Tuesday, December 06, 2011

China Will Overtake the US in Computing…Maybe, Someday…

[note: the following is a rough draft -- I appreciate comments as I work this into shape and add relevant links to further sources]

December 6, 2011

Today, The New York Times published an article by Barboza and Markoff titled “Power in Numbers: China Aims for High-Tech Primacy.  This article echoes frequently expressed alarmist opinions that China is posed to take over the world.  I have lived in Beijing for the past 2.5 years as a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research Asia, I've taught Computer Sciences classes at Tsinghua University, and it is my opinion that China has major obstacles to overcome before becoming a high-tech powerhouse. The biggest of these is the the way creativity is discouraged in Chinese classrooms. Chinese students who spend time at western universities do pick up these skills. Creativity and the inclination to challenge norms in disruptive rather than incremental ways are at the heart of computing innovations. These traits are all but absent from Chinese universities. A solution I pose is an initiative called World Lab. We need a place for people from various cultures, backgrounds, and countries to come together to take risks in designing new technologies and to train students to become global leaders.

Today's NY Times article by Barboza & Markoff, “Power in Numbers: China Aims for High-Tech Primacy,”  would lead you to believe that the title of this blog entry (“China Will Overtake the US in Computing”) is almost a certainty. I could not help reading this somewhat alarmist article without cringing, as it follows a pattern of reporting on China that I’ve seen from since before I moved to China in 2009 and that I have noticed more frequently over the past two years now that I’m more sensitized to the realities of China’s economic rise. This lack of subtlety and nuance on China is what I’ve come to expect from media outlets such as CNN and I am more surprised to see it from seasoned journalists who are respected for their expertise, Barboza for reporting here in China and Markoff for reporting on computing.

As I prepare to leave next week to return to my position at the University of Washington, I am starting to reflect on what I have learned in my 2½ years in China. My own view is that there is incredible potential in the computing field in China – this is one of the many reasons I chose to pick up my family and move here. At the same time there are many important barriers to China’s eventual rise in computing and these barriers will not fall on their own without efforts at reforming both the educational system and government regulation, let alone certain Chinese cultural norms that are thousands of years old. That is why I’ve subtitled this blog entry “…Maybe, Someday…”. That is, I don’t believe China will rise above the US in computing anytime soon and if it is to do so, several important changes must first take place.

In the rest of this article I’ll try to touch on 1) why am I qualified to even have an informed opinion on China’s rise in computing, 2) what I saw as the misconceptions or omissions in the Barboza & Markoff NY Times article, and 3) what I think China must do to reach its potential in computing and why I think this is a good thing and not something the West should be worried about.

Who am I to Comment on Chinese Computing
As I read the NY Times article I was a bit surprised by some of the folks they had used to comment on the state of Chinese computing. I started to think, “who are the proper experts on this topic?” Later as I pondered this question, I began to think I’m as good an expert as anyone, at least from the academic computer science side, to comment on the rise of China in computing. Why is that? 

I have spent 2½ years living in China and in that time I have: worked at Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA), the top research organization in the country, taught at Tsinghua University, the top computer science department in the country, and organized several major technical research events in China. Before coming to China, I earned my PhD at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the top computer science departments in the world, earned tenure at Berkeley (another top department), founded a start-up, ran a ubiquitous computing research lab for Intel, and served as a professor at the University of Washington (another top computer science department). More detail on my background is here. I think this experience puts me in good position to make an informed assessment on computing in China. You be the judge. I’m sure I’m not right on everything and these are just my opinions, but after two years I’ve seen quite a bit, talked to many people, and I’m starting to have a good feel for what is going on here in China.

What is Wrong with the Rising View
I believe there is no question that China is quickly rising in all endeavors, whether it is in terms of China’s economics, infrastructure (think ports, highways, freight railway, and high speed rail), education, science, or technology. It is an amazing sight to see firsthand and the energy one feels living here during this important time in history is quite incredible (more than even in Silicon Valley during the 1st Internet boom of the mid to late 90s). Computing is no different from these other areas and China has made huge strides in 20 years, as reported in the NY Times article.

The key questions to ask are 1) where is China with respect to the US and the West in terms of computing today? and 2) where will China be in the future? The impressions that were given by the NY Times article on both of these questions is where I most felt the article lets the reader down. Let’s cover each of these in turn.

Where is China Computing Today
 Academic computer science has been the underlying basis for many of the major commercial strides in computing in the US (e.g., the Internet, the graphical web browser, compression for wireless communications, cloud computing, speech recognition, web indexing and search, gesture and touch-based user interfaces, location-aware computing, etc.).

China has made big strides in academic computer science over the past 20 years in terms of expansion of its programs and making a shift from mainly producing software for state-owned companies to undertaking leading edge computing research and education. In fact, China has passed major milestones in the past 5 years in terms of government support for research and in starting to publish in top computing journals and conferences.

Everything’s Big in China
Five to ten years ago, one would almost never see papers at the top academic computing conferences from China’s researchers, with the exception being papers from Microsoft Research Asia, which was started in Beijing back in 1998 by a group of Chinese and Taiwanese researchers who were trained in the US and worked in the US before returning to Asia. Today, there are many Chinese researchers who are publishing papers at top research venues. But, the number is still quite small given the large number of universities and researchers that are pursuing computing research in China. Computer Science & Technology is the largest undergraduate major in China and some estimates I’ve heard say there are over 1,000 computer science departments in China and over 1,000,000 computer science majors at a time across these departments. This is huge! The government is clearly making massive investments in computing.

Supercomputing isn't so Super?
One of the big accomplishments Chinese computer science has made given these investments over the last 5-10 years has been in Supercomputing: the very large, high speed machines often used for climate modeling, weapons simulation, etc. A couple of years ago China temporarily had the fastest machine in the world with the Tianhe-1A. This coveted spot on the TOP500 supercomputer list has traditionally been held by either US or Japanese supercomputers, though it changes all the time as new faster computers come into service.

