Keep your eye on Chinese tech

Over the last several months there’s been a lot of meaningful news on China from both an economic and political front, but it’s also worth paying attention to them on the technological front. While they may be best known for different values around intellectual property than we’re used to in the West, the reality is, being competitive with the US from a technology perspective is critical to their success. If they’re going to show that the post-WWII success of liberal democracies is not the only way forward, they need to do it on all fronts — and they’re definitely playing hard at this game, too.

Investing in China may well remain tricky for the next several decades, particularly after they ruined Hong Kong, but that isn’t going to stop them from trying to deploy their technology around the world. In just the last week, we’ve seen their COVID-19 vaccination success (86%), and the roll-out of driverless cars in Shenzhen. But the most interesting thing for me is watching similar companies make different decisions. We know Amazon has made tremendous advances in factory/inventory technology, and is doing a bunch of stuff with logistics, but the technology they’ve made available is AWS — their cloud computing infrastructure — presumably because they don’t view it as core to their business. Meanwhile in China, Cainiao is owned by Alibaba. They’ve made a new company out of their logistics innovations — delivery robots (that are also driverless cars). The question is, will these delivery robots become as ubiquitous as Amazon’s cloud … and I think the answer might be “yes”, because they’re both first and big. AFAIK, no one in the US or Europe is even working on this.

Every hour, the three-foot by five-foot automated vehicle picks up packages from Cainiao’s depot in Hangzhou—a city of 10 million people in China’s booming east—and tours a nearby neighborhood. Locals in pajamas pop down to meet the driverless cart at their nearest delivery point and type in a reference number. A door in the vehicle’s side flips open and the customer’s parcel can be retrieved.

Not only is this big for Alibaba, it’s big for China, as they pursue their goal of being a global competitor, not just of the US, but of the notion that democracy is the only system capable of delivering this sort of innovation.

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