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Netflix CEO predicts substantial innovation in teaching software


Rich Coleman

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, talk during the 2011 Leaders in Technology Dinner Friday night at the Lafite Ballroom in the Wynn Hotel.

Chat with Reed Hastings

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, talk during the 2011 Leaders in Technology Dinner Friday night at the Lafite Ballroom in the Wynn Hotel. Launch slideshow »

Though the Consumer Electronics Show is all about new and emerging technology, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings took some time Friday night at the Leaders in Technology Dinner to put it all into context.

And for Hastings, one of the most important things technology can innovate is education.

“My dream for society is that all kids can get an incredible education,” Hastings said to Arianna Huffington and about 200 attendees at the Lafite Ballroom at Wynn Las Vegas. Though Hastings is known for starting Netflix, a movie and television rental and internet on-demand service, he got his start as a mathematics teacher in Swaziland with the Peace Corps.

During the fireside chat with Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, Hastings said he believes technology can be a key in helping students and teachers.

“My biggest frustration was all the kids were at different levels,” Hastings said of his teaching experience. “It’s very hard as a teacher to teach all the kids, but software has the possibility to help them get to their next level. I think over the next 10 to 20 years, there’ll be a tremendous amount of innovation of software that teaches.”

But technology has its limitations and is best suited to subjects in which there is always a correct answer, he said. “I don’t think a computer is going to be teaching poetry,” Hastings said.

Though education was a focal point of the discussion, Huffington didn’t waste the opportunity to talk cinema with the CEO of a company that in 10 years delivered a billion DVDs to homes in the U.S. and Canada.

Huffington asked Hastings if his favorite movie of the year was “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary by Davis Guggenheim that displayed the failures of American public education by following students as they went through the system.

“I thought it was kind of diffuse,” he said. “It didn’t really make many solutions.”

When pressed for his favorite movie of 2010, he said he had trouble remembering but raved about “Black Swan” by Darren Aronofsky. He described it as “incredible” and “dark.”

Huffington thought differently. “That’s interesting, because I saw it and walked out halfway through,” she said as the crowd laughed.

Huffington also inquired about the Netflix algorithm that predicts what movies a Netflix user will enjoy based on movies they rate on the website.

Hastings said similar technology is being utilized more and more by companies. Google, for instance, has been using the technology to provide a better search experience for their users, he said.

But it can’t replace human experience, he said.

“We’re still nowhere near as good as a video clerk that really knows your movie or a waiter that really knows your food,” Hastings said.

Huffington ended the discussion with a simple question.

“Why aren’t you on Twitter?” she asked him.

“I am, but anonymously,” Hastings said as the crowd laughed. “I’m a lurker.”

CORRECTION: The story originally reported that Reed Hastings taught in Switzerland with the Peace Corps. He taught in Swaziland. | (January 10, 2011)

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