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Modernization and the Loss of Japan’s Samurai Culture Benefited the Japanese People

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Modernization and the Loss of Japan’s Samurai Culture Benefited the Japanese People

Economic, technological, industrial, and other progress radically improved the life of the ordinary Japanese citizen.

Summary: In the mid-19th century, Japan’s feudal society underwent a profound transformation during the Meiji Restoration, embracing Westernization and modernization. The shift from isolationism to openness resulted in rapid industrialization and technological advancements, improving living standards, education, and social mobility for ordinary citizens. This article examines Japan’s journey from a closed society to a prosperous nation, dispelling romanticized notions of the “good old days” and highlighting the benefits of progress and innovation.

Imagine you’re a farmer in Japan in 1850. You pay homage to your feudal lord, wear clothes of plain cotton, eat rice and fish, and are mostly preoccupied with surviving the occasional famine and outbreaks of disease. You likely have no education. Fifty years later, life has changed beyond recognition. Farmers now have an education, have fertilizer to farm with, have access to vaccination, and can use the telegraph and the postal service. They have more money to spend, more leisure time, and access to mass media.

The 2003 movie The Last Samurai portrays Japan during this period of modernization. The film laments the loss of traditional samurai culture amid rising Westernization. The film is inspired by the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt from disaffected samurai amid the loss of their privileged position in society.

Longing for a privileged past is not unique to Japan; many in Europe romanticize the medieval era as one of knightly chivalry. However, such portrayals usually look at history through rose-tinted glasses. The “good old days” is a common fallacy, with facts becoming more distorted the further one looks back in history.

What really happened in the era of The Last Samurai?

The period takes places after the Meiji Restoration, showcasing the Westernization of Japan. Before this period, Japan was ruled by Tokugawa shogunate, a military dictatorship that had dominated the island for over 260 years. It imposed the foreign policy of Sakoku—that is, one of extreme isolationism. Aiming to reduce the spread of Christianity and cement the power of the shogun, the islands of Japan became closed to foreigners. No one was allowed to enter or leave Japan, and foreign trade was virtually nonexistent. (There was some trade allowed from the Dutch through the island of Kyushu, notably in porcelain.) This period was one of peace, which many in Japan welcomed after the Sengoku Jidai (a period of civil war) of the 1500s.

Conservatives in Japan welcomed this closing of the country to foreign influence. At the time, Japan was dominated by the samurai class. Samurai, while traditionally warriors, had moved in peacetime to become aristocratic bureaucrats at the service of their daimyo, a feudal lord. Samurai had a monopoly on military force and controlled most of education. Merchants were seen as a lower class, even lower than farmers. Feudalism, a system where a lord would rent out land in return for labor from the peasantry, had ended in parts of Europe around 1500. Whereas competition among European powers had created the emergence of a middle class, Japan had remained socially, technologically, and militarily stagnant from 1639 onwards.

As described by Mitsutomo Yuasa in his study The Scientific Revolution in Nineteenth Century Japan:

The traditional society (feudalism) before the Meiji Restoration, namely the age of Edo of Tokugawa Shogunate, was based on pre-Newtonian science and technology, and on pre-Newtonian attitudes towards the physical world.

In 1853, Japanese isolationism came to an end. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry demonstrating a textbook example of gunboat diplomacy, the United States forced an end to Japanese isolationism and the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. In the years that followed, Japan established diplomatic relations with the Western Great Powers and underwent a collapse of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate.

Japan then went through a period of rapid modernization, importing Western technology, ideas, and culture. Ian Inkster describes the impact:

By 1855, Western machinery and factory organization had been introduced at Nagasaki for the maintenance of warships, and a spurt of building began in 1860 under Dutch leadership. It was Englishmen who in 1867 constructed the first steam powered spinning plant, the Kagoshima Spinning Factory. . . . By 1882, the Osaka Spinning Company operated 16 mules, 10,500 spindles and was practically powered by steam. . . . From 1870 to 1872, 245 railway engineers arrived in Japan from Europe. . . . Telegraphic communication was also established by the British from 1871.

The industries that were revolutionized by foreign influence included the iron industry, mining, railways, electricity, civil engineering, medicine, administration, shipbuilding, porcelain, earthenware, glass, brewing, sugar, chemicals, gunpowder, and cement manufacture. Japan developed its staple industry and export product, silk manufacturing and spinning, under guidance from a Swedish engineer using Italian methods. The silk industry also employed a large amount of female labor in Japan, with more women in the industrial labor force in Japan than in any other country in Asia.

The development of technological innovations improved Japanese industry. Ryoshin Minami showed the growth in total horsepower between 1891 and 1937 was in the order of 13 percent annually. The figure below shows the growth rate of development of primary industries during the period between 1887 and 1920, as well as overall economic growth. In many of the years during that period, growth in private non-primary fixed capital was in the double digits.

By the 1890s, Japanese textiles dominated the home markets and competed successfully with British products in China and India. Japanese shippers were competing with European traders to carry these goods across Asia and even to Europe.

The Satsuma Rebellion occurred in 1877, as Japanese government restricted the ability to carry a katana (long sword) in public. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the right to bear arms, the reduction in the power of the samurai class was a win for ordinary Japanese people. Having access to modern medical techniques, transportation, and goods benefited the whole society, rather than just feudal elites. Indeed, many of the samurai were able to adapt to their new roles in a modern Japan, working in business or government. In the 1880s, 23 percent of prominent Japanese businessmen were from the samurai class. By the 1920s, the number had grown to 35 percent.

By 1925, universal manhood suffrage had been implemented, a stark contrast from the Tokugawa shogunate. The social structure had loosened, allowing societal advancement far more easily than in the feudal era. By 1897, 95 percent of citizens were receiving some form of formal education, in contrast to 3 percent in 1853. With a more educated population, Japan’s industrial sector grew significantly. Of course, the new system still had its problems, such as labor strikes and industrial unrest. However, Westernization brought far more economic freedom to the Japanese people. Attitudes to commerce changed. Merchants rose from being the lowest class to becoming a vital part of the burgeoning middle class.

In Japan, progress was seen in economics, science, technology, education, consumer goods, industry, and social mobility. Society and the traditional order had been uprooted, in an example of Schumpeterian “creative destruction.” The inflow of new ideas, of new ways of doing things, allowed people to become freer, wealthier, healthier, and better educated. The opening of Japan was fundamentally an opening to progress. By isolating itself, Japan fell behind the rest of the world. As it opened itself to competition, it was able to catch up, and in some cases, surpass other countries. And the ordinary citizen of Japan was better for it.

Blog Post | Leisure

The New York Times Banned Word Games Before Embracing Them

In April it was revealed subscribers to the New York Times played its selection of games more than they read its editorial content – in 2022 it acquired Wordle – leading people to joke it was now a gaming company.

The amusing irony? The Times once turned its nose up at word games.

When crossword puzzles first swept across North America in the mid-1920s, the New York Times sneered, calling them “a familiar form of madness” and the next fad after MahJong. Claims these puzzles were good mental exercise and a way to expand one’s personal lexicon, via a dictionary, were dismissed.

In another piece published the following year titled “See Harm Not Education,” the Times argued that learning obscure three-letter words was useless — but it didn’t stop there. “The indictment of the puzzles goes further and deeper,” it said, citing The New Republic, which posited that there wasn’t a worse exercise for writers and speakers due to it fixing “false definitions in the mind.” 

This piece prompted a letter to the editor by a reader who retorted, “I am afraid that a good many of your readers will disagree with the views expressed,” pointing out that it was generally agreed that crosswords were educational.

Crossword Puzzles: A National Menace

This animosity makes more sense when you understand the origins of crossword puzzles in America: They were popularized via the pages of the original tabloid, The New York World, the “new media” of the day. As far as the journalistic establishment was concerned, crosswords were another mindless fad used as a substitute for good editorial, to keep readers coming back. Tabloids were looked upon as trashy, childish, and plebeian. These publications were labeled the “yellow press” after one of the numerous comic strips contained within them – another childish novelty. The New York Times would refuse to publish crosswords for another two decades.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the Times of London reported on the U.S. crossword craze with similar disdain, using an ironically tabloidesque headline “An Enslaved America.” Published in 1924, it read:

All America has succumbed to the allurements of the cross-word puzzle. In a few short weeks it has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution and almost a national menace: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.

The omnipresence of crosswords in the U.S. was described in detail. This “fad” was “in trains and trams on omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting rooms, in factories and homes, and even — though as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.” Along with other modern trends, the crossword had supposedly “dealt the final blow to the art of conversations.”

