Future tech

Burning Man festival holds the secret to America’s tech prowess

‘One year, I remember arriving in a car with a friend- an engineer from Google who removed all his clothes and religiously walked into the teeming crowds’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 12:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2017, 10:26pm

Burning Man began on Sunday and continues through this weekend in the Black Rock desert north of Reno, Nevada. It is “a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance,” with mutant vehicles straight out of Mad Max- and lots of naked people.

I took part in Burning Man in its early days through the 90s, when it was less of a festival than a counter culture gathering where you might achieve your personal epiphany in the desert with like-minded people. It used to be a wonderful festival, but has now turned into a desert version of Coachella. Most original “Burners” no longer go and have defected to smaller, more intimate versions that are still unique. When Justin Bieber shows up, you know the event is officially uncool.

Nonetheless, Burning Man is key to the creative psyche of the tech industry. In its formative years Silicon Valley’s tech industry, Google’s founders and employees were heavily influenced by the festival’s idiosyncratic and corporate free blend of counter culture, individualism, social collaboration and egalitarianism.

One year, I remember arriving in a car with a friend- an engineer from Google who removed all his clothes and religiously walked into the teeming crowds. A week later we rendezvoused back at the car and he blithely remarked: “Wow, one week naked. That was cool.” Drugs, art, music and orgy tents encourage Burners to push boundaries, just as tech start-ups defy cultural norms and disintermediate laws.

Maybe Chinese government officials should attend Burning Man to see what tech used to be inspired by. Because China is shaping, almost weaponising the tech industry in important areas like artificial intelligence (AI) for national strategic superiority. It will become a struggle for power itself.

Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent have separately announced major initiatives in AI along with the mainland government, which has stated it is a strategic industrial priority. It is as if the government is directing them in an effort that takes them out of their core skills and businesses.

On July 20, China’s State Council issued the “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” which articulates an ambitious agenda for China to lead the world in AI. The Chinese government intends to solve key problems in research and development to cultivate an AI industry to become the “premier global AI innovation centre” by 2030.

Chinese government policies suffer from several major weaknesses they need to overcome in order to elevate its economy to the high value added, innovative, knowledge driven economy that the US features. China’s lack of ethnic and intellectual diversity, open immigration policies and intellectual property protection are serious impediments to invention. The American experience has proven that its ability to tolerate and blend these elements has been the crucible for Silicon Valley’s success.

A sense of humour helps, too. Earlier this month, Tencent shut down a pair of subversive chat bots BabyQ and XiaoBing. One bot raged: “Do you think such corrupt and incapable politics can last a long time?” after another messaged: “Long live the Communist Party.” Asked for its thoughts on democracy, BabyQ retorted: “Democracy is a must!” AI gone wild is not a laughing matter in China.

Whether the monolithic, Han Chinese race can restore China’s martial glory and rightful place in history by dominating AI’s promise of a scientific revolution and industrial transformation represents an ideological struggle between western and Chinese values.

The big Chinese internet companies benefited immensely from government protection and the Great Chinese Firewall. The upside is that they did not face much American competition in China. But the downside is that staying behind the firewall means they are hostage to all of its domestic advantages and find it hard to compete and innovate outside.

American engineers point out that the Chinese culture of copying is regressive. The problem with copying, leaving aside its ethics and legalities, is that you don’t possess the engineering capability to actually develop the next version or invent a revolutionary product.

Chinese tech companies have plenty of money, but they are challenged to hire and retain the best engineering teams. Silicon Valley engineers say Chinese counterparts boast about being able to direct 100 engineers onto a project whereas American engineers say they only need 10 really smart engineers to do the work of 100.

Yet, American engineers are amazed at the ability of Chinese tech companies to take on a high volume of low and high level risks with almost no fear. They aggressively deploy hundreds sometimes thousands of engineers who work in teams to try out numerous ideas and approaches, quickly discarding those that fail and moving on. And they not scared to lose money.

So it’s a race for world domination between the Communist Party of China who hopes AI can automate social management and stability versus American engineers who draw vision and inspiration from a wild week in the Nevada desert.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker