KAIST International Forum on Asia’s Futures, Session 2
Seoul, December 13, 2018

I thank our conference hosts for the kind invitation to participate in this panel, and for the opportunity to assemble these thoughts on Asia’s Technology-Driven Futures.

Let’s outline a context for these futures, before diving into the three questions posed to the panel.

There is a global environmental crisis. For Asia, the most pressing consequences are water shortages in China and elsewhere, due to less Himalayan snow runoff, and coming mass migrations due to rising seas, stronger storms, and inundation of coastal areas.

Worldwide, we see a shift from the economic regimes that dominated the last hundred years, toward knowledge economies and knowledge societies. As with any massive social shift, those who have something to lose fight back viciously. We are seeing nationalist, anti-science and anti-democratic governments emerging in many countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. This has happened in my own country too, where technology industry profits have worsened already alarming inequalities in income and wealth. These concentrations of wealth and their influence on legislation are a further anti-democratic force, leading to government by the few. I admire Macron of France and Modi of India for continuing to advocate moderation and globalism.

You may agree or not with the scenarios that I draw based on these trends. It is barely possible that authoritarian governments will, while preserving human rights to the greatest degree possible, save the world by forcing the environmental measures that democratic societies cannot agree upon. In a more plausible but Orwellian scenario, the super-rich will continue to despoil the Earth, then build and inhabit arcology-type enclaves, as coalitions of tyrants war with each other and leave the rest of us to perish from pollution and warming climate. An intermediate scenario would have democracy return, as we muddle toward the Sustainable Development Goals, missing many of the Goals but achieving just enough of them to provide for human survival.

Meanwhile, China has blown away the Western conceit that GNP growth can boom only in free-market economies, and not in centrally directed economies – a question that in any event should now be moot, given the shift to the knowledge society. More significantly, there are still questions about whether China’s growth can be sustained. If it can be sustained, then China’s Belt and Road Initiative can potentially change global logistics patterns.

Political and security hot-buttons persist in East Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong, North Korea) and in West Asia (Afghanistan, Syria).

Within this hastily drawn context, we can address the three focuses of this panel.


Because everything starts with attitudes and culture, let me address our hosts’ second question first.

What are similarities and differences between western and eastern societies toward attitudes, values, and expectations about the future of science and technology development?

A clear current difference has to do with attitudes toward science. In America right now, religious fundamentalists and right-wingers disparage and dismiss the most solid science if it contradicts their view of the Bible. In the East, the Dalai Lama has said, “If science proves our religion wrong, we will change the religion.” Perhaps few Easterners embrace His Holiness’s clear-cut view – just as few Westerners are adamantly anti-science – but the Dalai Lama’s courageous statement shows the kind of exploratory mind that is needed for Asia’s technological future.

In China, scientist Hu Jiankui has brought gene-edited babies to term. Western scientists terminate gene-edited fetuses. Each can make a case that the other’s approach is unethical.

Eastern thought is stereotypically characterized by synthesis and holism, in contrast to the West’s fondness for analytic methods. (Each hemisphere has adherents to the opposite way of thinking, of course.) The challenge is to balance the two perspectives for greatest efficacy, and to apprehend how they are converging. Here is one example of convergence: Western medical diagnosis has depended on blood labs, because it takes too long to train MDs in Eastern ways of diagnosing by external signs. Now, however, there are robots that can accurately diagnose a range of diseases in the Eastern way – by smelling the patient’s breath and urine.

A second stereotype about Asia is that its schoolchildren learn by rote, and that schools encourage conformity rather than the creativity that leads to innovation. (Actually, we have this problem in the West, too.) Here in Korea, CEOs claim to admire Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both of whom were university drop-outs. Yet the first question these CEOs ask a potential hire is, “Did you graduate from Seoul National University?”

There is a constructive medium between the extreme conformity of the East and the extreme individualism of the West. We used to call it “civics.” It teaches how diverse people pursuing diverse goals can interact for positive ends.