Crossword Puzzles: An Invasive Weed

In its estimate, over ten million people spent half an hour each day working out the puzzles when they should be working, noting “this loss to productive activity of far more time than is lost by labor strikes.” It even compared them to an invasive weed, stating “The cross-word puzzle threatens to be the wild hyacinth of American industry.” 

Judging by reports at the time, this proverbial “wild hyacinth” had invaded the UK by the following year, when reports of Queen Mary — wife of King George V — taking up the pastime appeared. Headmasters scorned them as the “the laziest occupation” and an “unsociable habit.” One British wife took her husband to court for staying in bed until 11 am doing crosswords. Public libraries fought a “war on crosswords” by blotting out the games in their freely available newspapers and limiting access to dictionaries within reading rooms.

Credit: Newspapers.com

An essay from the UK titled “In Abuse of the Cross-Word Puzzle” exonerated radio and the BBC as the reason for a dip in book sales, pointing to crosswords as the real culprit. The writer pointed out that early adopters of golf and bridge were abused for their frivolity but now appeared intellectual giants “in this era of puzzles!” The piece also reminded readers that – “Incredible though it may seem” – novel reading was once scorned by parents. Crossword puzzles (and jigsaws) lacked the benefits of previous amusements according to the author: “Was any age ever given over to such stultifying pastimes or labeled with signs of such mental degradation?” 

Credit: New York Times Machine

Less than five years after it derided them, the Times of London would give in and print its first crossword puzzle.

A Mental Illness Called “Crossword Puzzleitis”

Back in the U.S., the crossword puzzle habit was being pathologized and medicalized, the term “crossword puzzleitis” was coined — likely in jest — but it would eventually get attention from medical authorities and physicians. One doctor concluded “crossword puzzleitis” “stole” the memories of his patient​. “Crossword insomnia” was another phenomenon reported, akin to late-night smartphone fiddling, some optometrists claimed the habit caused headaches and weakened eyesight.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Magistrates lambasted  court attendants, policemen, lawyers, and their clients for “clogging up the wheels of justice” by pondering over the puzzles. Academics made similar complaints about their students, and the University of Michigan instituted an outright ban in lecture halls.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Crosswords, the Cause of All Societal Problems

Crosswords were cited as a reason for divorce in more than one case, receiving widespread press attention, including from the New York Times, which ran the headline “Crossword Mania Breaks Up Homes.” Other papers published amusing cartoons featuring weeping grooms and puzzle-engrossed brides.

Credit: Newspapers.com

American libraries had the same complaints as British ones in regard to their effect on library habits, and when the U.S. district attorney was two hours late to a speaking engagement, he blamed a crossword puzzle that he started on the train ride. Physical assault and even murder-suicide were blamed on the crossword puzzle too.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Ironically, many of these sensationalist reports appeared in the very papers printing them, sometimes right next to the crosswords themselves.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Newspaper editors defended them, insisting they were beneficial, but it was unconvincing since they were financially benefiting from the craze. Eventually the New York Times relented, as the U.S. entered World War II — editors decided people needed a distraction and escape. The Gray Lady printed its first in February 1942, and it would become the most famous and coveted crossword in the world.

Welcome, Wordle

A century later, word game manias are still happening. Scrabble saw a renaissance on the web and then mobile via Words with Friends in the 2010s. 2022 saw the indomitable rise of Wordle — a familiar madness — first gaining mainstream coverage in the New York Times. It was praised as free from the pressures of the hyper-capitalist attention economy. Its constraint of one game per day was held up as enforced digital moderation, ignoring its Pavlovian-esque nature. It was supposedly fun for the sake of fun, not profit and attention. 

Then on January 31st 2022, the New York Times announced they had bought Wordle for a figure in the “low seven figures” from its creator, promising to keep it free “initially.” Regarding the acquisition, the Times called games an “essential part of its strategy” to increase subscriptions: fun and moreish brain teasers to make the New York Times a part of one’s daily routine, just like the New York World did almost a century ago.

The following article is syndicated from a 2022 BigThink.com article we wrote inspired by the New York Times acquisition of Wordle. It was republished at Pessimists Archive on 6/10/2024.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

The Human Meaning of Economic Growth

Misunderstandings of the relationship between wealth and flourishing have obscured the anti-​human implications of slowing growth rates.

Summary: Economic growth has been a driving force behind the dramatic improvements in human wellbeing over the past few centuries. This growth has resulted from the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Criticisms of growth stem in large part from misunderstandings of the relationship between economics and human values.