Although getting to the top of the list was a major accomplishment for China, the news of China’s conquest of supercomputing really didn’t seem to be big news for almost anyone I know in leading computer science departments. Why is that? I think most leading computer scientists believe that although supercomputers are useful for certain problems, this is a technology of the past that will simply improve incrementally with underlying processor improvements (in fact, most supercomputers today use conventional processors used in desktop computers rather than the special purpose processors used in the past).

The big innovations in supercomputing have been in the programming models, network interconnects, and most recently in cooling/power usage. But, people seem to see much more important innovation going on in the cloud computing clusters that literally combine thousands of commercial processors together in standard racks connected with traditional networks in huge data centers around the world. This is the technology that powers Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and the many other web computing giants of the world and is then resold inexpensively to every little web site or mobile phone application that needs to do computing in the cloud. This type of architecture supports a far wider range of applications than supercomputing. Cloud computing is a hot topic in both industrial and academic computer science research and American computer scientists are clearly far in the lead in this area of work.

Academic Publications
In my own subfield of Ubiquitous Computing (ubicomp) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI), China is still in its early stages. Ubicomp has been around since 1991 and in those 20 years China has had almost no presence in the field (for example there were no papers from China at the 2010 UbiComp conference). This year I co-organized the conference with my colleagues at Tsinghua University and we held UbiComp 2011 here in Beijing (link). There were over 300 papers submitted and only 50 were accepted for presentation at the conference (a highly competitive 17% acceptance rate). Although this year we saw 38 papers submitted from China (last year there were only 10), only 3 of these papers with primary Chinese authors were accepted (and all of those were from Microsoft Research Asia). There were many US universities that alone had as many or more papers than all of China (e.g., Carnegie Mellon had seven and UW had four!).

This trend is very similar at other top computing conferences: China had almost no representation 5 or 10 years ago and now there is a smattering of papers (e.g., 1-3 papers/year – out of a 30 paper program – the last couple of years at each of the top systems and networking conferences: SIGCOMM, NSDI, and SOSP). Again, the majority of these papers are coming out of Microsoft Research Asia, not the top Chinese universities.

So we see China starting to be represented at major computing conferences, but Chinese researchers are at this stage no more impactful than many other smaller countries (e.g., France). Given the large number of universities and researchers pursuing computing in China, the interesting question is whether this a straight line that is going to continue its meteoric rise of the last few years (similar to China’s economic growth of ~10% for ten years) or is China’s impact in computing research going to start to grow at a much more modest rate (similar to many predictions of its economy growing at still fast yet more modest rates).

Research Creativity: Students, Faculty, & Academic Structure
Creativity, innovation, and “design thinking” have been some of the most overused buzzwords bandied about in the US business press over the last 3-5 years and this has especially accelerated in the few months since the passing of Steve Jobs. In computing research as well as in industry, creativity and innovation are also important topics. These hard to measure attributes are what we all believe lead to “impact”, which is also hard to measure, but is that which we are all after! Counting papers at top conferences or patents does not measure impact, but people (including me above) tend to sometimes fall back on this counting exercise, as it is easy to measure.

Having interacted with many top Chinese students while here in China, at both MSRA (the top place to have an internship for a computer scientist in China) and at Tsinghua (the top CS department), I’ve gotten a chance to observe the level of creativity and innovation in these top students. We’ve also attracted some of the top design students in China to our lab (in addition to hiring top designers from the US and Europe). I’ve also been lucky to interact with the top Chinese research computer scientists (i.e., folks who already have their PhDs) at MSRA and at the universities.

The simple fact is, the level of innovation and creativity in this cohort is much lower than in similar cohorts in the US. And in fact, the ones that are the best on the “creativity” scale almost invariably are folks who received their PhDs in the US/Europe or worked in the US/Europe. This is not to say those who haven’t left China for their education aren’t doing good work – as I mentioned above MSRA is one of the top places in the world for CS research and the researchers there are publishing at the top venues, but many of the most successful of these researchers have spent years under the tutelage of computer scientists who were trained in the West – almost going through a 2nd PhD while working at MSRA.

The simple fact is if you are educated in the Chinese system, from primary school through university, you have a much harder chance of practicing being “creative” than if you were educated elsewhere. This is not a genetic trait (as many Chinese educated in the West have clearly shown), but a trait of the Chinese educational system, which is based on over a thousand years of Chinese culture.

There are many articles (link) on how cultural underpinning of the Chinese educational system does a good job with the basics (e.g., the students in Shanghai beat the entire world on the PISA Test a year ago), but many here in China question whether the pervasive emphasis on memorization, test taking, and a cultural imperative that almost requires copying the teacher (link art article) and the past “masters” leads to a population that cannot think “outside of the box” (link).

Again, this lack of creativity is cultural and obviously there are folks who don’t fit the system and are creative and innovative (the art scene in China is growing by leaps and bounds). For many years, the top students in China have left the Chinese system for graduate school in the US. Although some of these students start out in America as brilliant and hard working students, many do not show much creativity when they start. They have learned not to question the professor, or others in positions of authority, and they are used to being told what to do rather than coming up with ideas on their own. But, many soon rise above this after a few years of practice and have turned into some of the top stars in the field (e.g., my own classmates at Carnegie Mellon, Harry Shum and Qi Lu, are now two of the top executives at Microsoft (links)).

I have personally advised students like this that have gone onto great computing careers, relying on their innovation and creative skills everyday. But this was only after 5-6 years in the “American” higher education system. My colleagues have often told me of similar examples. Now many Chinese are also aware of this key difference in our educational systems. The latest trend among middle class and wealthy Chinese is to send their kids to the US for their undergraduate degrees or even their high school education (some 200,000? were studying in the US this year alone link).

Now this trend by itself would cause one to believe that China will overtake the US in computing as this massive cohort of students return to China after earning their degrees. Although the “sea turtle” trend of returning to China after several years of working in the US continues, it doesn’t appear as common as some would believe. Many Chinese students become very accustomed to what is still an easier life in US cities and often choose to remain in America. In fact, a more important “glue” for these students might be the far more streamlined US corporate life (many Chinese companies are still fairly byzantine in their politics and structure and corruption is still a major problem). In fact, recent reports show that most wealthy Chinese are starting to secure homes and passports in the West, often for the educational opportunities outlined above, but also to avoid environmental degradation, corruption, and find access to healthcare (link report).

Last Spring I attended a major National Science Foundation workshop on computer science research collaboration with China (http://current.cs.ucsb.edu/nsf-uschina11/). Of the 80 attendees, over half were Chinese who were now professors at American universities. In computing research, many Chinese with US PhDs might be staying in the US for the prospect of working at a better university and with better graduate students than they can in China. Will this change soon?

One of the major differences I’ve noted between Chinese universities (and in fact Chinese organizations in general) and American universities is the power structure exposed in the academic hierarchy. American universities are hierarchical in that Full Professors make decisions about Associate and Assistant Professors, and Associate Professors in turn also make decisions (e.g., tenure) about Assistant Professors. But, I’ve also noticed that in the top departments I’ve been in that the more “senior” faculty understand that a lot of the innovation and best work occurs in the groups led by the “young” Assistant Professors and we in fact “protect” them so as to allow them to better develop and get this great work accomplished (e.g., we do not give them a lot of tedious committee work to do and we encourage them to teach advanced courses in their specialized areas rather than large, general undergraduate courses).

In Chinese universities, there is far more power and money concentrated in the hands of the senior faculty. In many universities the Assistant Professors are just that – they assist a senior faculty member and have no true independent agenda of their own. In a fast moving field like computer science, I believe this structure is bound to fail and cannot keep up with the changes in technology that occur so rapidly. Certainly more rapidly than the 10 years or more it will take a hotshot young faculty member to rise to the top of that hierarchy.

Today’s computing technology is nothing like it was 10 years ago! I believe this structural impediment makes it hard for anyone to name a computer science researcher in a Chinese university that they would say is one of the top in the world in their subfield (other than the few famous names, e.g., Andy Yao – a Turing Award winner, who have been “imported” to Chinese universities).

This means that unless the Chinese universities change this system, it will take many years (15-20) before their CS departments could even have a chance of being stocked from top to bottom with world-class computer scientists. And that would assume they start producing the top scientists here in China (which hasn’t happened yet) or start importing them from abroad (only a few have come so far). Again, this is not to say there aren’t good people here already. There are plenty of good people working in Chinese universities. For example, Prof. Yuanchun Shi, my co-chair for UbiComp 2011 from Tsinghua, is doing lots of great research in her group at Tsinghua. These folks are just spread thin and not a single Chinese computer science department has the strength of even a top 25 or maybe even a top 50 computer science department in the United States. This will be hard to change anytime soon without a massive change in hiring practices as well as in how those people are treated when they come on board.

Although academic computer science research in China isn’t yet all it can be and has some major impediments to its continued improvement, I believe the start-up scene is a bit healthier. Although I am not an expert on this, I try to keep up by following the top China tech blogs and writers on twitter (cite niubi, wolfegroupasia, tricia, kaiserkuo, affinitiy china, china law) and pay attention to what is going on at the key start-up events (e.g., TechCrunch Beijing was the most recent such activity).

I’ve also spent time chatting with and reading the works of folks who do study the start-up scene closely, such as Vivek Wadhwa (@wadhwa), professor at Duke and Stanford, who studies high-tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley and around the world. Professor Vwada has commented recently on the healthy start-up scene he has encountered while traveling in China (link). Noticing that this culture is starting to come to terms with the need to try and fail and start over again, as has fueled the amazing rise of Silicon Valley’s companies.

The conclusion I’ve come to from watching the Chinese start-up scene is that 1) it is vibrant, 2) some major early movers, especially on the Internet, e.g., Baidu, Alibaba, Sina, have already amassed fairly dominant positions in their niches as happened in the US (though we know as Yahoo has shown most recently that these positions can be lost easily), and 3) the amount of venture funding and number of startups are both increasing rapidly. 

In addition to these traditional spaces for innovation, there are other cool things that happen in China that are an outgrowth of its manufacturing innovation. In particular, the entire Shanzhai market (link), which started with fake name-brand goods, including phones and purses, has quickly moved into making novel new products. Again, they tend to be useful tweaks (e.g., multiple SIM card phones, new shapes, etc.) rather than major innovation. This might be where lots of the creative engineers end up in China as these types of folks may not have conformed with the rigid educational system to get into the elite schools.

There is innovation in the China computing startup world, but the type of innovation that happens in start-ups and in industry tends not to be the innovation that will pay off for the entire computing field in 10 years (e.g., the invention of the internet and many of the other computing advances I noted in the introduction to this article). Start-ups tend to take ideas that have already been floating around for a while and repurpose them to a new problem or incrementally improve on them. China’s start-ups are especially known for this incremental improvement strategy. As noted tech environmental crusader Peggy Liu (@shanghaipeggy) wrote today on Twitter, “China is not good at radical innovation, but it's great at tweakovation.” This quote exactly captures the type of activity happening most often in China’s startup scene.

This criticism for copying and tweaking rather than innovating is probably overblown, but continues to be said in and about the Chinese computing industry. One of the biggest names in China Tech funding, Kai Fu Li, founder of Innovation Ventures and former Google China Head, Microsoft Research Asia head, and all around Chinese high tech success story (from Taiwan), now has the nickname in China of “Start-Copy Li” (check for proper translation) for the propensity of companies in his venture portfolio to simple copy a popular western web site and give it some minor Chinese characteristics. For instance, there were hundreds of Groupon clones in China just a few months ago.

