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AI, China, Data, Good Thinking, and our Fall Conference

Kai-Fu Lee

Techonomy’s conferences are not just a bunch of big names broadcasting from a stage. We program. We curate. We iterate. We think like journalists preparing a living magazine, one about how tech changes everything, and what we should do about it.

Yet fully conveying what makes our conferences unique remains a challenge. During my many years at Fortune, one oft-uttered truism was “good writing is good thinking.” To that we add, “good conference programming is good thinking.” It’s a high bar.

Some recent speaker additions for the Techonomy 2018 retreat in California this November help clarify our aims. For example, one perhaps inevitable track will be on artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on business and our lives. Our approach to the AI conversation is to put it into the context of global geopolitical competition, as AI moves from the lab to the international marketplace.

We told you in a recent article about two great speakers we have confirmed: Rodney Brooks, who co-founded iRobot (of Roomba fame) and Rethink Robotics (with its Baxter manufacturing robot) and also ran the main AI lab at MIT for a decade. And we’ll also have Michael Dunne, whose ZoZo Go researches the intersection between the Chinese and global auto industries. His thinking these days is all about automation, the Chinese advantage in AI, and how that plays out in autos.

David Kirkpatrick interviews Kai-Fu Lee at Davos earlier this year. (Photo credit: Techonomy)

Well, one new speaker we’re proud to announce is Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s, and China’s, leading AI experts. He’s the guy who made us realize how much this has to be a global conversation. Now investing in Chinese startups out of Beijing, Lee grew up mostly in the U.S., got computer science degrees at Columbia and Carnegie Mellon, then worked in succession for Apple, Silicon Graphics, and Microsoft, until he left to establish Google’s operations in China. Now he has authored a compelling new book entitled AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. (We’re reading an advance copy with admiration right now.)

In a theme from the book that he will elaborate on at the conference, Lee explains that while China may still lag the U.S. in fundamental computer science breakthroughs, it has plenty of smart computer scientists with one gigantic advantage over those anywhere else: the scale of data generated by the Chinese internet. AI will advance faster for whomever can garner the most data to train the latest AI software. And China has the most, by far.

This fundamental distinction is exactly why Dunne also believes China could dominate the global automated, electrified, self-driving car industry, including ride-hailing. Just to give an example, China’s Didi Chuxing is by far the world’s leader in ride-hailing, measured not just by its estimated private-market valuation (larger than Uber), but also by its dramatically larger number of rides hailed. In March the Financial Times reported Didi was doing more than 25 million rides per day.

Going back to my point (Lee’s point) about the power of big data to advance AI — that means Didi, probably aligned with several other Chinese tech and auto companies, has more potential to advance self-driving car technology than any other company in the world.

I tell you all this to signal the kinds of insights and discussion you’ll hear at our conference in Half Moon Bay, California, this November 11-13.

AI will just be one of many threads in our conversation.

We’re proud that we’re where Mark Zuckerberg famously said “it’s a crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook altered the election. We’ll of course continue to debate the role of net giants in business and our lives. It’s probably the most urgent debate the world is having right now, since it encompasses the global shift towards autocracy, threats to democracy, and the diminishing role of personal privacy, all in one conversation.

And to give one additional bit of flavor, we’ll also have a former Facebook and Google engineer, now running a company expecting to make major advances in medical diagnostics. Mary Lou Jepsen, who I’ve known since she was chief technology officer for Nicholas Negroponte’s groundbreaking One Laptop Per Child initiative, now runs a company called Openwater. (See also this article I wrote for Fortune in 2007 for a nice photo of Mary Lou back then.)

Openwater is using red near-infrared light, generated by inexpensive LEDs, to image the body in real time, using handheld or even wearable technology. Jepsen will bring her dog Chewie on stage to give the first live audience demo on a mammal.

Jepsen says the firm’s long-term vision is to change “how we read and write our bodies and brains.” To her, that even implies, btw, the possibility, down the road, of brain-to-brain communication. There is reason to think such wearable devices could track and communicate our thoughts by measuring how oxygen is being processed in brain cells. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunity in the meantime to inexpensively do diagnostic imaging for well-known medical purposes.

All this is in addition to the many amazing leaders we’ve also confirmed for the program, like Marissa Mayer, John Chambers, GE’s Chief Innovation Officer Sue Siegel, Accenture CTO Paul Daugherty, and many more.

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One Response to “AI, China, Data, Good Thinking, and our Fall Conference”

  1. Will Greene Will Greene says:

    Lots of people are saying China’s data advantages will drive competitiveness in AI, particularly in fields like healthcare that are highly fragmented in the US. The counterargument is that data scarcity will drive more “smart” AI algorithms that can train themselves on less data and make bigger conceptual leaps between concepts. Sometimes less is more, and the most creative breakthroughs are the result of constraints.

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