China, Technology and creativity

Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been hanging out with my Awesome wife! She gave a talk in Ireland, which I went to for most of a week. It was a good time. She then came here to Eindhoven for a week and had an interview. So that’s why I haven’t been updating. Sorry faithful readers.

At a party on Saturday, I got into a fairly active discussion with 4 PhDs and myself. They are all engineering PhDs, so they understand research and how technology works rather well. We got into a discussion on if China was going to actually really over take the US in scientific research. I said I think it’s likely, but there were many arguments against that likelihood. I didn’t really get to finish my argument on why it’s possible. So, I’m going to do that now.

Basically, some of the core arguments against China being able to overtake is us lack of creativity. China is a country of followers, not a country of creative leaders. Another argument was the lack of high quality education and research centers in China. I’ll address the second argument first and then discuss the first argument.

Americans know that we educated a lot of foreigners at our universities, 2008 was an all time high for the number of international students. In fact my roommate at one point explained to me that one of the groups at the University of Texas was comprised entirely of Chinese students. They conduct their meetings and research all in Chinese and, in fact, leave the US speaking worse English than when they arrived. But why are they leaving? The link above notes that there simply aren’t enough H1B Visas or green cards for them all to stay. Effectively we’re throwing out the people we educate. Over time enough good scientists and engineers will be sent back and will start teaching in China. China has big ambitions and has been creating universities as fast as it can. Using an evolutionary perspective, we can see that it’s likely they will continue to create variation and students will be selecting the best universities. One of them is likely to start producing more science and better science than another. This will lead to the best students and best researchers going to that school. One or two could become the Chinese version of MIT, Berkeley or Harvard. I think it’s clear that education won’t hold them back. Eventually, they will have several universities in the top 200 list according to the Times Higher Education ranking.

The second argument is a little tricker to argue against. The Chinese aren’t creative enough to create radical innovations. First, I’m sure that the Chinese I know would object to this blanket statement. However, let’s assume for the moment that’s it’s some what correct. There’s a culture that doesn’t reward creativity and rewards conformity. I can think of two countries that have similar types of culture that have been creative and are excellent centers of research and innovation, Japan and South Korea. Now are they as good as the US at innovation or research, No. However, they have had some great innovations and do great research.

When it comes to patent research there’s something called a Triadic patent. It’s a patent that is filed in the US, Europe and Japan. Europe and Japan have higher standards for patents than the US and are more difficult to acquire. Why does this matter? Well effectively Japan is the only country in Asia that would fit better with the European countries in terms of GDP per capita, protection of IP and research.

Both South Korea and Japan have a few companies that are on the leading edge of their respective fields. Samsung is in a huge number of different areas and is the world leader in many of them. Japan has Nikon, Sony, Toyota and a few other big companies that are on the cutting edge in research, design and innovation. So, I don’t accept the argument that the Chinese couldn’t be creative.

Another point I was trying to make, is that over time as a country becomes the center of manufacturing and incremental innovation on a product, it’s likely that they are going to be able to create the next radical innovation in that field. There are two things that support this. First, in a book by Andrew Liveris, the British CEO of Dow Chemical, there is anecdotal evidence to support bringing manufacturing back to the US along with the R&D that goes with it. The other argument is based on the research of Cesar Hidalgo of MIT that shows through network theory, that to become a leader in technology you have to build your way through a series of other technologies. It helps explain why it’s so hard for countries to pick up creating semiconductors. However, as a country develops the technological capability to work within a type of technology they are likely to create innovation and changes in that technology.

China has effectively been given the ability to manufacture just about everything through outsourcing. They have the technological capabilities to build and design new technologies. China also has the resources devoted to it. They created a five year plan where they are going to invest $1.5 trillion in 7 science sectors. Because of these factors I believe that China is a real threat to US and European leadership in research and technology. For any one to dismiss China because of cultural reasons or technological capabilities is making a mistake and is likely to be surprised in 20 -30 years when China becomes a leader in at least one field, likely more than one.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: Business

In my previous blog I discussed some governmental issues with ubiquitous free high speed wireless internet. In this piece I’m going to discuss the impact on businesses. I’ll start with some really obvious impacts and then move into some that may be more interesting.

