Zero-sum thinking is an AI talent killer


Technology arising out of artificial intelligence has untold potential to benefit humanity and to generate wealth and employment. It also offers exciting new ways to explore most academic disciplines.

Moreover, if a technology company cannot learn from the innovative work done in higher education, it will probably fail to find a platform for sustainable growth. Similarly, without both public and private funding, new inventions may languish in a laboratory.

Hence, the case is obvious for industry and academia to collaborate on AI. However, not everyone is convinced. Some people regard cooperation between enterprises and universities as benefitting only the companies, and that research should be conducted in a commercial vacuum. Politicians are less concerned about commercial benefit since they welcome the economic growth and jobs that commercial success brings. But they do sometimes object when the company concerned is based in a foreign country.

Such zero-sum thinking has parallels with fears voiced by some US politicians in the 1980s and 1990s about Japan’s economic rise. In the 2018 book Prediction Machines, Ajay Agrawal recounts how the MIT economist Scott Stern was asked at a congressional hearing in 1999 how the US should respond to comparably higher R&D spending by Japan and other economies, suggesting that these countries posed a threat to American prosperity. “The first thing we should do is send them a thank you letter,” Stern said. “Innovative investment is not a win-lose situation. American consumers are going to benefit from more investment by other countries…It is a race we can all win.”

Huawei is not holding out for a thank you letter any time soon. But our message will always be clear: countries have more to gain than to fear from healthy international competition. By placing Chinese companies on a blacklist, politicians are restricting the talent growth required for a successful AI-informed future that will benefit everyone.

Talent growth is a hugely important issue. The European Commission believes that there could be as many as 750,000 unfilled jobs in the European information and communication technology sector this year. And a 2018 Ernst & Young poll found that 56 per cent of senior AI professionals believe this lack of qualified talent is the single biggest barrier to AI implementation across business operations. This means talent, not technology, is key to economic growth.

The trick, then, will be to upskill people up to work in IT, rather than allowing them to be put out of work by it: what Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, calls “technological unemployment”. But the existing talent is spread all around the world; 71 per cent of tech employees in Silicon Valley are foreign born, for instance. So cross-border collaboration on AI makes overwhelming sense. We need a global Silicon Valley: an international community of academics, entrepreneurs, companies and investors working together to nurture talent and push ideas forward.

To this end, Huawei has launched a developer enablement programme, providing an investment of $1 billion (£777 million) to address the widening skills gap. We work with universities to publish textbooks and educational material related to AI, help to build AI labs and train AI teachers, and encourage universities from all over the world to participate in the Huawei cloud open community.

But we also need to keep making the case for investment in basic research, which has hit a bottleneck worldwide, primarily because government funding in this area has fallen significantly. Product innovation during the past 20 years has relied on ideas that were conceived in academia and developed by industry into products and solutions that address customer needs. The next phase will be a search for new theoretical concepts that will shape consumer needs in 50 years’ time: a future Shannon–Hartley theorem or Moore’s Law, for example.

Despite the geopolitical pressures that international tech companies such as Huawei face, we will continue to increase investment in collaborating with universities. A collective effort is the only way to answer the world’s greatest challenges and respond to an uncertain future. It is not a zero-sum game.

Author Bio: Jack Lyu Ke is president of Huawei’s Human Resource Management Department, and chairman of the Huawei Corporate Advisory Committee.