So although start-ups in China might be healthy, if a little less innovative than in the West, I do not think this is a fundamental problem for Chinese computing. The bigger question is can they really make the type of fundamental advances in the future that in the past led the US computing industry to its dominance. And can the Chinese make those advances if they are not first taking place in academic research. I do not believe they can and therefore encourage the Chinese to keep upgrading the educational system and infrastructure – but with more than just increased funding. I believe the structure needs to change (see below).

One argument for China’s future dominance in the fundamental underlying technologies of computing is the large Chinese patent portfolio. The NY Times article pointed out how China has overtaken Europe in number of patents filed and is catching up to the US and Japan. What the article fails to mention is that many, many people believe that many of these Chinese patents are bogus (link Vivek, China La blog) and come out of 1) a quota system that requires organizations to produce a certain number of patent filings per year regardless if they are actually any good and 2) a tendency to copy foreign patents, make minor changes to them, and then use these as trade barriers to western companies trying to do business in China (link China law blog). Leaving this type of information out of the NYTimes article really distorts the patent story. When paired with the lack of strong intellectual property rights protection in China, the patent story leads one to believe that China will not be able to innovate in the future.

How China Can Reach its Computing Potential
My analysis above might leave you with the opinion that I think China’s computing field is going nowhere fast. That is far from the truth. I think China will continue to improve in computing for two major reasons. First, computing in China will improve simply due to China's massive size: (1) in 1.3B people there are going to be a lot of great ones, no matter what barriers you put in their way and (2) the domestic market by itself will be huge and thus a great opportunity! Second, the large investment in technology research funding coming from the government (growth on the order of 10%/year for 10 years) will allow a lot of researchers to carry out many ambitious projects. But, I believe that instead of fearing China, we should see that China reaching its potential in computing could change the world in a very positive way and it is something we should try to help with.

China is Part of the Solution
Why do we want Chinese computing to succeed? I believe that the major problems that the US faces, the rest of the world faces, and China especially faces. China is key to helping solve these problems and by helping China’s research and education system in computing, we have a better chance of creatively solving these problems together. These are problems in:
  •  Sustainability: maintaining the environment, and stopping global warming in particular
  • Education: Improving education for all in both the basics as well as in creativity and innovation
  • Healthcare: Creating a healthcare system that will care for an aging population (North America, Europe, and China all suffer from this) as well as all one that will service all citizens at a reasonable price
All three of these problem areas will have solutions that involve government, policy, and pricing. Yet they also are problems where major technology innovations, especially computing technology innovations, can make a major positive impact. By working together with China on these problems we can help improve the world.

World Lab
In light of this view, I’ve been working the last few months on trying to create a new, multidisciplinary research institute that is jointly housed between a major Chinese university and an American university. This World Lab will become known as the place for risk taking, breaking the mold, inventing the future, and tackling the major problems facing the world. We will apply a new methodology I term “Global Design” to find a balance between design and technology, between human-centered & technology centered approaches, between academia & industry, and between Eastern and Western culture. The World Lab will push the boundaries of what is possible and invent the future today. This institute will help train the students and leaders of tomorrow’s universities and companies to be free thinkers who can create the solutions that society will need to solve these challenging problems.

I believe China’s rise in computing is remarkable, but the future is not assured. As a computer scientist I support helping China improve in computing because I believe it will help the world as well as the population of China. The problems are complex and success is not assured, but together I think we can create a better world.

Disclaimer: The opinions set out in this article are those of James Landay and do not represent the opinions of the University of Washington, Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp, or anyone else (unless they decide to say so – which I’d appreciate).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ben Zhao from UCSB (@ravenben) for some of the data on top networking and systems conferences. Thanks to Frank Chen (@frankc), Lydia Chilton, Aaron Quigley (@aquigley), Robert Walker, and Sarita Yardi (@yardi) for helpful comments on this essay.

My Background

Unlike other computing academics who have commented on Chinese computing, I’ve not just dropped into China for a week or two here or there and developed an impression. I’ve actually been living here full time for 2½ years. In that time I’ve helped build a new research group at Microsoft Research Asia(link), taught a course at Tsinghua University(link), co-organized a major international computing conference(link), started a major computing lecture series/symposium on new uses of computing(link), traveled to many different universities to speak, visit, and meet the students and faculty, and attended several meetings of the top computing faculty in China (a few of which also were attended by their US counterparts link: http://www.nsfc.gov.cn/Portal0/InfoModule_479/30695.htm).

I’ve also thrown myself into reading much of the press and blogs on innovation and start-ups in China and I’ve tried to go to events here in Beijing on these topics when I could. I also chat with others about these topics whenever I get a chance. As an expat you can easily meet some of the movers and shakers in this circle even when living in a city of 20M+.

In addition to my time in China, I think I’ve also been lucky to have been at the center of some of the top places in computing over the last 20 years. I obtained my PhD in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (link). CMU is ranked by most as one of the top departments in the world. I was a faculty member and received tenure in CS at UC Berkeley (link), another one of the world’s top departments. Until coming to China, I was a faculty member in Computer Science at the University of Washington (link), another top department. At UW we’ve built one of the top programs in the world in Human-Computer Interaction and Design (link), which is a field that is at the forefront of envisioning and building the future of computing technology.

I also have industrial experience. In addition to the last 2½ years at Microsoft Research Asia, unquestionably the best computing research organization in all of Asia, I was the co-founder and CTO of a silicon valley-based start-up (NetRaker) while on the faculty at Berkeley and I ran a ubiquitous computing research lab for Intel in Seattle for 3 years (link). The researchers at the Intel lab invented many leading edge technologies in that time, including the city-scale, beacon-based location capabilities that were originally found on the iPhone and every single smart phone since (link), activity inference technology that uses sensors to tell what physical activities you are doing in the real world (e.g., running, walking, biking, taking stairs, etc.), which is just starting to show up in products in its most basic form (e.g., the FitBit (link)), and other very cool technologies that hopefully you will hopefully see in products some day in the future.

