The book addresses one of the major socio-political challenges: The increasing divide between “urban living spaces with a prospering tech industry” (“High Tech America”) on the one hand, and the “rural areas dried up by urban exodus and left with the globalization and automation losers” (“Rural America”) on the other. The author illustrates the problem with a few figures: “In 2016, 75 per cent of venture funding went to Silicon Valley, New York City, and Boston, with 50 per cent going to Silicon Valley alone. Venture funding in Tennessee that same year was less than 1 percent of the total pool invested.” (pg. 69). Note: Kevin Scott is anything but the first to point out this problem. A similar analysis had been presented by the author Phil A. Neel in his book “Hinterland: America’s New Lanscape of Class and Conflict” (published in 2018).
“Reprogramming the American Dream. From Rural America to Silicon Valley – Making AI serve us all” by Kevin Scott with Greg Shaw, HarpinCollins Publishers, 260 pages, year of publication 2020
With his book, Kevin Scott is certainly trying to tie in with the “great tale of Game Changing Technology” in the tradition of the bestseller “The New Digital Age” (published in 2013) by the former Google-Chairman Eric Schmidt. The title of Scott’s book (“Reprogramming the American Dream”) sets the bar pretty high, and thus you should not be surprised to come across sentences like “The untold story of the tech industry over the past fifteen years is the extent to which we’ve put incredibly powerful technology – in the form of open source and open Internet, cloud platforms, and AI frameworks – into the hands of a broader group of developers, builders, and entrepreneurs than ever before in human history.” (p. 79f). In my humble opinion the book makes a welcome contribution to an important public debate, but the book doesn’t lay the foundation for a new narrative of visionary appeal.
There is good reason to believe that the book is also a response to the election victory of Trump in 2016, “Rural America” played an important role in these presidential elections. Populist politicians like Trump address (and sometimes even: feed) fears of globalization, and perhaps soon fears of technologies like AI. The Oxford economist Carl-Benedikt Frey has very well elaborated on the connection between technological progress and political approval in his book “The Technology Trap”. The tech industry therefore has a strong interest in shaping the technological structural change in such a way that attractive offers are made for the “losers of automation technology”.
Reprogramming the American Dream: Challenge and Answers
”What is rural? It’s what you have to drive through to get to the city.”
Someone cracks this joke at one of the conferences on rural development that the author attends – however, nobody would laugh. No wonder, the problem is serious, sometimes even dramatic. The author quotes a few speakers who describe the situation in the countryside: ”(…) Heather Stafford, director of adult education in Siskiyou County, California, takes the podium and gets right to the point. In many states with large rural populations, the middle class is made up of truck drivers, and AI-driven trucks are going to put them out of work. She lists the barriers to upward mobility, including drug and alcohol problems, mental health problems, lack of skills, limited expertise, limited broadband, and food deserts.” (p. 81) An entrepreneur makes a disillusioned statement: “I can’t find people who can run a spreadsheet. Everything comes from away. Our skill set in the Gorge is just a long way from AI and robotics.” (p. 84)
The book drafts a few answers: Tax incentives for investments in rural areas. Entrepreneurial investments that are the fruits from interaction between investors and the state. And, of course, technology for efficient and profitable agriculture (“Intelligent Farming”): Robots that ensure optimal irrigation, fertilization, optimal timing for sowing and harvesting, and so on. The author sees jobs not only for highly trained specialists, but also for medium and low-skilled workers. This ranges from those who operate and maintain robots to drone pilots used in agriculture, forest firefighting, fish farming, forest management and so on.
Scott presents (very cautiously, though) a thesis, that I found highly interesting: The so-called “Minimum Viable Economic Unit” for agricultural enterprises could be reduced with AI. Today, a farm (or: an agricultural enterprise) is sustainably profitable if it has more than 400 to 600 hectares of cultivation. This is due to a required minimum investment and due to a basic load of activities. By applying AI technologies, this “Minimum Viable Economiy Unit” can be significantly reduced, helping to preserve smaller farming units.
Artificial Intelligence, however, will not automatically benefit rural areas. This requires an effort both from politics and from the digital industry. The author Scott describes the conditions and required steps: AI platforms must not only be designed to meet the needs of large digital corporations, but R&D needs to have small businesses in mind, too. The more developers are involved in building the AI platforms – according to the assumption of Scott – the more likely it is that a broader set of economic stakeholders will guide the development of AI platforms. And, of course, education: The use of AI does not work without know-how; In order to enable companies in rural areas to use AI, a joint effort of community colleges, universities and incubator programs is needed. Scott also points out that the usage of AI must be significantly simplified, amongst others the training of AI algorithms and customization to specific requirements. And investments in infrastructure are needed, else AI in rural areas cannot be successful: High-speed networks for example.
