AI Superpowers: shifting the cultural zeitgeist

shifting the cultural zeitgeist

I’m greatly enjoying Kai-fu Lee’s new book AI Superpowers, even if his Gladiators in the Coliseum metaphor gets a little wearing after a while.

One of the most important points he makes in the book is the pivotal role that the Chinese government is playing in mobilizing national resources to promote “mass innovation” for AI throughout the country. Clear evidence if this was all around me during my recent visit to Shanghai and Hangzhou, not least in the wall-to-wall media coverage of President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference.

Mass mobilization campaigns are of course nothing new in Chinese history. They date back at least to 2,200 BCE when the legendary emperor Yu the Great led the population in the construction of the nation’s first irrigation systems to tame the Yellow River and the other great waterways in its heartland. The implementation of other major projects such as the Grand Canal and the Great Wall as well as smaller localized ones all depended on the mass mobilization of labor provided in large part by peasants forced during the off-seasons of the agricultural calendar and convicted criminals.

One obvious difference between today’s mass innovation campaign and those of the past is that it is targeted at the unleashing the of brains the intellectual and business classes rather than leveraging the muscles of the working class and farmers. This has meant that instead of adopting the traditional command and control approach to managing the campaign, the government has focused on providing, as Kai-fu Lee notes, “innovators the money and the space they needed to work their magic.”

In addition to thousands of high-tech zones clusters offering access to low-cost office space, high-speed broadband, well-educated talent, and business support services, entrepreneurs can also tap into central and local government “guiding funds” not to mention the rapidly-growing VC network to get their company off the ground.

Most importantly, perhaps, the mass innovation campaign has in the author’s words shifted “the cultural zeitgeist” by getting “parents to stop nagging them (young innovators) about taking a taking a job at local state-owned bank.” Given that the traditional route to success for well-educated young people has been to pursue a career in government service this represents a huge change in thinking. For the first time in China’s history, business people are being lionized as all-conquering heroes rather than demonized as rapacious profiteers.

With so much previously untapped young talent being unleashed it’s no wonder that China is well on its way becoming an AI superpower.

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