So, I think I’ve got a pretty significant amount of experience in computing research at the top academic institutions, industrial experience through my time at Intel and Microsoft, and start-up experience through NetRaker, that when combined with my time and study in China puts me in a fairly strong position to comment on where China is in computing and where it might be going.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hints for Travel to Beijing (for UbiComp 2011)

Since many people will be coming to China for the first time during UbiComp 2011 this September, I thought I would offer some tips that might be useful to you during your trip. I’ve broken this post up into three parts: 1) computing & communications, 2) hotel advice, and 3) miscellaneous. But first, I’ve created the following map that includes all of the places that I mention in this post.

Since you are mainly computer scientists coming to this conference, I’m sure you want to make sure you can stay connected and online throughout your stay. I have a few tips that might make this go a bit better. First, be warned that although the Internet is widely popular in China (now with more users than the entire population of the U.S.!), the pipes from China to the U.S. and Europe tend to be quite slow.

In addition, these connections can be even less reliable due to the filtering that the Chinese government implements to maintain “harmony” in China. This “Great Firewall of China” (aka GFC) may also prevent you from getting to your blog, Facebook, Twitter, and other mission critical web sites. In addition, it simply isn’t advisable to do much of your business (anything that requires a password) over non-encrypted connections. Many of your companies and universities offer VPN services just for this reason. You should check in advance whether your organization’s VPN works in China (and make sure that someone can verify that it has worked in China within the last 6 months – there has been much tightening by the government on VPNs in the past year).

There are many commercial VPN providers out there and I have personal experience with a couple and my colleagues have had good experiences with others. When setting up your VPN you need to specifically ask for help with making it work in China as some basic VPN solutions do not work due to government blocking by DNS poisoning and other tricks. Your provider might need to give you alternative IP address to use for their servers when travelling in China.

A lot of people I know have had success with the VPN service from WiTopia.net. They have good online support 24/7 and are aware of the problems in China. Their service costs a bit more (around $50-70 for 1 year of service), but the more responsive service might be worth it. Their $70 package (called PersonalVPN Pro) that consists of SSL VPN for your laptop and IPSec VPN for your iPhone/iPad is quite convenient if you'd like these two sets of key devices to work in China.

I’ve also used 12vpn.com’s service (mainly on my iPhone, though I know others who use it on their laptops). I use this less expensive service (~$25/year) as a backup for when I can’t get through on my iPhone/iPad to WiTopia, but I find it less reliable. For example, when the government was blocking VPN a couple of months ago during a major Chinese government anniversary, WiTopia found a workaround whereas 12vpn.com said to just wait a few days until the anniversary was over and then they would give out new configuration information. One of my colleagues has had good luck with Astril (and it is priced somewhere between WiTopia and 12vpn).

The key to using any of these VPN services successfully is to buy and install it before you come to China (they block these sites in China so it is harder to get it turned on when you are in China) and make sure it is working correctly. Also, make sure your service provider knows you will be connecting from China and get all of the advice the company has for setting up your devices to be as immune as possible to the standard ways the GFC blocks VPNs (e.g., DNS naming tricks – make sure to use your own fixed DNS server address rather than one provided by DHCP from a hotel or mobile phone provider -- a good DNS address to try is Google's

Data Service on Phones
Speaking of mobile phones, I know many of you (like I) are used to being able to use your phone for data services whenever you want and wherever you go. My first recommendation (if you are an AT&T subscriber from the U.S.) is to simply buy their largest data roaming package (something like 100 MB) as you will use it up and also add their international voice roaming plan. It is expensive for calls, but useful in a pinch.

In general, instead of using your home phone provider's voice service, I would use Google Voice (iPhone or Android app) to get your phone messages and then call people back using Skype on your phone. This works great if you have data working here on your phone.

In fact, without data on my phone and easy access to Google Maps, I’d often feel “lost” here in Beijing (note that Google Maps aren't always accurate in Beijing -- many sites are mislabeled including key parts of Tsinghua University). If you have an Android phone that is unlocked (i.e., allows you to put in any carrier's GSM SIM card), you are in good shape and can simply get a SIM card here in Beijing. If you are an iPhone user, things will work best if you have a jailbroken and unlocked iPhone, or if you come from a sane country that requires phones be sold unlocked (e.g., Denmark, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.).

If you do not have an unlocked phone, my recommendation would be to borrow a GSM phone that is unlocked before you come to China or to buy an inexpensive GSM phone here in the Zhongguancun electronics area (about 2.5 km from the conference location at Tsinghua). Zhongguancun might be worth a visit anyways just to see the floors and floors of stalls selling all kinds of electronics (e.g, at Dinghao). If you have an iPhone4, you can also easily buy a small cutting device (for about $4-6 USD – make sure to negotiate as they might ask you to pay $20) that will cut a miniSIM down to the microSIM required by the iPhone4 (I’ll bring my cutter to the conference for those who need to borrow it).

For the iPhone4 and Android phones, I’d recommend China Unicom’s 3G service (in fact this service is necessary for iPhone). The bandwidth seems to be better than that from China Mobile, though China Unicom’s coverage is not quite as good as China Mobile’s. You should be able to do about 1GB of data for around 100RMB/month. You are probably best off buying this data-only SIM w/ service for 200-300 RMB ($30-$40 USD) from many of the sellers in Zhongguancun (e.g., at Dinghao). This should be plenty for a one-week trip to Beijing (I rarely use more than 500MB in a month). You may also be able to go to the China Unicom office just South of the Tsinghua University East Gate (really the Southeast corner of the campus), but they probably will require a contract that you would somehow have to cancel when you leave (I have this service that includes voice and 1.3GB/month of data for around 350RMB/month). You must bring your passport to do anything at this office. This is next door to the Unisplendour hotel and the East Gate is the one you will be walking through each day to get to the conference.