It is not surprising that Kevin Scott sees a huge potential in Artificial Intelligence – he is CTO of Microsoft: AI can relieve human beings (or: workers and employees) from unpleasant, monotonous, dangerous work and allows them to focus on the more interesting, fulfilling tasks. And: “AI also has the very real potential to (…) to unlock human creativity in unprecedented ways” (p. 251) The author Scott also sees a chance for the emergence or prosperity of many small and medium-sized (production) companies: The “product development-to-manufacturing-to-marketing-to-distribution” no longer requires large company structures, but can be efficiently and competitively managed by SMEs with the help of AI (for example in connection with 3D printers and robotics). And of course, using AI should not be primarily for cutting costs, but also (and above all) for releasing creative energy. Well, we can easily agree with Scott on this point. But are we actually headed into the right direction? The economists (and Nobel Prize winners) Esther Duflo and Abhijit V. Banerjee warn in their book “Good Economics for Hard Times” (publication year 2019): “Notwithstanding the full-bodied promises and outstanding individual examples, the majority of research and development resources today are being spent on machine learning and other big-data applications that are designed to automate existing activities, rather than developing new products that would create new tasks for employees and thus new jobs. “ (p. 354). And the futurist Amy Webb shows in an interview in Handelsblatt Disrupt (with Sebastian Matthes) that there is far too little “radical experimentation”, too few new business models are being developed. This indicates, that the vision of Kevin Scott is by no means the most likely path of development. Unfortunately.
The author insists several times on a key issue: If you want to tap the potential of AI, you have to provide know-how. He deplores to what extent educational institutions in “Rural America” are underfinanced and can hardly (rather: cannot) fulfil this task. What Kevin Scott illustrates with anecdotal examples, the star economist Thomas Piketty has illustrated with extensive statistics, namely a striking educational injustice in the USA (compare the bestseller “Capital and Ideology”): The education system in the USA is elite-centered, the connection between educational careers and parents’ income is perfectly linear (which is anything but perfect). The problem cannot simply be solved with technology, it’s a matter of political decisions that must be guided by a sense for equal opportunities for all. It would be naive to assume that MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) are already an adequate response to the prevailing injustice in education.
Reprogramming the American Dream: Conclusion
While reading the book, every now and then one saying comes to my mind: If all you have is a hammer, you may be led to believe that every problem is a nail. Unsurprisingly, the CTO of Microsoft would tend to suggest an AI algorithm as a solution for anything. As a reader, however, one should remain sceptic. Do we really need a step counter to be able to estimate whether we do enough exercise? Do we really need an AI algorithm that suggests good books and articles, so that – in the words of Kevin Scott – we get served “healthier information and step out of our filter bubble? I doubt it. This idea of Scott is also to some extent a product of the author’s own “Tech Filter Bubble”.
But it is remarkable that Kevin Scott acknowledges the extent to which the success of tech companies is built on government-funded R&D in key technologies (the dictum “You didn’t build that” of Barack Obama comes to mind): ”Much of the progress we’ve made building an AI platform, one that can support more people building more ambitious things every year, has been a direct consequence of publicly funded and widely disseminated research” (p. 5). And the author Scott – mind you, as the CTO of a corporation that is rarely squeamish in competition – also explains: “It is not right if the value created by the development of AI is concentrated solely in the hands of a few elite companies and their companies. “ (p. 5) It gets even better than that, in the final chapter Scott throws in a quote from the cult film “Star Trek – First Contact”: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Quite astonishing to come across such statement from the CTO of a company that is among the TOP3 listed companies with the highest company value in the world.
By the way, the book is also a declaration of war on China, Scott calls for resolute measures to ensure that the US remain the leader in the field of artificial intelligence. This competition between the two economic superpowers USA and China in the field of AI is well known (see also the author Kai-Fu Lee in “AI-Superpowers. China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order”). The author makes a suggestion: In the 1960s the US was in a similar race for technological leadership, where the US emerged the winner. Then, the US had invested USD 200 bn (based on current purchasing power) into the Apollo program. According to Scott the government should invest a similar amount in a national AI program.