ChinAI #121: For China, Germany (not just the US) is a model of innovation

The big 4: Planck, Helmholtz, Fraunhofer, and Leibniz

Greetings from a world where…

newsletters really need editors

Thanks to Ryan Khurana for highlighting an error in last week’s issue: I added a zero to the number of transactions Alibaba Cloud handled on Singles Day. I’ve corrected this and noted the edit. 11.18.20 NOTE: This post was edited to adjust a translation error regarding the scale of transactions Alibaba Cloud could handle.

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Feature Translation: Innovation is More Than Invention — A Detailed Explanation of the Big Four of the German Industry-University-Research System

Context: 远望智库 (Techxcope). First time coming across an article by this consultancy. Another example of this big source of info asymmetry that more people should exploit to know what’s actually happening in China tech. Techxcope is just one of a number of rising Chinese consultancies (e.g. Qianzhan, CCID, Yiou, etc. — all of which have featured in previous issues). Specifically, Techxcope covers 9 verticals (screenshot below), which includes civil military fusion and strategic frontier technologies.

Even when platforms like Techxcope don’t directly produce analysis, they are good connection points to other in-depth research. For instance, Techxcope recently shared this article on intelligentized warfare from China Institute of Command and Control (中国指挥与控制学会), which regularly discusses this topic in conferences and publications. Elsa Kania, one of the best researchers on the Chinese military AI, has cited China Institute of Command and Control in her work.

Sourced from Techxcope, this week’s feature translation asks why is Germany continuously succeeding in scientific and technological innovation? Two researchers from the Max Planck Institute won Nobel Prizes in 2020, and Germany consistently ranks first in various innovation scoreboards such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Specifically, it examines Germany’s “big four” research institutions: Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research (the main focus of this article), and Leibniz Association.

Key Takeaways:

  • Germany (not just the U.S.) as a key comparator/innovative model for China: “There is no doubt that Fraunhofer is a model of applied R&D that many Chinese research institutions and enterprises dream of becoming,” the article states. “This (Fraunhofer) model has won the favor of many countries, especially China. We hope to learn or even surpass it in a very quick and effective way.” This is about improving the systemic efficiency of innovation.

  • What exactly are the unique characteristics of this model? Non-university, research organizations supported by public funding. The big four vary in different ways, with Fraunhofer most focused on applied research. Fraunhofer is the “bridge” or the “technology porter” that reduces the distance from basic research results to actual applications.

A non-exhaustive list of interesting things about Fraunhofer:

  • The basics: 80 research institutes, 24,500 employees, 2.1 billion euros in scientific research every year. Most of the funds come from research contracts signed with industrial companies.

  • Starting in 2015, Fraunhofer started to establish competence centers in sustainability, intelligent manufacturing, photonics, etc. These are similar to US gov. tech transfer centers but more expansive in their functions, which include supporting SMEs in innovation, establishing apprenticeships/talent training links, and collaboratively developing a technology roadmap

  • Funding allocation from Fraunhofer HQ to each of the 80 research institutes incentivizes commercialization: they get the same amount of basic funds from the gov each year, but the rest of the funding is linked to revenues and commissioned income (from company partners or EU projects) from the previous year.

  • One prominent success case is the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, which was the main force in the development of the MP3. For more on the history of the MP3, see this NPR backgrounder.

  • Basic HR policy of flexible arrangements, which creates a virtuous flow of talent: 60% are contract personnel that work for a specific period (such as 5 years); then they take their talents to companies, universities, South Beach, etc.

More in FULL TRANSLATION: Innovation is More Than Invention: Detailed Explanation of the Big Four of the German Industry-University-Research System

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must-read: Liberal Chinese Americans Are Fighting Right-Wing WeChat Disinformation

I think Shen Lu is leading in terms of must-read recommendations on ChinAI. A rare peek into the journalism that serves the Chinese immigrant community in the United States.

Should-read: Meeting the China Challenge — A New American Strategy for Technology Competition

From a working group of 28 China specialists and experts, a new report outlining a national strategy for U.S.-China science and technology competition, framed as a guide for the transition team for the next White House administration. It sets forth broad policy objectives as well as specific recommendations for a new and integrated approach to competition by the U.S. in four domains of science and technology, including a very sensible section on artificial intelligence.

I would have liked to see some discussion (even if it was just a hand-wavy acknowledgement) of avoiding accident, misuse, and structural risks linked to competition in these technology domains.

Should-listen: Jennifer Pan studied clickbait in Chinese propaganda. You won’t believe what she discovered!

A very cool initiative from the Sinica podcast: “the first installment in a three-part series produced in collaboration with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), highlighting the groundbreaking work of young social scientists who are focused on China. In this episode, Kaiser chats with Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor of communication at Stanford, about three of her research papers that illuminate different aspects of social control in the P.R.C.: the use of the dibao social welfare system, hiring decisions, and the use of clickbait headlines by government officials on social media.”

Should-read: Roundtable on Thucydides’s Trap? Historical Interpretation, Logic of Inquiry, and the Future of Sino-American Relations

A H-Diplo roundtable on Steve Chan’s new book, which takes aim at Allison’s 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? According to the H-Diplo intro, Allison’s book advances a sort of folk wisdom that is loosely supported by historical renderings of power transitions freighted with the risk of war.” In one of the reviews of Chan’s book, Jack S. Levy calls it, “the most thorough critique to date of Allison’s argument and the reasoning and evidence underlying it.” Ayşe Zarakol writes, “I would pronounce Chan the clear winner of this round. It is hard to disagree with Chan’s contention that Allison’s treatment of the historical record is rather problematic, and that power transition theory is too deterministic in its predictions when it comes to U.S.-China relations.”

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

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