Voice Service on Phones
If you only want voice service, you can buy a 2G SIMs in the airport (that also does data, but at expensive rates) from a vending machine (look for them) or at a desk after you leave the baggage claim hall. These SIMs are from China Mobile and use TD-SCDMA so you'll be stuck with WAP-only EDGE data rates. You then buy a 100RMB ($15) scratch-off card (available at the airport or at any newsstand in the city) that requires you to call a number to put credit on your account. If you want regular GPRS on TD-SCDMA phones, you need a China Mobile M-Zone SIM card that you should buy in Zhongguancun. The bad news is these come with a bad data plan (only 10MB of data) and you can't change it until the 1st of the month! So unless a vendor has one that already has a better plan on it, you are out of luck. Note that VPNs do not work over GPRS or EDGE service.

There is English customer service available over the phone for both China Mobile (10086) and China Unicom (10010).

Other Useful Phone Applications
Besides mapping applications, other useful applications to buy and download in advance (for the iPhone) include The Beijing Taxi Guide (it costs $10, but it is well worth it if you want to show a Taxi driver the name of a place you need to go to in Chinese—this application also does not require a data connection), Explore Metro Beijing Subway Map, and the Google Translate iPhone application (this requires a data plan).

Internet at Hotels
I don't know about the conference hotels, but many hotels in China have wired internet in the rooms, but not wireless. If you have a Mac Book Air, you may wish to purchase/bring the dongle that allows you to plug into an Ethernet port.

2) Hotels
Several people have asked me where they should stay for the conference. The following are just my personal recommendations based on what I know about the hotels. I’d recommend staying at the Wenjin Hotel as it is the best combination of nice/close to the Tsinghua conference site (1.5 km walk). Contact the Wenjin directly to see if they have any rooms left (update: Anind's comment below indicates then Wenjin is sold out -- still worth a try). The Unisplendour Hotel is closer (1 km), but is not quite as nice a property. Finally, the Holiday Inn is new, the quality is said to be high (though I don’t know anyone who has stayed there yet, Holiday Inns in Asia tend to be much nicer than in the US, for example), although it is a bit further of a walk (2.5 km – note there is no direct path – you need to go through the Tsinghua University East Gate.

Other hotels include The Jade Palace Hotel, but having stayed there previously I would not recommend it to anyone and I would not believe their so-called 5-star rating. These are the hotels that the conference is planning to offer bus service to/from the off-site reception on Monday night at Microsoft Research and the Tuesday night banquet at the Summer Palace (note that Sunday night’s conference opening reception will be at the Tsinghua University Academy of Art & Design, where we will also hold the Tutorials on Saturday and the Workshops on Sunday).

Another hotel of note would be the Crowne Plaza Hotel Zhongguancun. At 4 km, it is a bit further than the other hotels (though around the same distance as The Jade Palace) and as it is not an official conference hotel we cannot guarantee bus service to/from there for the reception and banquet unless we note a substantial number of conference attendees end up staying at this hotel. It is a very nice hotel (I’ve had friends stay there), it has great access to the subway system for other touring you might do around Beijing, and it is only a 10 minute taxi ride from Tsinghua (this will cost you 10 RMB=$1.50, though you will probably need to get a taxi before 7:45 AM to avoid the dearth of taxis available at rush hour—7:45 AM-9:15 AM and 4:45 PM-6:30 PM).

The Traditional Beijing Experience
For those looking for a more traditional Beijing experience, there are a number of very nice courtyard style hotels that are based on the traditional architecture of ancient Chinese homes with the rooms surrounding a set of open courtyards. They are also located in traditional Hutong neighborhoods that have the old style of traditional housing that is quickly disappearing in Beijing in favor of modern high-rise buildings.

I have never stayed at these hotels but have heard good things from folks at Microsoft here in Beijing. Each of the hotels listed below will require you to take a 20-40 minute taxi to and from the conference (note the advice that this is only advisable if you do it outside of rush hour – so get to the conference 30 minutes early and don’t expect to go back to your hotel between 4:45 PM and 6:30 PM).

I’ve simply edited the notes sent to me from my Microsoft colleagues for each of the hotels below, but I’d probably try the Orchid myself (closer and fairly nice), then Duge (same general hipster Hutong as the Orchid), and then Red Capital Club (towards more central Beijing, but will take longer to get to the conference – could probably subway from there with 1 change for a total ride and walk of 60 minutes – I do this type of commute daily). Finally, if you are idependently wealthy, go for the Aman, as I hear it will be a once in a lifetime experience (right next to the Summer Palace).

“I’ve stayed at the Aman for a weekend (won a silent auction) and it is everything you could hope for and more but you’ll drop a few thousand dollars if you want to eat at and get all the experiences of the Aman so unless money isn’t an option I’d recommend going to the Orchid Hotel…”

“There’s always Aman Resorts, at the Summer Palace if you can afford US$650 / night.”

The Orchid Hotel (web site at http://www.theorchidbeijing.com).
“I’ve not been at the hotel myself but I’ve had friends who have stayed there and really enjoyed the experience.  Room rates seem reasonable, they have a nice bar and it being in the Dongcheng district you’ll still be able to get to a lot of nightlife and other attractions without too much hassle while still enjoying a hutong experience.”

“I went to a party in small hotel in Gulou last Friday. It was located down one of those hutong alleys. The place had a different look from typical hotels, with a courtyard, rooftop areas and bar. It was called the Orchid.”

Red Capital Residence (http://www.redcapitalclub.com.cn/)
 “while I’m not sure about their rooms their food and restaurant setting was great so if nothing else a good place to eat and go see some 1950s and 1960s Communist memorabilia.”

Red Capital Club is small but luxurious. And the Yi House Art Hotel is a cool hotel in the midst of 798 [this is a very cool Arts district, but not close to the conference]”

Other Courtyard Hotels mentioned that I have less info on:
“A more budget option is the Lusongyuan Hotel, which is located in the heart of the hutong area.”