The theme of my forthcoming book* is that before we begin to map out and create the future, we must be clear regarding our attitudes about the future. My Japanese Zen teachers would say the future does not exist. Yet before the great Buddhist architecture of Japan, Korea and elsewhere was built, it was planned. Planning, of course, implies a future-orientation. With great respect for the tradition, I must say that Buddhist societies are ambivalent about the future. To create a deliberate future, you will create karma. Get used to it. It’s necessary.

Diverse cultural takes about the future abound in Asia. Some Asian cultures are just generally conservative. Other still adhere to ideas of cyclical time, or to the view that if anything changes, it will be for the worse. (Both views are in opposition to the Western idea of “progress.”) Other Asian cultures believe that wealth stems only from trading, or from land ownership. It has not yet occurred to them that innovation creates new wealth.

In attitudes to technology and its uses, too, there are vast cultural differences. Look at the different attitudes toward eldercare robots in Japan and in China. And social media? Filipinos use social media for religious inspiration. Hong Kongers use it check their finances. Indonesians to listen to news.** There is no one-size-fits-all in Asian technology markets.

Another intra-Asia difference concerns whether technology is for the people. In legend, a Korean king invented Korea’s alphabet, to increase literacy among the populace. Likewise, Thailand’s king invented a rain-making technology, to benefit his country’s farmers. In contrast, any technological advances in China historically had one purpose only: to amuse the Emperor. To the extent that these opposing orientations persist, they will shape Asia’s technology-driven futures.

Any effort toward answering the overall question of this panel must begin by mapping these many differences. This forum might ask the Asian Development Bank or a similar institution to fund the mapping project.

What are limitations and problems of western-centered technology development and science/technology thinking?

Let’s not presume western tech presents more problems than eastern tech. Every technological advance brings diseconomies as well as benefits. Our mutual challenges, west and east, are first to ensure the benefits outweigh the damages, and second, to take measures to minimize any harm.

It is less and less possible to separate eastern tech from western tech. They are well integrated, both in terms of supply chains and in terms of networking. IoT devices on one side of the planet draw data from servers on the other side. Western electronic parts depend on rare-earth elements, on which China has a near monopoly. The ‘Internet tax’ – those few cents that every e-transaction steers to the platform providers – is now collected equally in Silicon Valley and in Shanghai.

Most products these days have a social interaction component. The task of improving machine translation programs, for example, is crowd-sourced. Machine translation from Chinese to English is excellent. Translation from Korean to English remains terrible. I submit that this is less a “problem of Western technology” and more a problem of Korean non-participation in international social networking.

The West has exported one of its technology problems, namely, labor exploitation in manufacturing, to Asia. Robotic and additive manufacturing will soon put an end to that, creating a new unemployment problem in Asia, and in America.

China’s growth is all the more remarkable in that it has had to establish so many new supply chains, as it enters new industries. The Belt and Road is part of this effort. China attempts resource extraction in Africa, reassuring (for example) the Congolese that China was never a colonial power in Africa and therefore is a better business partner than Belgians. However, Chinese have proven to be as clumsy as Europeans at the intercultural bridge-building that business in Africa requires.

What is the possibility of cooperation and solidarity in Asia, concerning opportunities and crises that science and technology developments will bring in the future?

The backdrop for my answer is the high probability that China’s economic boom was a one-time affair, driven by consumer spending – specifically, the younger generation spending their grandparents’ savings. When that’s gone, there is no more.

Still more Chinese wealth will be absorbed as the government encourages re-migration away from the coastal cities. As for foreign climate refugees, I asked a Chinese official, “Are you ready for a wave of migrants as Bangladesh goes underwater?” His chilling answer was, “We have very secure borders…”

No surprise that the big boy on the block, China, prefers to dictate rather than negotiate. As the big boy, though, China sets the tone of trust or distrust for the entire region. “Cooperation and solidarity” depend on trust.

Is trust present? One vastly important and terrible event – the worst technological disaster in history, at Fukushima – says, “No, trust is not present.” It was obvious madness to build a nuclear reactor on land that’s subject to earthquakes and tsunamis. Why did Japan do it? What prevents Japan from investing in, and buying nuclear power from, a geologically stable neighbor country? The answer is that national governments in the region don’t trust each other, and fear that withholding of electric power will be a weapon or a negotiating point. Masayoshi Son’s plan for a pan-East Asia energy grid has not found a business model that is robust to multilateral political risk.

