News Story from Interview
‘Right now I predict we will lose’: John Doerr on the AI race and need for education reform
Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr offered a prediction on Monday: At this point, the West will not win the race against China for dominance in artificial intelligence technology.
“I’m not sure we are going to win. Right now I predict we will lose. The Chinese have way more data and far fewer constraints on how that data is used,” Doerr said.
Doerr, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, said that the United States government should be investing more resources in AI technology and doing more to retain foreign students who study at American universities.
“Why wouldn’t we as a country invest way, way more than we are in research and in training and in [the] application of these technologies?”
But for Doerr, the AI race between China and the West is just one of many things that the US government needs to address. Among the other problems society faces, Doerr is concerned with the state of public education, higher ed and the healthcare system. In a Harvard Business Review article he wrote, Doerr referred to the education and healthcare industries as the two “most troubled” sectors in the economy.
“One of the tragedies of public education in America is that it’s failing at least 20 percent of our kids who are not reading at grade level. They can’t do symbolic manipulation. They can’t participate in the information economy and it’s incumbent in a well functioning civil society that we have an education system that’ll ensure that’s not the case,” Doerr said on Monday.
Through his work at Kleiner Perkins, Doerr is investing in companies that are advancing his mission of furthering public education and using the power of the Internet to spread knowledge. Doerr said that so far higher education has been “insulated” from the effects of the Internet, but that will most likely change.
“It’s not available to enough people and it and the healthcare industry are the last I believe to succumb to the disruptive forces of the Internet, the free ability to disseminate information and truly competitive forces.”
Through his work at Kleiner Perkins, Doerr joined the Board of Directors of Coursera — a website that partners with universities to provide online classes. Doerr said he thinks that higher education costs too much in the US and around the world and ultimately more people will receive their educations online.
Doerr has said in the past that the Internet and technological advances have created “the largest, legal creation of wealth on the planet,” but he said in his remarks on Monday that education provides economic opportunity.
“The kind of society and democracy that I want to be a part of education is a great equalizer and that provides for both opportunity and mobility.”
‘Focus on the things that matter’: How John Doerr ensures success
As a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, John Doerr knows the risks of investing in a new company. He also recognizes people’s strengths and knows what they can do if they are given the opportunities to succeed.
Doerr said he took an “unconventional bet” on Jeff Bezos and Amazon. He hired two vice presidents of engineering for the company and continually backed Bezos even when there was substantial risk involved. Finding the right people is what Doerr continues to do when it comes to proposing solutions to the problems Americans face today, such as a public education system that doesn’t serve all students well.
“Here’s my approach — some would say my super power — and that is to find entrepreneurs, amazing entrepreneurs, who are going to go tackle those problems and get them the resources and the teams so that they can win,” Doerr said.
Doerr, the oldest of five siblings, said that his dad is his hero. He said that his dad, an entrepreneurial engineer, loved to help people by identifying problems and finding solutions.
“That’s a high calling in the world I grew up in and live in still today,” Doerr said. “So I think my partners would tell you I do bring a kind of ‘big idea optimism’ to any kind of problem, whether it’s AI or public education or charter public schools.”
The emphasis on big ideas comes from a method of goal setting called objective and key results that Doerr learned from Intel manager Andy Grove. Doerr said there are five things that matter in setting goals for institutions: focus, alignment, commitment, tracking progress and stretching people to achieve their goals.
“Larry [Page] likes to say ‘I’d rather have a team aim for Mars and fall short and know they’ll get to the moon as opposed to sandbag or do something conservative,’” Doerr said of the Google co-founder’s management practices.
Doerr said that his parents promised him one thing: a good education. Now, Doerr is on a mission to improve public schools across America.
“I think in 20 percent of America’s schools, the schools are killing the kids. They are so far behind grade level that they don’t stand a chance of graduating from high school, getting to college, being equipped to compete and be a well-functioning citizen in a civil democracy,” Doerr said.
Education, in Doerr’s view, is a way to promote opportunity and close the gap in inequality that comes from the wealth generated by new technology. He said he favors promoting charter public schools to promote competition between public schools and charter schools.
“So this is something we’ve got to keep on. It’s certainly something that ought to be well within the grasp of the wealthiest nation in the world,” Doerr said.