“Duge is also nice…” http://www.dugecourtyard.com/ [this is closer to the conference than Red Capital Residence. Looks nice and near The Orchid, but less info on it]

Beijing Friendship Hotel  (http://www.bjfriendshiphotel.com/english)
You may want to also suggest the Beijing Friendship Hotel for ubicomp attendees seeking a more traditional Chinese experience. It’s very historic, built in 1954. The hotel has very nice gardens, and also has the oldest expat watering hole in Beijing. Back in the Mao era, legend has it, it was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Beijing
[Note: this is not a Courtyard hotel, but if you are into this mid-20th century history it might be cool to see.]

Opposite Househttp://www.theoppositehouse.com/)
“A lot of people looking for something ‘less traditional’ stay at Opposite House in Sanlitun, which is more like $300/night I hear.”
[Note: this is not a Courtyard hotel, but instead the most-hip, modern hotel I’ve ever seen. It is right next to the biggest western shopping/restaurant area in Beijing (and the highest revenue Apple Store in the world) – if you want to go where the new money heads at night or on the weekend in Beijing, this is the place to stay. It is about a 45-minute taxi to/from the conference or a 1-hour ride on the subway – this is near to where my own apartment is.]

3) Miscellaneous Advice
I’ll add to this as I think of things.

Chinese Toilets
One thing to remember is that in China they use squat toilets (i.e., a porcelain hole in the ground). This can sometimes be a bit of a shock for westerners used to sitting on the toilet. Most of the western-oriented hotels (e.g., everything I’ve listed above) will have normal toilets, but on the Tsinghua campus you may run into only Chinese toilets. Be prepared in two ways: 1) go to the bathroom in the morning in your hotel if you don’t want to deal with it, and 2) bring a small packet of tissues for toilet paper as often there is none – we will try to have some in your conference bags and also watch that the bathrooms near the conference venue are stocked, but you never know where you might end up in Beijing. So be prepared!

Beijing Air Quality
As many of you may know, the air quality in Beijing and other major Chinese cities can be quite bad. Beijing is in many ways similar to Los Angeles in that it is a basin surrounded on multiple sides by mountains that trap the bad air generated by factories and a huge number of cars on the roads in Beijing. This bad air only tends to go away when the wind blows or after it rains. You can check out the current air quality by going to this URL (http://iphone.bjair.info/) on your web browser (works nice on the iPhone) or by following @BeijingAir on twitter.

Power Plugs
Many of the western-oriented hotels offer power outlets with both Chinese and American style outlets. The Chinese outlets often come in multiple styles (I see #2 and #5 most often from this image--the angled ones, #2-Australasian, are the most common). But you just can't always count on them having European/US electrical outlets so it might be best to bring an appropriate plug adapter with you. Note the power is 220V power in case you have some old 110V only devices. Plug adapters can also be purchased at places like Dinghao  in the Zhgonguancun Electronics area if you are already planning a trip over there to check it out.

Tour Operators
I don't have a lot of personal experience with tour companies. The conference has recommended the China International Travel Service Beijing for tours after the conference (you can sign up at UbiComp for these tours on any combination of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday after the conference). You may try contacting them directly to negotiation ar price for a tour before UbiComp, though many of these sites (other than the Great Wall) are easy enough to simply do by getting a tour book and going on your own using taxis or subway (all are within walking distance of a subway stop). For the Great Wall your hotel could probably arrange something for you (I recommend you go to Mutianyu rather than some of the other spots).

You should not drink water that comes from the tap! It is not safe to do so! Please make sure to only drink bottled water or water from a large bubbler when in China. It is up to you if you are willing to eat uncooked vegetables, but they are likely washed in tap water so it may be dicey.

September offers the nicest weather in Beijing (not too hot, nor too cold). But, I noticed the temperature is definitely starting to drop. The forecast right now shows no rain for the week of UbiComp (Sept. 17-21, 2011), but the daytime temperatures are starting to moderate quite a bit (highs in the low to mid 70sF/low 20sC and overnight lows in the mid 50sF/low teens C). So, I would recommend you bring a sweater or light jacket for the evenings.

Let me know if you have any questions about your upcoming visit to Beijing and I'll try to answer you here!

note: the views expressed in this blog entry are my own and do not represent an official position of UbiComp 2011 or the conference organizers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Top 10 Reasons to Come to Beijing in September for UbiComp 2011

10.  Meet world-class ubicomp researchers
  9.  Immerse yourself in the magical, ancient culture of China
  8.  Dine in The Great Hall of the People in Tian’anmen Square The Summer Palace
  7.  Visit top industry labs & research institutes
  6.  See the largest mobile market in the world (1B users!)
  5.  Present to the top students in China & impact their research
  4.  Very low registration, hotel, & food costs
  3.  Tours to Great Wall, Forbidden City, & Summer Palace
  2.  PC selected research they are passionate about →                   excitement!
  1.  Celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mark Weiser’s landmark SciAm article w/ special panel featuring John Seely-Brown, Gregory Abowd, Paul Dourish, Beth Mynatt, & Jun Rekimoto
Breaking News: Keynote by renowned user researcher 
Jan Chipchase

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Are we becoming too analytical?

You cannot go a day it seems without reading yet another article on why students need to learn data analysis skills. We are drowning in "big data."  The top corporations (e.g,. Google) are making many of their key decisions based on data. The amount of data we are generating continues to grow exponentially and the Internet of Things (IOT) will only make this worse (or better?). I'm all for a broader set of people learning about computer science and adopting "computational thinking" (as CMU's Jeanette Wing has so nicely proselytized) so that people can deal with this data deluge and use the information inherent in the data deluge more effectively.

Google Shuts Down Google Health and Google PowerMeter
But, sometimes I think maybe we are becoming too analytical and relying too much on this style of thinking. A case in point. Google announced last month that it was shutting down both the Google Health and Google PowerMeter projects. I found this announcement disappointing as both of these projects address problems in what I believe are two of the three most important areas for our society and the world to address (the other important area is education.)