Criticizing China and its expansionist policies, Mike Pence’s speech writer coined a cute phrase, “Constricting Belt and one-way Road.” The Belt and Road has already put Pakistan deeply in debt to China. An Iranian colleague, teasing me about Trump wanting to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, grew somber and added, “China wants to build a railroad and have Iran pay for it.” Asian countries are growing wary of being financially indebted to China.

Korea is enjoying splendid success with cultural exports. Youngsters everywhere are studying Korean language in order to understand this country’s high-quality television productions, its K-pop songs, and its cuisine. Yet this success is small when we consider that Hollywood, Nollywood, and Bollywood export an overwhelming flood of English-language entertainment. This, and the growth of English-speaking India’s economy (and English’s official status in Singapore and Taiwan), will ensure English language dominance in the Indo-Pacific, and continued penetration of English in China.

I emphasize language because language is a technology. And because while localizing products and web sites is now a mature art, tech support is not. You will be challenged to decide where to locate support centers, geographically, and in what languages to provide product support.

English is far from universal in a linguistically diverse continent with many populations that have never had reason or opportunity to be exposed to English. Visual communication may be key to reaching these many language groups: Augmented reality, Snapchat, infographics, and video.** Pictorial content, already deeply rooted in Kanji cultures, can be a distinctive technology growth niche for Asia.


As can city planning! China is building dozens of new cities from the ground up. India, Korea and Thailand are sharing, benefiting from, and building upon city planning methods that the West, sadly, left behind more than a hundred years ago.

What else bodes badly or well for cooperation and solidarity? As noted, trust is a serious challenge. Additionally, many regions of west, south and southeast Asia as well as parts of China seem ill-prepared to deal with religious differences.

Asian economic integration is still embryonic. ASEAN strives to emulate the European Economic Community – which was the predecessor of the European Union – but has met with success only in few industries, notably aviation. The Economist magazine derides APEC as standing for “Any Possible Excuse to Chat.” Free (or nearly free) trade areas are needed because easy access to large borderless markets is important for entrepreneurs and investors.

On the positive and encouraging side, government-supported technology entrepreneurship in China and South Korea seems to have moved away from nepotism (e.g., startup subsidies for the son of the Ministry official) and toward meritocracy.

There are more “A” students in China than all students in the USA. These super-bright young Asians will find ways to express the fruits of their intellect, even in the face of deficient educational systems and poor Internet access.

Historically more accustomed to wealth inequality than America has been, Asia† may expect less social instability than what is looming in the West – even as Asian nations continue to extend human rights to more and more segments of society from which future innovators will spring.

Transparency in government is an area in which Asia must catch up to and surpass the West. Innovators should know exactly what they must do to start a company and bring a product to market.

East and West both need a reformed financial sector – one that will inject funds into promising businesses, rather than suck funds out, and one that will contribute to non-financial industry share of GDP, rather than reduce it.

Stronger intellectual property regimes are needed. For example, a colleague in China recently asked me how to protect his company’s new invention in China! One sees the contradiction between the lax protections that help China effect inward technology transfer, and China’s wish to encourage indigenous innovation.

I mention these “innovation system” elements because, as James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies just wrote††, “The number of engineers or patents and spending on R&D are not the key determinants of technological competition.… This competition is a contest of ideas on governance for investment, innovation, and the Internet.”

The race to dominate artificial intelligence technology is another important topic, but one that cannot fit into this talk’s time slot.

No matter which of these futures materializes, a central challenge will be measurement. What should be measured? How will we know whether Asia is progressing toward a technology-driven future? Who will do the measuring? National statistics, as traditionally defined, will not capture progress of the knowledge economy, and in any case are poorly researched and administered in several Asian nations. Early attention to measurement should do much to ensure clarity and accountability in Asia’s technology-driven future.

* What About the Future? A primer for planners and other thoughtful people. Springer, 2019.
** LinkedIn Sales & Marketing | 2017 Digital & Content Marketing Predictions for Southeast Asia.
† Modern Japan is an exception.
†† Lewis, J. A. (2018) Technological Competition and China, (November), 1–8. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.