in precarious housing situations and more walk up to the counter every day.
“Everyone is afraid of losing housing,” she said. “Everyone is terrified of their landlord. It feels very predatory.”
Leni said it never gets easier to watch someone part ways with their pet.
She recently worked with a homeless woman who was placed a shelter in Phoenix and planned to bring her 10-month-old pit bull with her. When the woman got to the airport, Leni said, she was told she couldn’t bring her dog on the plane. She ended up forfeiting the puppy to the shelter with tears in her eyes.
“She was not at all prepared for that,” Leni said.
San Francisco Animal Care and Control doesn’t keep track of exactly why each animal was given up, but Leni said the proportion of animals she’s seen surrendered because of the housing crunch is massive.
Grub is a brindle-colored pit bull-boxer puppy who likes to carry around his stuffed crab toy. Brownie is a furry little Norwich Terrier mix who cries and whimpers when potential families walk away from him. Mia is a black and white pit bull mix who offers even passerby a chance to look at her tennis ball. Carlos is an old brown tabby cat who shows off for prospective adopters, mewing and standing up on his hind legs. Mochi the gray and white cat hides in her bed when people come say hello.
All of these animals once had homes but now live in cages. Maybe their people lost their homes, too. Maybe they thought their beloved pets would have better lives at the shelter.
Lefebvre of PALS East Bay doesn’t know how to solve the housing crisis, but she knows people and their pets should come as a package deal.
“To some people, that animal is their whole purpose,” she said.” “If you take away somebody’s purpose, what’s the point?”