Why is the world as prosperous a place as it is? And why isn’t it much more prosperous? These questions are broad enough to admit countless answers, but as good an answer as any is the economic growth rate.

You might have heard that economic growth is overrated, that it’s a fine idea, but unsustainable, or even that it’s entirely counterproductive because it puts profits above people and the economy above the planet. These narratives have been widespread in recent years. They’re also based on a fundamental misconception of the nature of wealth and what a growing economy means for humanity.

Properly conceived, wealth is the actualization of human values in the real world. Economic growth is the upward trajectory of human achievement. The forms of prosperity that most of humanity strives for, such as health, knowledge, pleasure, safety, professional and personal freedom, and so many others, were vastly scarcer throughout most of human history—and would be orders of magnitude more abundant today if economic policies had been slightly different. That is the power of economic growth, and it is within our power to influence the world of future generations for better or worse.

The History of Economic Growth

Virtually everywhere and always throughout human history, economic growth was nonexistent. While pockets of momentary economic progress took place in certain instances, the overall trend was one of perpetual stagnation. But just a few hundred years ago, with the advent of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism, that all began to change.

When the conceptual tools of science became widely applied to create the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, they brought an unprecedented optimism about the capacity for investment in new discoveries and inventions to reliably uncover useful knowledge of the natural world. This change inspired the broad transformation of mere wealth (resources hidden away in vaults and treasure chests) into capital (resources invested in new inventions and discoveries).

By the time Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx wrote their Communist Manifesto in 1848, the optimism of investment had already transformed Western Europe. As Engels and Marx saw it, “The bourgeoisie [capitalist class], during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-​navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

Marx and Engels misunderstand the complex reasons for increased productivity (attributing it to untapped “social labour”) but the quotation is significant because, despite their sympathy for state centralization of the economy, they could not ignore the success of capitalism.

While no year before 1700 saw a gross world product of more than $643 billion (in international inflation-​adjusted 2011 dollars), by 1820 global GDP reached 1 trillion. By 1940 the number had passed 7 trillion, and by 2015 it had passed 108 trillion.

Contrary to the popular misconception that capitalism has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, this new wealth contributed to growing the economies of every world region while outpacing population growth. While the world’s extreme poor have become wealthier so too have all other economic classes.

What’s So Great about Growth?

A growing economy isn’t about stacks of paper money getting taller, or digits being added to the spreadsheets of bank ledgers. These things may be indicators of growth, but the growth itself is composed of goods and services becoming more abundant. Farms and factories producing more and better consumption goods; engineers creating better machines and materials; clean water reaching more communities; sick people receiving better healthcare; scientists running more experiments, poets writing more poems, education becoming more broadly accessible; and for whatever other forms of value people choose to exchange their savings and labor.

Gross domestic product or GDP (called gross world product or world GDP when applied at the global level) is an imperfect but useful and widely employed measure of economic growth, and its reflection in the real world takes such forms as rising life expectancy, nutrition, literacy, safety from natural disaster, and virtually every other measure of human flourishing. This is because, at the most fundamental level, “economic growth” means the transformation and rearrangement of the physical environment into more useful forms that people value more.

Before the year 1820, human life expectancy had always been approximately 30-35 years. But with the great decline in poverty and rise of capital investment in technology and medicine, global life expectancy has roughly doubled in every geographic region in the last century. Similar trends have occurred in global nourishmentinfant survivalliteracy, access to clean water, and countless other crucial indicators of wellbeing. While these trends are bound to take the occasional momentary downturn because of life’s uncertainties and hardships, the unidirectional accumulation of technological and scientific knowledge since the Age of Enlightenment gives the forward march of progress an asymmetric advantage. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns resulted in a brief and tragic decline in life expectancy, but the number has since risen to an all-​time high of 73.36 years as of 2023.

What is the direct causal connection between economic growth and these improvements to human wellbeing? Consider the example of deaths by natural disaster, which have fallen in the last century from about 26.5 per 100,000 people to 0.51 per 100,000 people. More wealth means buildings can be constructed from stronger materials and better climate controls. And when those protections aren’t enough, a wealthier community can afford better infrastructure such as roads and vehicles to efficiently get sick or injured people to the hospital. When those injured end up in the hospital, a wealthier society’s medical facilities will be equipped with more advanced equipment, cleaner sanitation, and better-​trained doctors that will provide higher quality medical attention. These are just a few examples of how wealth allows humans to transform their world into a more hospitable place to live and face the inevitable challenges of life.