Inability to Scale
Google said in their blog entry announcing the closures that they were ending these projects because of their "inability to scale" (i.e., they didn't get enough users). The announcement did not go into detail as to why these services did not take off. I believe the analytical nature of their user interface design and the assumptions about how people will want to analyze their own data are a key reason for the failure of these products. I'll discuss this issue in more detail below, but let me start off with some of the more conventional reasons people might cite for the failure of these products.

Conventional Reasons for Failure of PowerMeter & Health
1) For instance, PowerMeter may have failed because there simply are not enough homes with Smart Meters. These meters can automatically send the required data to Google about a home's minute to minute power usage. People are not going to enter this information manually, nor are they going to plug all of their appliances into special plugs that collect this data on an appliance by appliance basis. Nor are innovative devices like ElectriSense, which disaggregates appliance electricity usage using only a single home sensor, yet widely available. ElectriSense was invented by my dub colleague Shwetak Patel and bought by Belkin for a soon to be launched product. When combined with a good user interface design this device can let people understand how their day to day behaviors are impacting their power usage and thus have impact on behavior change. So in the case of Google PowerMeter, the lack of installed infrastructure is a clear problem, but even the type of infrastructure they were relying on (overall electricity use) is the wrong type of data to elicit behavior change.

2) Google Health may also have infrastructure issues. Google Health is in some ways a personal, electronic health record (PHR or EHR) and there are a number of other companies also trying to make headway in this space (e.g., Microsoft). There are great incentives to succeed in this space due to federal legislation as well as the fact that current paper-based health records systems are fairly expensive, error prone, and unhelpful in supporting individuals in improving their own health. Some say that one major reason Google Health did not take off was the lack of interoperability with the systems used by doctors, hospitals, and other data sources. This may also be true, but I'm again wondering how users saw any value in these systems that really didn't help the end-users understand their own behaviors and see how it impacted their own health (products like fitbit are taking off because they allow people to make this link). What can we learn from these product failures so that we can succeed in the future?

Google PowerMeter Display
Product Failure Due to Over Reliance on Self Data Analysis
But the biggest reason I believe these two products have not taken off is their reliance on the belief that simply giving people their data and letting them analyze it is the way to improve behavior (both for health and for the environment). The user interfaces for both products have an analytical take on information design -- for instance they focus on showing people graphs of their data.

Moon Shots or Designing for People
I visited Google a couple of years ago and showed them the work we had been doing at UW for several years on activity-based computing, in particular the UbiFit and UbiGreen projects. I was excited to meet the leader of the Google PowerMeter project, Ed Lu, who is a former NASA Astronaut. In hiring Ed it seemed as if Google was saying that this would be a very ambitious undertaking, ala going to the moon. As I spoke with members of the Google team, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge of behavior change theories from psychology as well as much of the user interface design work that had been done by researchers in this space over the past ten years (a great survey paper on the design of eco-feedback technology was written by Jon Froehlich, a student working with me at UW).

Are Googlers Representative Users?
I was concerned about the viability of Google PowerMeter as soon as I saw the display (see above). I was told that the Google PowerMeter interface had been tested with over 1000 people and that the reaction was strongly positive. The beta users were finding large quantities of energy they were wasting and making changes in their homes and behaviors.

Who were these beta users I asked? "Google employees" was the response. When I commented that Google employees were not very representative of everyday people as 1) they are some of the most educated people around and 2) they are often very analytical and good at solving puzzles (a common Google screening tactic in their hiring process), these points were swatted aside.

Although giving people graphs of their health data and power use has value, they are insufficient to empower people to understand their daily behaviors and possibly change for the better. We've seen this time and time again in our own research with projects like UbiFit (led by Sunny Consolvo at UW and Intel), in the research of BJ Fogg on persuasive user interfaces, and in recent work by graduate student Jon Froehlich on eco-feedback displays for water usage.

One of the first things we teach in introductory human-computer interaction (HCI) is that "you are not your user" and "beware designer ego bias." Google seemed to have fallen into this well-known trap in their design and testing for Google PowerMeter (and perhaps Google Health).

Is this now changing at Google with newer products? [note: I started writing this post before Google+ launched as well as the the release of a redesign of Google's mobile UIs -- both of these look like good starts in a new direction with respect to design at Google].  In the past, did Google do it differently with their more successful products, e.g., gmail?  (aside, gmail was designed by Kevin Fox, who took my intro HCI class at Berkeley). There have been some controversal resignations by designers at Google who disagreed with the analytical approach to design. Is there a better way to produce well-designed products?

Finding a Balance between Analytical & Design Thinking
I believe that to have a positive impact on product design, we as designers and engineers must find a balance. A balance between analytical approaches to design (e.g., computer science, data mining, and quantitative HCI experimentation) and more design-oriented approaches that are good at creating products that make an emotional impact on people and create a desire to own them.

Steve Jobs has implied that hiring more liberal arts majors is the key to success. I believe hiring more liberal arts majors would indeed help achieve this required balance. Though, it might be even more important to have a design culture at the top of the company, as Apple does. I am left wondering if many of Google's well publicized product failures have been due to this lack of balance in their organization. A single person making every little design decision is not the right answer, and it is doubtful this actually happens at Apple, but Google's current approach to design and decision making seems overly analytical. This analytical approach to design has clearly rubbed some designers the wrong way in the past.

Can we as a field find a better balance as we move into the future?

[disclaimer: I do not mean to pick on Google in this blog post. I know many people who work there and respect what they do. I also personally use many of their products. Some I like much better than others. I just think that Google's culture represents one extreme of how we might do design and they are a bit more open about their culture than other companies, so it is a bit easier to comment on this culture.]

Steve Denning recently published an article in his Forbes blog where he write about how Google's mission statement might be tripping them up. I'm not sure I agree or not, but he also said in that article:
"Health and energy might have been such opportunities, but Google missed them because it was focused on the producing a thing, rather than delighting the people who would use the thing. The key is to shift from a focus on producing things to a focus on understanding and delighting people."