First things first
If there's one consistent trend we've been seeing over the past few years, it's the shift away from Silicon Valley (and, indeed, the United States, in general) as the world's only hub of software innovation and the world's only real consumer of advanced technology. There are many answers as to why this is happening, including that other countries are simply catching up in terms of education, entrepreneurship and venture capital infrastructure (and sometimes government assistance).
But another driving factor appears to be that we're reaching peak web, if not in terms of usage then at least in terms of what we want, need and expect from web companies. Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress this week was a pretty stark reminder that something's got to give when it comes to the primary business models of Facebook and its peers. Maybe the web we have (flawed as it is in certain ways) is good enough for the most part. Maybe we don't want or need better search engines or more social networking platforms, or constant changes in the user experience -- especially if it means more chances for security flaws or more of our data being harvested.
As I noted last week, the web drove a lot of innovation in areas such as big data systems and artificial intelligence, but there's no guarantee that must continue as people and governments rethink the terms of this data-for-services bargain. Indeed, if you watch the AI space, you still see a lot of research innovation coming out of places like Google, but the really cool applications are coming in fields like agriculture, manufacturing and energy -- and, of course, autonomous cars. And as adoption in these fields heats up and mixes with the general move toward open source general openness in tech, it's not inconceivable they could be new hotbeds of innovation. (Although some applications, like surveillance, can get a little sketchy.)
A few examples just from this week:
- China’s SenseTime, the world’s highest valued AI startup, raises $600M (TechCrunch): Industrial/enterprise AI with huge backers; also powering a national surveillance effort for the Chinese government.
- Element wants to give identity to the whole world, raising $12M Series A (TechCrunch): One interesting thing is that AI legend Yann Lecun (now at Facebook) is a co-founder of the company. The other is that it's using AI to power phone-based biometrics as a form of ID for the developing world
- Nike, Inc., acquires computer vision leader Invertex (Nike): Yeah, Nike acquired an Israeli computer vision startup. From the press release: "The acquisition of Invertex will deepen our bench of digital talent and further our capabilities in computer vision and artificial intelligence as we create the most compelling Nike consumer experience at every touch point."
- Taking DeepMind to the next level: welcoming Lila Ibrahim as our first Chief Operating Officer (DeepMind): Yes, DeepMind is a Google company and is best known for building the AlphaGo sytems (along with cutting-edge research in reinforcement learning), but it's based in London and actually is undertaking some interesting (at at times controversial) work with UK hospitals to aid staff and predict kidney failure.
- American AI company lands in Dubai (Arab News): This is about the Dubai office of an Austin, Texas-based company called SparkCognition. Dubai, you probably know, has a lot of business in oil production and construction, among other things.
- FDA permits marketing of artificial intelligence-based device to detect certain diabetes-related eye problems (U.S. Food and Drug Administration): Really only 6 years after Google brought it to mainstream attention, deep-learning-based computer vision is now shipping as part of various medical devices, including this one.
The fact that a lot of these stories happen to be based overseas certainly does not mean there's not room for massive adoption and innovation in the United States, but I do think they remind us that the rest of the world is doing business, too, and they're sometimes free of certain structural hurdles and assumptions that hinder experimentation in countries like the United States. And those stories are just about AI adoption. If we look even broader, at the expanding appetite for cloud computing around the globe, the opportunities are even bigger.
If regular readers think I'm at risk of beating a dead horse by pointing out every time Alibaba Cloud grows, I actually think I'm not calling enough attention to it. This week, for example, the company announced it's opening a region in Turkey, and also highlighted a new relational database service it's building. If you go read the Alibaba Cloud blog, you'll see that it's cranking away on lots of new products across the board, from databases to AI.
None of this means Alibaba Cloud is bigger or more innovative than Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud or Microsoft Azure. But it does mean that Alibaba is actively investing in its platform and targeting geographic regions that U.S. providers can't/won't/aren't yet targeting in earnest. If AWS helped fuel the startup boom in the U.S. and western Europe over the past decade, it's conceivable that Alibaba could do the same in other parts of the world. And the problems those companies are solving for could be quite distinct from the types of things startups are trying to solve in places like the United States.
Again, this isn't an indictment; (nor a suggestion that China will "win" some perceived AI war); just a reminder that there's now officially a global market for things that until recently felt quite concentrated in certain sectors and geographic regions. For people and companies that know where to look, there are some golden opportunities to make a real difference and also make some real money.
Also, not a plug, but LinuxCon is holding an event in Beijing in June. Regardless whether the event itself is good or bad, I feel confident saying that attendance will be huge.