Doerr’s mission to improve education isn’t limited to the K-12 system. He says that the education and healthcare industries are the only remaining industries that haven’t been affected by the Internet and that will soon change. He invested in Coursera, a website that offers university classes online, and joined the company’s board of directors.
Doerr said that higher education is not available to enough people and that only a “few brands” will be able to survive the competition that online education presents.
To be sure, these are large problems that will have no simple answer, but Doerr has advice on how to approach thinking of solutions:
“I think that even if a problem looks intractable, my belief is that you want to divide the world into things that really matter and those that don’t. Focus on the things that matter and within those, try to find the places where you can make a difference.”
North Beach laundromats bring San Franciscans of all backgrounds together
Craig Staley, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, has been doing his laundry once a week at Little Bubbles Coin Wash on 1535 Grand Ave. since October of last year. In August 2018, a fire in his Daly City apartment displaced him and he has been living in hotels in San Francisco because the rent for another apartment is too expensive.
Staley’s landlord said that the insurance company would reimburse him while the apartment was being refurbished for two and a half months. During the renovation, Staley was still paying a below market rate of $1,250 per month in addition to the costs of a hotel. He said the market rate of his apartment is just over $3,200. But the insurance company didn’t reimburse him.
“It really cut into me financially because I was paying rent and I thought I would be reimbursed by her insurance company,” Staley said. “I’m not homeless, just maxed out.”
Staley said he also had a surgery on top of paying for two rents, which added to his debt. His doctors advised him to stay in the city so he could make it to appointments. He said he plans on continuing to live in the hotels.
The laundromats in North Beach are a meeting place for those from different walks of life in the city. Some patrons live in single residence occupancies or hotels while others just arrived in the city and need to find a place to wash their clothes. However they ended up in San Francisco, they’re finding a place to wash their clothes because their housing doesn’t have washing facilities.
The laundromats go up and down Grant Avenue between Union Street and Green Street. Little Bubbles is in a beige building on the side of the street. The inside of the laundromat smells faintly of detergent and has white walls with pieces of artwork and photographs propped-up above the machines. A large white counter separates the rows of washers and dryers. There’s a change machine, but it’s for customers only. Further down the street there are dry cleaning shops that also wash clothes, but Little Bubbles has coin operated machines.
Some North Beach residents have stable housing, but don’t have a washer and dryer so they come to Stanley’s Laundry Wash and Dry. Stanley’s is across the street from Little Bubbles and the laundromat has a granite countertop that serves as a folding station in the center of the room. The walls are a pale yellow sunshine color and the laundromat has different types of coin operated machines that cost anywhere from $4 to $8.50.
Hayden Bowler, a 30-year-old from Melbourne, Australia moved to San Francisco yesterday and is taking his clothes out of the dryer at Stanley’s on a Tuesday morning.
Bowler, who said it was difficult to find an apartment remotely in Australia, will be starting a job in telecommunications next week. Stanley’s is right near his new apartment, which doesn’t have a washer and dryer.
“It’s a couple hundred meters walk, it’s not so bad,” Bowler said. “It’s only really a pain when you have to sit there and wait. It’s such a waste of time.”
Laundromats like Stanley’s are also a convenience for those living in single residence occupancies in North Beach. John McKindley-Ward, a 32-year-old who lives in a single room occupancy, said that where he lives is “as close to off the grid as you can get” and that it allows him to live “much cheaper.”
McKindley-Ward says that Stanley’s is only a five to 10 minute walk from his residence and that it’s affordable and not too crowded.
“I can do my laundry and my wife’s laundry for about $10,” he said, adding that if he did have kids, the costs would increase and it may not be as affordable.
For McKindley-Ward, there’s also a social aspect to the laundromat, saying that he could meet people and talk to them.
For one North Beach resident and Little Bubbles customer, the trade-off of moving to a new apartment that didn’t have a washer and dryer was not too significant or inconvenient. Arthur McPadden, a 30-year-old in software sales, said he moved from the upper Haight area to North Beach with his co-worker. He said that he wanted to move to North Beach and that he ultimately doesn’t mind not having a washer and dryer, despite the fact that his old residence did have one.
“I sacrificed the laundry for a much more lively neighborhood,” he said.