AI vs. Brainpower & Hope
AI vs. Brainpower & Hope

Dr. Po-Shen Loh delivered the Graduation Address to the Class of 2017, our 24th graduating class. Savor his wise words to find hope for the future, despite the robots who will have taken away many traditional jobs.

It is an honor to be here, to speak to all of you. Thank you for the generous introduction. I am sorry, however, that I have played a trick on you. I am not the head coach of the USA Math Olympiad team. I am the head cheerleader.

There is a method behind this madness. The philosophy is that you can grow much greater results if you sow the seed of passion, and provide soil: initial learning resources, a social fabric for students to learn from each other, and the theory of how to learn. The secret there is to constantly challenge yourself, with tasks whose difficulty and impact grow ever greater.

This blueprint is a self-organizing system. With this blueprint, people all over the country - and the world - can grow to great heights, independently powered by their own passion. One theme of this talk is the power of self-organizing systems, which can scale impact worldwide.

The most fundamental self-organizing system is mathematics itself. From a very small collection of initial facts, you build enormous power. As an example, take the equation x^2 + 2x + 3 = 0. This is solved by the Quadratic Formula: (-b +/- sqrt{b^2 - 4ac})/(2a). The formula itself isn't special though, and memorizing it is not the triumph. You can always look it up on the Internet. Instead, the interesting part is that the formula's truth comes from some very basic mathematical facts: how to solve the equation x^2 = 10 (plus or minus the square root of 10), and how to use the distributive property.

With those basic facts, you can build much more than just the Quadratic Formula. You can even build a formula to solve equations like x^3 + 2x^2 + 3x + 4 = 0. You don't memorize that in school, as it's too big, but you can just find it on the Internet. Memorizing is not the interesting part. The triumph is that it was possible for mathematicians to discover the formula in the first place.

Mathematicians also discovered a formula for equations with 4th powers. But 5th powers? Mathematicians have proved that there is no such formula. Think about the power of that statement: it is not just that we have not found a formula yet, but that we can even prove that no matter how hard you look, or how creative you are, you will not be able to find such a formula. That transcends the power of memorization or application of learned techniques.

Indeed, this is the true power of human thinking, and human creativity.

In essence, thinking and creativity are what mathematics is. We should rebrand math, and just call it "thinking". Perhaps we can then call philosophy "thinking about thinking". It's quite interesting how some of the classical Greek philosophers were also mathematicians.

Thinking is our unique talent as humans.

Of the animals on Earth, we are not the fastest, or the strongest. Horses have us beaten on both of those fronts. But through human ingenuity and creativity, we have surpassed all other animals. Several centuries ago, we discovered how to harness fossil fuels (for better or for worse) and build engines which ushered in the Industrial Revolution. We even measured the power of our creations in "horsepower", celebrating how we were now able to multiply.

This caused massive disruption of the status quo in the global economy, and changed the world. You could multiply power by the tens and hundreds. The importance of humans shifted from manual labor to controlling and directing the power that had been multiplied. It was important to be able to remember instructions, and to carry them out by using combinations of tools.

However, the world has just changed yet again.

[Steps over and picks up smartphone.]

Today, a device that fits in your pocket has a microprocessor whose speed is measured in Gigahertz. Let's take apart that word. "Giga" means "billion", and "hertz" measures "calculations per second". This means that a pocket-sized device can do billions of calculations per second. The world has 7 billion people. It is the same "billion".

This means a now-commonplace device can perform calculations as fast as all humans on Earth combined.

This will create a new wave of disruption for the world order, and it is already starting. I live in Pittsburgh, where the company Uber is building and testing its self-driving automobiles. Amazon is working to replace warehouse workers with robots. Already you can start to see some restaurants replacing waiters and waitresses with iPads. Artificial intelligence is powering automated secretarial assistants to help schedule meetings.

This is eliminating many, many jobs, possibly most of the jobs on the planet, similar to the effect of the Industrial Revolution.

This is particularly relevant for you, as you decide on how you will be able to proceed in your life. Jobs that were based on memory or carrying out predefined tasks will be replaced by automation, powered by microprocessors which can compute a billion times faster than you. Our remaining assets will be thinking and creativity - the heart of math.

Later in life, you might not end up actually using all of the math that you learned in school from your great teachers - not the sines, cosines, and logarithms - but you will use the thinking and creative problem solving that you developed by learning and using math.

Cherish those skills. They are what will save you from going the way of the horses after automobiles were developed.

Although one can see this change as frightening and depressing, you can take another view. This great power makes it now possible for any one person to change the world (hopefully in a good way). This is an incredible opportunity. A century ago, if you wanted to achieve worldwide impact, you would need - literally - tons of steel. Today, the incredible power of computers allow you to scale up to billion-fold worldwide impact with the resources of one person.

You can now think really big.

I don't have a prescription for how to operate in this fast-changing environment. Nobody does. I can only share a warning of the future, and share my own approach as an example of how one person thinks about the rapidly changing world.

I'm happy to share some of my background. I was inspired by the people I was around. As one example, when I was in university, I used to go to the gym to lift weights several times a week. I was a hacker (in the sense of creating interesting programs, not breaking into systems), as was one of my friends who I exercised with. In our spare time, we would build computer programs for fun, for the challenge of it.

My friend was interested in the structure of the network of friendships in the world (this was before Facebook). One day, when we were going to the gym, he mentioned that he had written a computer program which could combine people's voluntarily-uploaded contact lists to his computer, and help them visualize their social network. At that time, there was no way to do this. The next time we went to the gym, he mentioned that his computer had crashed because of the number of people who tried to access his system. (It had gone viral.)

