“Rise of the Robots” in China – Some Random Observations
I’ve just returned from a week-long book tour in China (my first visit) to promote the Chinese translation of my book Rise of the Robots. I spent most of the time in Beijing but also had one day in Shanghai.
I think that robotics and artificial intelligence are poised to eventually have a dramatic impact in China because of the country’s heavy reliance on manufacturing and also because China is faced with raising household incomes and transitioning to a consumer-driven economy at a time when information technology is far more advanced than was the case with countries like the U.S., Japan or South Korea. I wrote about these challenges recently in a New York Times op-ed.
During my trip, I spoke at three leading Chinese universities/business schools: Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Peking University. Most of the people who attended the talks were alumni who had attended executive MBA-type programs. Shanghai Jiao Tong, for example, runs a program specifically geared toward training the children of Chinese tycoons in order to prepare them for eventual succession. In other words, it was a pretty elite audience. I also talked to a number of print, online and television journalists.
Here are some random observations from my trip:
There seems to a very high level of interest in robots, AI, and the potential impact on jobs and society. The journalists I talked to all came prepared with long lists of detailed questions and invariably utilized the entire allotted time period. My speaking events likewise generated far more questions than could be answered in the time available.
There’s a genuine concern about the specter of mass unemployment and what it would potentially mean for social order in China. I also got a lot of questions of about the “existential” threat of advanced AI – as has been articulated by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, etc.
There’s lots of entrepreneurial interest in robots. Several people in the audience said they had started robotics companies in areas like educational robots for children and telepresence robots designed to monitor the elderly. I also got several questions along the lines of, “I want to manufacture robots, can you recommend a U.S. robotics company to partner with?” (My answers disappointed in this area).
If you haven’t read Evan Osnos’s book Age of Ambition, I highly recommend it. I think it very well captures the mood in China.
One question from the audience in Shanghai—asked with genuine sincerity and enthusiasm—caused my mind to go blank for a while: “Since it looks like Donald Trump may be the next U.S. president, how will he be different from Obama? Do you think his strong business orientation will make a big difference?” My answer included the word “clown” but I’m not sure they really understood what I was saying.
One comment that I heard several times was that “If technology causes unemployment or social upheaval, that’s not our problem—it’s a problem for the government.” In other words, the Chinese government is clearly (and accurately) not perceived as being “by and for the people,” but rather something quite separate. However, people do have some level of confidence in government’s ability to solve problems.
Most Chinese continue to hold the U.S. in high regard and feel that their country lags significantly in terms of the kind of innovation you see in Silicon Valley. I pointed out that information technology diffuses pretty rapidly and that companies like Baidu are really on the leading edge in areas like deep learning. There’s a fair amount of concern about “reshoring” – or that robotic manufacturing will gravitate way from China and back to the U.S. (I think this will happen in some areas but probably not so much in electronics because the supply chain is so established in Asia; China may also benefit from its own reshoring effect as may be able to retain factories that would otherwise migrate to Southeast Asia).
Pollution is not quite as bad as I expected. It is very visible – look out your high rise hotel window in Beijing and you really can’t see very far. I would not call the sky really blue but on the better days it is perhaps “bluish”. However, I did not notice any issues with actually breathing the air. (Then, again, I didn’t go jogging either).
Everyone seems extraordinarily friendly. Beijing feels completely safe. At night, people gather in parks to play music and dance. On hot evenings elderly people sit outside and actually do use those fans you see in souvenir shops to cool themselves. Police are everywhere. They have no guns, but wear flashing blue and red led lights on their shoulders.
Public transportation is remarkably cheap. Subway fares were just recently revised to be based on distance, but I never paid more than 3 yuan (about 50 cents). Subways are extremely crowded, but there are way too many cars on the road and rush hour traffic crawls. Pedestrians are at high risk. When the “walk” light turns green and people begin crossing, drivers simply don’t care; they weave right between the pedestrians. Kind of the mirror image of Stockholm where everyone is so uptight about the rules that pedestrians will stand and wait obediently for the walk signal, even when the road is utterly barren of vehicles and there is not even the distant rumble of a running engine.
The Forbidden City is huge, but so crowded (and hot in July) that it really detracts from the experience. I much more enjoyed Jingshan Park, just to the north, where you can climb a hill (created from the earth excavated for the Forbidden City’s moat), visit a shrine with a panoramic view of both the palace complex and the city as a whole.
Toward the end of my visit I signed up for a VPN and used it successfully at one hotel. Then I moved to a different hotel, and when I connected, my entire internet connection when down almost immediately. From that point on, my laptop was unable to connect to the internet, even when not using a VPN—and even when I returned to the U.S. I was eventually able to solve the problem by reverting to a system restore point that was saved before I left for China. So if you plan to use a VPN in China, beware Big Brother behaving badly.