Thursday, August 9, 2018

Is China Out-Innovating America?

Whenever we denounce Chinese culture and educational methods for producing generations of mindless automatons, we point to America's superior technological innovation. We believe that our more free wheeling, creative, individualistic culture will out-innovate any other culture on earth. And that Chinese automatons will never be able to compete.

Now, the president of MIT, Rafael Reif offers us a sobering assessment of the innovation derby. As it happens, America seems to be falling behind China.

I cannot claim anything resembling competence in assessing these issues, so I will report Reif’s observation and analysis:

China is not an innovation also-ran that prospers mainly by copying other people’s ideas and producing them quickly at low cost. The country is advancing aggressively to assert technological supremacy in critical fields of science and technology.
In quantum computing, China’s Alibaba is battling Google to achieve the technical milestone of “quantum supremacy.” In 5G technology, the three largest global players are Nokia of Finland, Ericsson of Sweden — and Huawei of China, which is spending more than two and a half times as much on research and development as its two rivals. The Fuxing bullet train, designed and built in China, is the world’s fastest in regular operation.

China is also a world leader in fields like mobile payment and facial and spoken language recognition, where Chinese companies have made the most of their advanced algorithms and their advantages in scale and data access. It is also making bold national investments in key areas of research like biotechnology and space, and directly supporting start-ups and recruiting talent from around the world. And China has unrivaled capacity to rapidly ramp up large-scale production of advanced technology products and quickly bring innovation to market.

The United States still has an opportunity to catch up here. It’s strength,the president of MIT tells us, lies in its university system. We have more intellectual freedom than China, and therefore, the argument goes, we should be producing more innovators:

But China’s technological dominance is not inevitable. The United States has tremendous assets, including the immense global strength of our technology sector. This partly depends on a unique formula no other country has been able to copy: the large number of first-rate American universities pursuing advanced research with long-term federal support. This relationship is rooted in a national culture of opportunity and entrepreneurship, inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, supported by the rule of law and, crucially, pushed to new creative heights by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of our society and every corner of the world. For decades, these factors have helped make our nation the most powerful scientific and technological engine on Earth.

America has notably attracted talent from all over the world. But, as you and I know and as the president of MIT does not mention, that talent most often comes from Asia. Ph. D. programs in science and engineering are dominated by Asian students. They even outperform white American students.

Unfortunately, after they receive their degrees, these students are increasingly returning to their home countries.

Reif is surely correct to recommend a national strategy, directed by government and corporations:

While China is moving forward rapidly with a unified strategy called Made in China 2025 to become the world leader in manufacturing and technology, the United States has not made technological pre-eminence a matter of broad national focus.

But, ask  yourself this, how well will this university system work if it sets the goal of diversity ahead of the goal of technological superiority? Which matters more, diversity or excellence? As the student body becomes more diverse, will coursework need to be dumbed down?

And also, consider the fact that the radical leftists who work at Google have forced the company to withdraw from an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon. Googlers do not want to sully their hands working on drone technology.

If American corporations are going to limit their research to areas where they can assert ideological purity we are going to continue to fall behind China. After all, artificial intelligence has many applications. If you shut down research because it applies to America’s national defense, you are going to miss out on other technological advances. Besides, wasn’t the internet, that mammoth engine of marketing and sales, developed by the very same Pentagon?

[Addendum: See also this article from CNNtech.]


trigger warning said...

Speaking of diversity, consider for a moment the excitement, nay, tumescence, of the NYT regarding the current Progdarling, Mz Ocasio-Cortez, having a minor, invisible and barely detectable, space rock named after her (asteroid 23238) for a 2007 ISEF science fair project billed as "microbiology" research.

As it happens, I've served as a volunteer science fair judge many times, so I was naturally curious...

To begin with, it was very difficult to find out what her project actually entailed. Intel sponsors the ISEF fair she participated in, and they report the winners online. She was not to be found. Digging deeper, her project, billed as "microbiology", was, in fact, not microbiology. From what little I've been able to dredge up, her project involved roundworms, life extension, and antioxidants (e.g., vitamin E). This is typical of many science fair projects, often with titles like "Retest of ESP Protocols in Card-Sorting", "Skype Usage and Middle School Social Cliques", "Personality Dimensions and Gaming Behavior", "Tomato Juice: A Novel Antibacterial Agent" and, of course, the perennial favorite, "Erosion".

In comparison to the feeding of roundworms with vitamin E, one of her "peers", also a winner in the 2007 ISEF competition, was Philip Streich, 16. His project was described in the journal Photonics as "[T]he first evidence that carbon nanotubes, which are among the strongest and most conductive materials in the world, are thermodynamically soluble. He also quantified that solubility and its limits by using static light scattering to measure a parameter called the second virial coefficient B." There is no space rock named after Mr Streich.

Perhaps this also sheds some light on how Mz Ocasio-Cortez graduated from BU with a degree in economics and complained that unemployment is low because everybody works two jobs. But the participation asteroid trophies are so important to diversify STEM!

Until we STOP DOING THIS, the Chinese tiger moms and "rote learning" schools focused on education instead of activism/self-esteem are going to kick our collective asses.

katzxy said...

Two things:

It's not at all clear that "Reif is surely correct to recommend a national strategy, directed by government and corporations." Is there a central authority assuring food delivery to Manhattan?

Look at Reif's recommendations, and the Latin phrase comes to mind: qui bono?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

i.e. the Manhattan Project?

David Foster said...

"It’s strength,the president of MIT tells us, lies in its university system."

What would you expect a university president to say?

There's an old saying about asking a barber if you need a haircut.

David Foster said...

"Reif is surely correct to recommend a national strategy, directed by government and corporations"

See my post Leaving a Trillion on the Table for a cautionary tale about this kind of thing. (Actually, 'trillion' was way too small a number)

David Foster said...

"Besides, wasn’t the internet, that mammoth engine of marketing and sales, developed by the very same Pentagon?"

The network infrastructure architecture for the Internet was indeed developed by ARPA. However, the large-scale commercial engineering and deployment of the Internet was accomplished by commercial companies such as PSInet, UUNET, and ANS. The web, which vastly improved the usefulness of the Internet, was not conceptually invented in the US at all, it was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit working in Switzerland, and the user-friendly web browser, which made it accessible to ordinary people, was pioneered by Netscape, an American corporation.

Anonymous said...

Though one might enjoy this:
We used to place an emphasis on ideas vice what we now seem to think sacrosanct, feelings the true danger to a great society/culture.