The next time, he mentioned that someone had offered to buy the system from him. Thinking as a normal university student, I thought that was a great thing, and was surprised to hear that he had no intention of selling it. Instead, he continued pursuing bigger challenges without trying to cash out early.

I went on to study for a Masters degree at Cambridge, following the conservative academic track. Meanwhile, he joined an early-stage startup company as its first Chief Technology Officer - about the farthest thing from cashing out early. While I was across the ocean, I remember exchanging messages that year, when he told me about his plans working for that company. It was a company with a product that was unclear to me at the time, called The rest is history.

He was genuinely passionate about pursuing the greatest challenges, for the sake of doing great and interesting things. After Facebook had grown significantly, he moved on to the next challenge. He wanted to organize the collective wisdom of the world, by building a platform for people to share questions about anything, and for people to answer those questions, and vote on the best answers. This is now Quora.

He really inspired me as a person who continually sought ever bigger challenges, rather than cashing out. This led him to where he is today, running a billion-dollar company.

Many years later, after Facebook had its IPO, I read an article which said that when he was in high school, he and a friend had created an app which recommended music to listen to, based on your playlists. Around when they graduated high school, a company offered them a million dollars to buy their software and to have them work there for a few years. They declined. It turns out that was a good decision. His friend was Mark Zuckerberg. Had they been the types to cash out early, there would have been no Facebook.

Stories like this motivated me to structure my own life around ambitious projects and successively harder challenges, with a passion for impact.

I haven't achieved anything of comparable scale yet, but I'm happy to share a trajectory that starts closer to Earth.

My first non-temporary job was as a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University (where I still am now). The first thing I did was to work hard to earn the respect and trust of my colleagues, to ensure that I would be able to keep the job. (This is the first thing you should do when you get a job.)

I reached a point of confidence in 6 months. I looked to the next level of scale and scope. I set my life goal to build my institution (the Math Department, or more broadly, Carnegie Mellon University) into one which was among the very best in the world. There is a long story here, but to capture the highlight, our Carnegie Mellon math team just ranked #1 for the first time in the history of the North American college math competition, ahead of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and all the others. This was a collaborative effort with some dedicated and like-minded colleagues. Roughly speaking, it was based on identifying a demand (among the most ambitious students) for personalized mentorship by research professors, which was not adequately met by the community of top universities. Acting on this insight, the rest is history.

That took only 7 years. My life goal has now moved on to the next scale: to educate the entire world. In the meantime, I already had started exploring the next scale, taking on the responsibility of national coach for the USA International Math Olympiad team. Although the USA team has now won twice, that was not my goal: I was focusing on the 20-year, long-term success of every student who came through our national training program. I see these people as agents of change, who could bring great things to the future of humankind. Indeed, when the Mathematical Association of America first appointed me as the coach, I warned them that our results would get worse, because I was focusing on the long game. It turned out that they were also of the same mindset, and so we signed on.

When the United States set the goal to put a person on the moon, it was not because it was easy, but precisely because it was hard, and would stretch our abilities beyond imagination, for the benefit of posterity. Today, we call a similar goal a Moonshot.

To lift the math and science level across the world, I created a social enterprise (Expii) which is giving everyone access to their own artificial-intelligence powered personal teacher, for free. In coming up with this approach, I went back to the fundamentals, and thought: what is the best way to learn? As you have probably experienced, you learn fastest when everything personally adapts to you. The big problem, however, is that it is too expensive to give everyone in the world their own personal teacher. People are expensive to hire!

Our insight goes back to the observation that today, computer technology can operate a billion times faster than a human. And today, billions of people have smartphones. This disruptive technological breakthrough means that we should now rethink the process and experience of learning, taking modern technology into account.

We settled on mimicking the adaptive experience of working with a personal tutor. We are building algorithms to identify what you understand and do not understand, to recommend lessons and practice problems in exactly the areas that you need, and at the right level of difficulty. This actually turns education into a math problem, which we solve with extremely cost-efficient computation. For the educational content itself, we built a framework for crowdsourcing openly licensed lessons and problems, to make the world of educational content permanently free, like Wikipedia. Ultimately, we seek to teach the whole world in the best way possible, for free, using the recurring critical insight on the unbelievably massive power of computers.

At the same time, we built the organization with a model for reaching long-term sustainability, initially funded by a unique combination including visionary individuals and philanthropic foundations.

It is certainly a challenge to achieve this goal, but I am inspired to keep going until it is done, because of another observation which shows its necessity. I'd like to close by sharing this with you, in the hopes that you will also help to work towards global societal problems in your own life. This also takes us back full circle to my warning that computers and automation are steadily replacing the vast majority of jobs.

As more and more jobs are eliminated, there will be more and more people who lose hope in their future. Hope is what keeps us moving forward as humans. If a majority of people lose hope, there will be civil unrest. If 90% of people lose hope, there will be violent revolution, which will bring down our entire civilization. No matter how comfortable of a life you have built for yourself by then, it will all be for naught.

One way out is to provide ways for people of any age to freely learn skills to re-insert themselves into the workforce. This requires the creation of a free education platform which can scale and adapt to new disciplines as the world changes. Somebody has to do this. I see the problem, and rather than waiting around, I decided to jump in and try to tackle it myself.

This is the world we live in today. It changes faster than ever. Technology massively magnifies the impact of any individual person. It has reached the point that with passion, you actually can change the world. Let me share with you that this is the most fulfilling endeavor imaginable.

Let's all work towards building a better world. Keep in touch - I would love to hear of your journey on your own mission. Congratulations again, Class of 2017!

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