Recently, I started to read (or… ok, let’s be honest, I am not reading it but listening to it on Audible) the latest bestseller of Kai-Fu Lee “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the new Word Order”. The book is revolutionizing the Western perception of innovation, technological research and the label “Made in China”. It is an absolute “must read” book for everybody who still thinks that China is a country of “copycats” producing cheap versions of iPhones and headphones that break the next day you use them. Guys, it’s time to wake up! It is 2018. Chinese speed of innovation has been reaching the speed of Silicon Valley, whereas its level of acceleration stays unprecedented in both geographical and historical contexts. Kai-Fu Lee depicts facts, characters and anecdotes that will make you think for a while and probably visit Shenzhen one day.
About DJI, its founder and Hangzhou
My personal “Made in China” a-ha moment was in January 2018 when I started looking for a new drone. I was quite clear on the goal – I didn’t want another “Chinese” drone. We bought the first Chinese drone a couple of years ago and I was quite disappointed by it. It could not fly when the wind was stronger than 0 mph and its video quality was very mediocre… Why should I buy another drone from China? I started to do my market research. The public opinion was quite clear – DJI drones were the best ones on the market. DJI? For people who are not into filming and aerial photography, it still doesn’t ring a bell. But let’s stick to the facts. Today this company has a 70% global market share in the drone market with an even higher share in the high-end professional category. It is probably the first Chinese technology company that surpassed its American competitors in their home market very quickly and easily. I could not believe in it and checked everything twice before buying #dronekuzya – our loyal companion in all trips and adventures. It never disappointed us!
So, is DJI really Chinese and how did they start?
Da-Jiang Innovations (this is actually what DJI stands for) started in 2006 in a dorm room at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A young student from China’s Zhejiang Province was granted a scholarship of 2,300 USD to develop a drone. Frank Wang was 26 years old. 11 years later he became Asia’s youngest billionaire. DJI is now the world’s largest consumer drone company also producing flight controllers, Zenmuse aerial gimbals, ground gimbals, cameras and many other truly nerdy devices. Its headquarters is in Shenzhen, Guangdong. Interestingly, Frank Wang (or Wang Tao – this is his real Chinese name) became not only a technology superstar but also a metaphor for the renewal of Chinese innovation spirit that goes far beyond copying Western devices. Frank comes from a once probably most famous Chinese city of Hangzhou. In the late 13th century, Marco Polo visited it and described it as “greater than any in the world”. Ibn Batutta (a great Moroccan explorer of the 14th century) echoed Polo’s opinion by calling Hangzhou “the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth”. Not only was Hangzhou big, but it was also the most innovative city of that epoch. Well-crafted wooden ships with coloured sails, countless bridges and a huge beautiful lake impressed every foreigner. The times changed. In the 18th century, Hangzhou lost its importance… until the beginning of the new millennium. With Alibaba Headquarters, it has become the global centre of e-commerce ceding the title of “the heart of global technological innovation” to Shenzhen. Frank Wang is a Chinese entrepreneur of a new era – the one who is being copied by his American and European rivals.
About AI and a shift in global power
You might get an impression that Kai-Fu Lee wrote about drones and the history of Hangzhou in his book about AI. It is not true. In “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the new Word Order”, the author describes a new era of AI when the high-quality research is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the next breakthrough. Availability and interconnectedness of online and offline data, support from the government combined with some tolerance for inefficiencies, capital and hungry armies of entrepreneurs are the best conditions for bringing Artificial Intelligence to the next level. China is on its way there.