First, this would effectively kill the current business model for telecoms. Not just internet providers but it would also have a massive impact on telephony and television providers. Internet providers would basically go out of business unless the governments that implemented the network hired them to manage the networks and perform the upgrades required to ensure expected performance. It should also be expected that net neutrality should be the norm as the internet is free as in free beer and as in free speech in a situation like this. This would impact telephony in a similar manner. With free internet phones could be designed to work on wifi (or whatever the network type is) and use services like Google Voice (which is popular in the US and free). These services provide a telephone number as well. Further more skype communication or similar type programs could become the norm as they are free and easy to use. The impact on television would be a continuation of the current system. With Netflix and Hulu driving usage to the web. Without easy access pirating will be the norm and extremely easy.

In the US Starbucks is extremely popular for two reasons, gigantic flavored coffees and free wireless internet. I think in the Dutch context free wireless internet would spur an increase in the amount of business meetings that happen at cafes. With the slow service which is designed to encourage conversation and being social, it would be a great way to work remotely from outside of home. As it stands there aren’t that many places, at least in Eindhoven, that have wireless internet like that. I think it will spur sales at restaurants.

The broadband movement is already increasing the number of people that can work from home and be educated at home. I think there will be some differences though. Mostly because of the freedom that is allowed with the wireless connections. You are able to connect everywhere and anywhere. I think this will create more flexible schedules. I’d be able to work nearly as easily on a train as I would be able to in the office. I would be able to get on a train at the time I’m supposed to be at work get there for some meetings and finish up around the same time just on the train.

I think that there will be more business models based on highly interactive advertisements and user driven actions out in the “wild.” I’ve seen a lot of the QR codes outside of buildings as it is, but I think there will be an increase in the number of these. Users will be more willing to activate them because they are going to get the data from them significantly faster than previously. This will drive traffic to these sites and potentially new jobs from the different types of videos/ads that could be created with them.

I think this will also be something of a technological discontinuity. Broadband at home encourages one type of behavior, but I think there will be very different interactions with broadband everywhere. In the long term there could be a slew of different devices that will take advantage of the continual connections. Clothing could be that could measure the current weather conditions real time which could be uploaded to get real time weather information. We could collect data at levels we’ve never seen it before. This is just one usage of the informational sphere we’ll be living in. There will be a huge number of new applications that will radically shift the way people think about knowledge, information and computing products. Predicting the next wave of technologies based on the wireless web is difficult. It’s likely to be impossible.

However, I think that in my next blog on Computing, we’ll see the largest changes.

On Being the Product

Today I’ve read and reposted a few articles (another) about users being the final product for several companies. These of course are facebook, twitter, google (in various forms including plus), yelp and the list goes on. Personally, I think that the claims that we are only the product is a bit of simplification. There is no doubt that we are the product, however, it’s also a matter of to whom are we the product? For instance, my blog, which I post on facebook, twitter and Google Plus allows others to be consumers of my content. The people who are my friends, followers or in my circles are able to consume my content. We are not merely products to companies, but we are products for other people as well.

We consume what are friends put out there. We have habits an manners in which we’d like to be able to consume that information. However, we’re running into a bidirectional problem. We’re losing control over what information we’re sharing and we’re losing control over how we consume this information. In Tom Anderson’s (of myspace fame) post about the changes in facebook, he mentions something called seamless sharing, where you have to do nothing and it’s instantly shared. This, to me, raises all sorts of privacy concerns. In this TED talk the speaker addresses the problem of filtering algorithms in google and facebook.

I think it’s very obvious that Facebook still realizes that we’re consumers of the information. For without our work as the product, posting links, pictures and statuses, there’d be no facebook. However, without us as consumers reading various different posts and clicking related links there’d also be no facebook. The product we are to non-fellow consumers comes down to our network, what the people in our network are interested in and whatever information that is automatically shared with facebook through our web browser.

We need to be aware that this trend is going to continue. We as users and consumers need to fight to get control over our data and the right to control what we share when we share it. This gets back to my points in my earlier blog posts about pseudonyms and truly being anonymous on the web. If you are interested in knowing at least some of the information that you’ve shared on facebook over the years in some countries you are able to download a copy of your facebook history. I haven’t done so yet, but I plan on it. If it is not available in your country, try to get the rights to your data.

While facebook is using you as a product, you still should have the right to demand the information they have on you and are selling to 3rd parties. Being the product isn’t fun, however, it’s nothing new. We’ve been the product for years and have never really complained. The difference now, is that the information about your personally has never been better and is only going to get better the more you give them. For free.