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The surprising Grandparent Story in the AI race!

Updated: Jan 30, 2019


There's an author named Dr. Kai-Fu Lee who has written a best seller, Artificial Intelligence Superpowers, which claims that China will soon overtake the United States as the world leader in AI innovation.


Sounds scary. I haven't read the book yet, but Dr. Lee has a lot of credibility. You may have seen him recently on 60 Minutes. He's apparently brilliant enough to have had top jobs at Apple, Microsoft and Google before becoming a Venture Capitalist in Beijing. Dr. Lee claims that the country with the greatest number of tech entrepreneurs and the largest collection of data will likely win the AI race and hold the key to the future.


He says that China has 2 distinct advantages. It's been allowed to collect more data about people and therefore has more information at its disposal. Consequently, they can become "smarter" faster as they have with an app that has totally eliminated credit cards, and cash is no longer king. In the West, our concerns about protecting individual and corporate rights to privacy throw barriers in our way to create all-out innovation.


In an NPR interview, Dr. Lee points to another cultural difference that accelerates the motivation of their tech employees beyond ours. It seems crazy and involves the Chinese Grandparents.


Many smart Chinese tech workers come from poor families that have literally been poor for 10 or 20 generations. It is their custom to expect these young people to carry the burden of supporting their families- 2 parents and 4 grandparents... for the rest of their lives. Dr. Lee believes this family debt creates a huge incentive to do well.


For Americans, the very idea of one young worker having the responsibility for potentially supporting 4 generations of a family, seems unfathomable as well as unfair, by any standard. Many of our kids have serious college loan debts, but these will hopefully not last their lifetimes.


The role of Grandparents, (probably mostly grandmothers) serving as primary caretakers in China and their one- child policy, has created another peculiar irony. It's allowed their children and grandchildren the financial freedom to pursue college and graduate degrees. This has been especially significant for women. Despite many more males in the population (115 males to 100 females) in China, women are now receiving more than 50% of graduate degrees (except at the PhD level.)


As we'd expect, according to Reuters there's still a large gender imbalance in Chinese tech firms, especially among entry level and middle management roles, where there are considerable stereotypes and barriers around marital status, temperament and age. There are, for example, still employment ads that ask for men only! Yet, despite this, women have made certain gains that clearly rival and even exceed women in our own country!


I was shocked to learn the following... and fact-checked as best I could:

1. The Atlantic reported in November, 2017 that about half of American technology companies have women in top positions. In China, it’s closer to 80 percent.

2. Bloomberg reported in September,2016 that in the venture capital landscape, American women make up 10% of the investing partners and only half of the firms have any women investing partners at all. In China, 17% of the partners are female and a whopping 80% of firms have at least 1 woman investing.

3. And Barrons, in March, 2018 claimed that China dominated a ranking of the world’s self-made female billionaires, making up almost two-thirds of the total, as well as sweeping the top four spots. The U.S., with 17 women billionaires, had the second largest share of the list, accounting for 17% of the total. (This was also reported in Forbes.)

4. The World Economic Forum in November, 2017 reported that women set up 55% of new internet companies in China and more than a quarter of all entrepreneurs were women. This is a much higher number than in any other country.


And now, let's get back to the The China Grandparent story. By 2013, urbanization had begun to radically change the Chinese culture by displacing families. A survey by the All-China Women's Federation estimated that there were "currently 60 million children 'left behind' by their parents—children who live with their Grandparents and other relatives in rural areas while their parents went off to more affluent cities to work." This seems like an astronomical number of fragmented families and a sad, seemingly unsustainable statistic.


So, the ancient custom of the old caring for the young has clearly played discordant roles in China, While it eliminates families' child care worries in the short term, allowing both boys and girls to pursue education and careers, it burdens these same young people, by binding them together financially to their ancestors for the foreseeable future.


Right now in China, the tech jobs are in cities where very few childcare options exist in their fast moving, migrating economy. Alternative social supports such as day care for children, or nursing homes and subsidized housing for elderly populations rarely exist. Will this begin to hold back their progress and will the government ultimately search for solutions?


By contrast, women in the United States have struggled to find quality and affordable child care. It is the issue often cited by women as the greatest obstacle to their work/home balance, and also for those who aspire toward the glass ceilings of corporate America. Following this hurdle, is a need to find high quality health care for aging parents.


When Dr. Lee says the country with the "greatest number" of tech entrepreneurs will win the AI race, is that necessarily the whole picture? With more women from both countries entering the race, how might they alter the paradigm?


And, ultimately, how might Artificial Intelligence contribute to the answers in both China and the US? Could it somehow help solve China's heavy reliance on Grandparents as daycare providers, and the dualities of the outcomes that result?


And, in the US, might AI help alleviate the financial burden of college educations and day care? Could it solve some of the childcare safety issues and uneven educational opportunities of American day care? Will AI help find solutions to the care of America's aging populations?


And will these innovations allow more women opportunities to succeed? This is where the AI race might actually be won.


At the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2009, the Dalai Llama proclaimed that "the world will be saved by the western women."


Grandparents, I hope we live long enough to find out. Till then, I'm betting on the Dalai Lama and American ingenuity!






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