The benefits of economic growth go far beyond the maximization of health and safety for their own sake. If what you value in life is the contemplation of great art, the exaltation of your favorite deity, or time spent with your loved ones, wealth is what awards you the freedom to sustainably pursue those values rather than tilling the fields for 16 hours per day and dying in your 30s. Wealth is what provides you access to an ever-​improving share of the world’s culture by increasing the abundance and accessibility of printed, recorded, and digital materials. Wealth is what provides you with the leisure time and transportation technology to travel the world and experience distant wonders, remote holy sites, and people whose personal or professional significance to you would otherwise dwell beyond your reach.

As the Harvard University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker demonstrates in his popular book Enlightenment Now, “Though it’s easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing, as we will repeatedly see in the chapters to come.”

The Long-​Term Future of Growth

Human psychology is ill-​equipped to comprehend large numbers, especially as they relate to the profound numerical implications of exponentiation. If it sounds insignificant when politicians and journalists refer to a 1 percent or 2 percent increase or decrease in the annual growth rate, then like most people, you’re being deceived by a quirk of human intuition. While small changes to the economic growth rate may not have noticeable effects in the short term, their long- term implications are absolutely astonishing.

Economist Tyler Cowen has pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article, “In the medium to long term, even small changes in growth rates have significant consequences for living standards. An economy that grows at one percent doubles its average income approximately every 70 years, whereas an economy that grows at three percent doubles its average income about every 23 years—which, over time, makes a big difference in people’s lives.” In his book Stubborn Attachments, Cowen offers a thought experiment to illustrate the real-​world implications of such “small changes” to the growth rate: “Redo U.S. history, but assume the country’s economy had grown one percentage point less each year between 1870 and 1990. In that scenario, the United States of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.”

Cowen gave the negative scenario in which the growth rate was 1 percent slower. US Citizens would have drastically shorter lifespans, less education, less healthcare, less safety from violence, more susceptibility to disease and natural disaster, fewer career choices, and so on. Now imagine the opposite scenario, in which US economic policy had just 1 additional percentage point of growth each year. The average American today would in all probability be living much longer, having much nicer housing, choosing from far more career opportunities, and enjoying more advanced technology.

Just imagine your income doubling, and what you could do for yourself, your family, or the charity of your choice with all that extra wealth. Something along those lines could have happened to most Americans. But instead, growth has been significantly slowed in the United States because taxes and regulations have constantly disincentivized and disallowed new innovations.

At the margins, many dying of preventable diseases could have been cured, many who spiraled into homelessness could have accessed the employment opportunities or mental health treatment they needed, and so on. While economic fortune seems like a luxury to those who already enjoy material comfort, there are always many at the margin for whom the health of the economy is the difference between life and death.

These are among the reasons that Harvard University economist Gregory Mankiw concludes in his commonly used college textbookMacroeconomics, that, “Long-​run economic growth is the single most important determinant of the economic well-​being of a nation’s citizens. Everything else that macroeconomists study — unemployment, inflation, trade deficits, and so on — pales in comparison.”

When we think of the future our children or grandchildren will live in, depending on our choices between even slightly more or less restrictive economic policies today, we could be plausibly looking at a future of widespread and affordable space travel, life-​changing education and remote work opportunities in the metaverse, new sustainable energy innovations, a biotechnological revolution in the human capacity for medical and psychological flourishing, genome projects and conservation investments to revive extinct and protect endangered species, and countless other improvements to the human condition. Or we could be looking at a drawn-​out stagnation in poverty alleviation, technological advancement, and environmental progress. The difference may well hinge on what looks today like a tiny change in the rate of compounding growth.

At the broadest level, more wealth in the hands of the human species represents a greater capacity of humans to chart their course through life and into the future in accordance with their values. Like all profound and far-​reaching forms of change, economic growth has a wide range of consequences, some intended and others unintended, many desirable and many others undesirable. But it is not a random process. It is directed by the choices of individuals, and allocated by their drive to devote more resources and more investment into those things they view as worthwhile. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, the investment in human values has been on balance a positive sum game, in which one group’s gains do not have to come in the form of another group’s losses. This is demonstrated by the upward trends in human flourishing since the global rise in exponential economic growth. Indeed, it is intrinsic to the fundamental difference between a growing and a shrinking or stagnant economy: In a growing economy, everyone can win.

This article was published at Libertarianism.org on 11/17/2023.

Blog Post | Science & Education

AI in the Classroom Can Make Higher Education Much More Accessible

For some school subjects, artificial intelligence can transform the landscape of tutoring accessibility.

Summary: ChatGPT4 has demonstrated superiority in various student exams, revealing its potential to support academic learning and improve educational outcomes, particularly in test preparation. With its accessibility and affordability compared to traditional tutoring services, AI tutoring can help address the increasing demand for academic support, especially as universities begin to reinstate standardized testing requirements.

In 2023, OpenAI shook the foundation of the education system by releasing ChatGPT4. The previous model of ChatGPT had already disrupted classrooms K–12 and beyond by offering a free academic tool capable of writing essays and answering exam questions. Teachers struggled with the idea that widely accessible artificial intelligence (AI) technology could meet the demands of most traditional classroom work and academic skills. GPT3.5 was far from perfect, though, and lacked creativity, nuance, and reliability. However, reports showed that GPT4 could score better than 90 percent of participants on the bar exam, LSAT, SAT reading and writing and math, and several Advanced Placement (AP) exams. This showed a significant improvement from GPT3.5, which struggled to score as well as 50 percent of participants.

This marked a major shift in the role of AI, from it being an easy way out of busy work to a tool that could improve your chances of getting into college. The US Department of Education published a report noting several areas where AI could support teacher instruction and student learning. Among the top examples was intelligent tutoring systems. Early models of these systems showed that an AI tutor could not only recognize when a student was right or wrong in a mathematical problem but also identify the steps a student took and guide them through an explanation of the process.

The role of tutoring in education has grown in significance as more and more high school students have gone to college. Private tutoring is now a booming industry. Often you can find tutors charging anywhere up to $80 for test preparation with no shortage of eager parents willing to pay for their services. Tutoring has been a go-to solution for students to improve their grades outside the classroom. But more importantly, it has been a solution to improve their chances of getting into college, with many private tutoring services focusing on AP and SAT exams. This connection between college admission success and private tutoring costs has been a problem for parents who cannot afford the costs.

ChatGPT4 is available for $20 a month. Although the program itself can be used to answer questions and provide academic support, dedicated education websites have begun incorporating AI tutors to help with test prep. Khan Academy provides free courses on AP content and SAT exams and offers an AI-powered tutor for these subjects at $4 a month. Duolingo, a popular language learning app that offers university-recognized language exams, offers Duolingo Max at $14 a month. These tutoring services are accessible at your fingertips at any time. There is no need to schedule video conferencing calls, do background checks on tutors, or pay extra costs. Quality individualized academic support is available at a moment’s notice.

The availability of AI tutoring services is occurring at a crucial moment in education. As students become accustomed to post-pandemic life, student achievement across the nation still has not returned to where it once was. Despite that, many universities have begun reversing test-optional policies that had allowed students to avoid taking standardized tests such as the SAT. The demand for tutoring has skyrocketed as many new high school seniors struggle to meet the old standards of college admissions. Many school tutoring programs have not been able to provide the support students need, and private tutoring costs are only increasing.

AI has the potential to provide cheap and effective tutoring for these exams while being easily accessible. A Harvard computer science course has been able to incorporate ChatGPT to great success, using it to provide continuous and customized technical support and allowing professors to focus more on pedagogy. As technology improves, students will have more support for academic pursuits, opening an easier path to higher education but also allowing students to more easily explore academic interests beyond rigid classroom instruction.

Blog Post | Science & Technology

AI Is a Great Equalizer That Will Change the World

A positive revolution from AI is already unfolding in the global East and South.

Summary: Concerns over potential negative impacts of AI have dominated headlines, particularly regarding its threat to employment. However, a closer examination reveals AI’s immense potential to revolutionize equal and high quality access to necessities such as education and healthcare, particularly in regions with limited access to resources. From India’s agricultural advancements to Kenya’s educational support, AI initiatives are already transforming lives and addressing societal needs.

The latest technology panic is over artificial intelligence (AI). The media is focused on the negatives of AI, making many assumptions about how AI will doom us all. One concern is that AI tools will replace workers and cause mass unemployment. This is likely overblown—although some jobs will be lost to AI, if history is any guide, new jobs will be created. Furthermore, AI’s ability to replace skilled labor is also one of its greatest potential benefits.

