ChinAI #68: Video Games as the Cotton/Oil of the Information Revolution?

Plus, ChinAI Pod now available in most of the places you get your pods

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The Meaning of Video Games: The Cotton and Oil of the Information Revolution

THE CONTEXT: a thought-provoking essay from “Necromanov,” a well-known and well-regarded gaming blogger, who argues that video games are the driving force behind the information revolution. It can be read as a direct critique of China’s crackdown on the gaming industry in 2018, when a new regulatory body implemented a 10-month government freeze on approvals of new games.


  • Games were central to the computer revolution. The author argues that both the Soviet Union and Japan failed to believe that average people would want to master computer technology. The Soviet Union’s OGAS plan could have become the first Internet but bureaucrats stifled it. The Japanese firm Busicom released exclusive rights to Intel’s microprocessor patents, which were used to power the craze over Atari’s Pong in the 1970s.

  • Necromanov highlights two pathways by which video games drive the information revolution: 1) they are a key source of profits and demand for both software and hardware companies; 2) they made new technologies more accessible for ordinary users

  • More speculatively, the author argues that the diverging trajectories of China and India in the information revolution was largely due to the outbreak of online games in China in the late 1990s. The Internet giants that grew in this period (from Netease to Sohu to Tencent) relied on games for about half of their revenues, benefiting from the enthusiasm of young Chinese game-players, many of who got hooked on the industry after playing games in Internet cafes.

  • I think there’s a lot of holes in these arguments (as you’ll see in my comments throughout the Google doc), but I also think it’s well-worth the time to mediate on the economic/social/political implications of video games. The essay points out that Nvidia started its business in 1993 with a game graphics card. The GPUs that power the training of AI algorithms were originally used to enhance the graphics of computer games. Visit any AI startup and you’ll see video games littered throughout the workspace. Game-playing performance is a core aspect of measuring AI progress (has anyone heard of AlphaGo or AlphaStar?).


This essay also links to a debate in the economic history literature re: a demand-based theory of industrial revolutions as opposed to the more conventional, supply-based theory with technological change as the key factor. This goes back to (at least) 1932 when Elizabeth Gilboy argued that an outward shift of the industrial demand curve was what triggered the Industrial Revolution. In an article questioning the Gilboy thesis, Joel Mokyr, a leading economic historian, captured the significance of this debate, "In the process of what could best be called 'making sense of the Industrial Revolution,' few articles have been more influential than Gilboy's eloquent plea to view demand as an equal partner in bringing about the most profound economic change in human history."

Regardless of where you stand on this debate, the essay is right to focus on the diffusion of technology rather than the initial invention. Consumer preferences and the willingness to adopt and continuously improve initial innovations (which includes attitudes toward video games) are a crucial part of the technological diffusion process.

DISCUSSED IN THE FULL TRANSLATION (in the style of Believer magazine): Garbusov-style characters who are not interested in emerging technologies, cyperpunk science fiction, why Rome abandoned the steam engine, the game Steve Jobs made at Atari, and a $6262 calculator

FULL TRANSLATION: The Meaning of Games: The Cotton and Oil of the Information Revolution

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must-read: China Digital Times Series on Sharp Eyes (雪亮工程))

Dahlia Peterson and Josh Rudolph, with research assistance from Cindy, use publicly available, online Chinese sources to shed light on Sharp Eyes, a surveillance program launched in May 2015, often overshadowed by discussions of the social credit system and use of facial recognition to shame rule-breakers. Includes a map of various Sharp Eyes projects that illustrates the breadth of the CCP’s surveillance goals.

Key points:

  1. Sharp Eyes is a rural-focused initiative intended to address a lack of police presence and security camera coverage in the countryside

  2. The program has been lauded in some areas: The LA Times heard praise from villagers about reductions in thefts of livestock in Sichuan which had installed 40,000 surveillance cameras across over 14,000 villages by Dec 2017

  3. But it not only opens up massive breaches of personal privacy but could be counterproductive for security - getting to “no blind spots” is unlikely, technical difficulties, and vulnerabilities in systems that rely on connecting a massive amount of cheap, insecure IoT devices to TVs/street cameras in order to surveil the masses

Longer notes:

  • “The people have sharp eyes” (“群众的眼睛是雪亮的”) was a Communist Party slogan used during the Cultural Revolution, an era in which citizens were spied on and falsely accused neighbors and even their own family of being disloyal to authority

  • Sharp Eyes builds off of predecessor programs such as Skynet and Safe Cities and where one program stops and another begins is often blurred

  • In March 2018, Yitu, one of China’s 14 AI unicorns, won a deal worth 18 million RMB to provide facial recognition and vehicle recognition technology to Deqing County’s (in Zhejiang) Public Security Bureau for its Sharp Eyes project

  • Subcontractor Guangdong Aebell described the Sharp Eyes system, in a now-censored post (English translation), as one that “appropriates household TV sets and smartphones to enhance the extension of surveillance systems to households and individuals.”

  • Chinese media reports claim that in 2017, Xinjiang was the site of 30 of the 80 nationwide public security projects each worth over 100 million yuan. Nine of the 80 were Sharp Eyes projects.

Should-read: The More Things Change….the Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism

Andrew Marantz for the New Yorker recounts the fascinating, darker history of how “the initial effects of the printing press included heightened ethnic tensions, the spread of medical misinformation, and about a century’s worth of European religious wars”

Should-listen: ChinAI Pod #1

We launched the ChinAI podcast this week with inaugural guest Remco Zwetsloot, who talked about his “Strengthening the U.S. AI Workforce: A Policy and Research Agenda.” We should be on all the places you get your podcasts now (just search “ChinAI,” but if we’re not, you can paste this link into your podcast app and the feed should pop up:

Should-listen Rough Translation Pod on ChinesE storytelling pod Gushi FM

Rough Translation (which explores how familiar stories are told in unfamiliar settings around the world), is one of my favorite podcasts. Producer Jess Jiang walks us through an episode of 故事FM about a Chinese mother who secretly sets up an online dating profile to find her daughter a husband.

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 Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, PhD candidate in International Relations, Researcher at GovAI/Future of Humanity Institute, and Research Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Check out the archive of all past issues here and please please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at or on Twitter at @jjding99