More generic futurist hand-waving from Huawei's founder

Ren Zhengfei seems to be yet another blind optimist about technology's inevitable benefits, but with 'regional characteristics' and an odd vision for what a 'level playing field' for 5G looks like.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

"We shouldn't feel hesitant about this new world or uncertain about this new world. We should welcome this new world with open arms," says Huawei founder and chief executive officer Ren Zhengfei.

"Human society is at the doorstep of the explosion of new technologies," he said through an interpreter during the second A Coffee With Ren panel discussion on Thursday.

Noting the difficulties of building electronic technology at the sub-nanometre scale, Ren pointed to genetic technology and a revolution in life sciences, nanotechnology for medical care, materials science, quantum computing, optical technology, and of course artificial intelligence (AI).

"The AI will start to get applied at a very large scale to drive the society forward," he said.

"I think in the next two to three decades a lot of technologies will achieve breakthrough."

So far so good. There's nothing there that any hand-waving rent-a-keynote futurist couldn't bleat, but with pretty slides.

There's also little difference between Ren and other futurists when it comes to their blind optimism about technology's wonders.

The live interpreters may not have captured all the nuances of Ren's comments. When it appears in the next few days, the "official truth" transcript may well differ. But Ren's meaning was clear enough.

"Trains used to run slower than horse-driven carriages, but you know, now we know trains can carry heavy load[s] of goods. When trains were first introduced into China, people saw that as a monster," Ren said through the interpreter.

"It's the same when China first had high-speed rail, there was an accident on one route of the high-speed rail in China. There was a heavy accident, and people were quite disapproving of high-speed rail. But nowadays people all welcome high-speed rail," he said.

"We should be tolerant and trusting with the new technologies."

One level playing field, but only two players

Earlier this month, Ren said that Huawei would be willing to sell an exclusive licence to all of its 5G technology to a single western company.

On Thursday, he clarified that it would be a US company, because European, Japanese, and South Korean companies are already making advances.

"Source code, hardware, software, and the verification, production and manufacturing know-how, all of these are included in the package. And if they need it, we can also license the design of the chipsets," Ren said.

"After getting the licence, they should be able to compete with us around the world. It's not just confined to the US business," he said.

"Of course I'm talking about the markets based on Earth. I'm not talking about the Moon or Mars. I think it should be a level playing field on Earth."

Ren said that the licensing deal would comply with the FRAND rules, the "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" system for patent licensing laid down by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

ETSI members have agreed that if they own patents that are essential to implementing a particular technical standard, then they must license the technology to other members at a fair price.

It was a disagreement over what constituted a fair price for 3G technology that led to the patent battles between Samsung and Apple in 2011.

However, Ren's version of FRAND seems to differ from ETSI's, with Huawei's patents being available to only one company rather than all ETSI members.

"I think that 5G is not rocket science. In the future, the biggest industry should be AI," Ren said.

"We hope that in artificial intelligence, we would not be subject to the EL, the Entity List," which currently prohibits Huawei and many of its affiliates from selling telco equipment into the US.

AI with 'regional characteristics'

Huawei's president of corporate strategy, Zhang Wenlin, noted that the depth of datasets are crucial to the effectiveness of AI, but downplayed the importance of sharing datasets globally.

"It's true that when we move the data from one country to another the same datasets are no longer as attractive, and that is the reason why AI is able to present business with regional needs," Zhang said.

"People can enjoy the benefits of AI because it's got regional characteristics."

Ren believes that China is now more open when it comes to sharing data, repeating the familiar trope that "youngsters" are willing to post their photos online.

"I think that when we understand privacy protection it has to be put into the context with progress that we're making as a society. We cannot go to extremes when we are leveraging the technologies," he said.

Ren stressed the importance of surveillance technology in reducing crime, citing the reduction of motorcycle-borne bag snatches from 18,000 per year to zero, allegedly, and the solving of 94 murders last year.

"You can see that it turns out that the crime rate has been largely reduced, it's become safer ... but it's based on some reduced level of privacy," he said.

"But I think there are boundaries because the private information cannot be used randomly. It has to follow protocols, so police use your information by following protocols."

China may well have a digital world with "regional characteristics", but the arguments sound the same wherever you go.


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