Think of all the regions of the world where children lack access to education, where schoolteachers are scarce and opportunities for adult learning are scant.

Think of the preventable diseases that are untreated due to a lack of information, the dearth of health care providers, and how many lives could be improved and saved by overcoming these challenges.

In many ways, AI will be a revolutionary equalizer for poorer countries where education and health care have historically faced many challenges. In fact, a positive revolution from AI is already unfolding in the global East and South.

Improving Equality through Education and Health Care

In India, agricultural technology startup Saagu Baagu is already improving lives. This initiative allows farmers to increase crop yield through AI-based solutions. A chatbot provides farmers with the information they need to farm more effectively (e.g., through mapping the maturity stages of their crops and testing soil so that AI can make recommendations on which fertilizers to use depending on the type of soil). Saagu Baagu has been successful in the trial region and is now being expanded. This AI initiative is likely to revolutionize agriculture globally.

Combining large language models with speech-recognition software is helping Indian farmers in other ways. For example, Indian global impact initiative Karya is working on helping rural Indians, who speak many different languages, to overcome language barriers. Karya is collecting data on tuberculosis, which is a mostly curable and preventable disease that kills roughly 200,000 Indians every year. By collecting voice recordings of 10 different dialects of Kannada, an AI speech model is being trained to communicate with local people. Tuberculosis carries much stigma in India, so people are often reluctant to ask for help. AI will allow Indians to reduce the spread of the disease and give them access to reliable information.

In Kenya, where students are leading in AI use, the technology is aiding the spread of information by allowing pupils to ask a chatbot questions about their homework.

Throughout the world, there are many challenges pertaining to health care, including increasing costs and staff shortages. As developed economies now have rapidly growing elderly populations and shrinking workforces, the problem is set to worsen. In Japan, AI is helping with the aging population issue, where a shortage of care workers is remedied by using robots to patrol care homes to monitor patients and alert care workers when something is wrong. These bots use AI to detect abnormalities, assist in infection countermeasures by disinfecting commonly touched places, provide conversation, and carry people from wheelchairs to beds and bathing areas, which means less physical exertion and fewer injuries for staff members.

In Brazil, researchers used AI models capable of predicting HER2 subtype breast cancer in imaging scans of 311 women and the patients’ response to treatment. In addition, AI can also help make health resource allocations more efficient and support tasks such as preparing for public health crises, such as pandemics. At the individual level, the use of this technology in wearables, such as smartwatches, can encourage patient adherence to treatments, help prevent illnesses, and collect data more frequently.

Biometric data gathered from wearable devices could also be a game-changer. This technology can detect cancers early, monitor infectious diseases and general health issues, and give patients more agency over their health where access to health care is limited or expensive.

Education and health care in the West could also benefit from AI. In the United States, text synthesis machines could help to address the lack of teachers in K–12 education and the inaccessibility of health care for low-income people.

Predicting the Future

AI is already playing a role in helping humanity tackle natural disasters (e.g., by predicting how many earthquake aftershocks will strike and their strength). These models, which have been trained on large data sets of seismic events, have been found to estimate the number of aftershocks better than conventional (non-AI) models do.

Forecasting models can also help to predict other natural disasters like severe storms, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Machine learning uses algorithms to reduce the time required to make forecasts and increase model accuracy, which again is superior to the non-AI models that are used for this purpose. These improvements could have a massive impact on people in poor countries, who currently lack access to reliable forecasts and tend to be employed in agriculture, which is highly dependent on the weather.

A Case for Optimism

Much of the fear regarding AI in the West concerns the rapid speed at which it is being implemented, but for many countries, this speed is a boon.

Take the mobile phone. In 2000, only 4 percent of people in developing countries had access to mobile phones. By 2015, 94 percent of the population had such access, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

The benefits were enormous, as billions gained access to online banking, educational opportunities, and more reliable communication. One study found that almost 1 in 10 Kenyan families living in extreme poverty were able to lift their incomes above the poverty line by using the banking app M-Pesa. In rural Peru, household consumption rose by 11 percent with access to phones, while extreme poverty fell 5.4 percent. Some 24 percent of people in developing countries now use the mobile internet for educational purposes, compared with only 12 percent in the richest countries. In lower-income countries, access to mobile phones and apps is life-changing.

AI, which only requires access to a mobile phone to use, is likely to spread even faster in the countries that need the technology the most.

This is what we should be talking about: not a technology panic but a technology revolution for greater equality in well-being.