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ICG Risk Blog - [ The world is flat save for the depression that we occupy: Friedman on global opportunity and competition ]

The world is flat save for the depression that we occupy: Friedman on global opportunity and competition

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The head of Infosys (India) told Tom Friedman that "the playing field is being leveled" as decades of massive investment in technology, computers, global broadband connectivity, education, communication and information processing tools created a condition in which "countries like India were now able to compete equally for global knowledge work as never before -- and that America had better get ready for this."

Friedman made a great tag line leap from 'leveled' to 'flattened' to 'flat' with the observation that:

When the world is flat, you can innovate without having to emigrate.

The impacts are enormous in terms of economic, political, military, and demographic changes at the level of shocks - and an inability to predict when and where those leaps will occur. Citing Marc Andreessen:

"Today, the most profound thing to me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however they want. That is why I am sure the next Napster is going to come out of left field. As bioscience becomes more computational and less about wet labs and as all the genomic data becomes easily available on the Internet, at some point you will be able to design vaccines on your laptop."

Or bioweapons.

Friedman sees the advances in "people-to-people and application-to-application connectivity" producing "flatterers" that in turn produced six more: outsourcing, offshoring, open-sourcing, insourcing, supply-chaining, and informing. His last "flattener" is accelerated communications in the form of wireless access and VoIP. I am not certain that I agree with his chain of causality, but I agree that all these enablers are present.

I can only wholeheartedly agree with his prediction that the US and Europe are lagging and whining while Asia is roaring. "Meeting the challenges of flatism requires as comprehensive, energetic and focused a response as did meeting the challenge of Communism... We have been slow to rise to the challenge of flatism":

When it comes to responding to the challenges of the flat world, [we] have to dig into ourselves. We in America have all the basic economic and educational tools to do that. But we have not been improving those tools as much as we should. That is why we are in what Shirley Ann Jackson, the 2004 president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, calls a ''quiet crisis'' -- one that is slowly eating away at America's scientific and engineering base.

Jackson makes the understatement of the quarter century in noting, ''If left unchecked, this could challenge our pre-eminence and capacity to innovate.'' The challenge is already well underway and we are not distinguishing ourselves in the innovation of new technologies, products, services and firms that hire domestic employees and pay domestic taxes.

Friedman sees this quiet crisis as a product of three gaps:

  • An "ambition gap": "Compared with the young, energetic Indians and Chinese, too many Americans have gotten too lazy."
  • A numbers gap: insufficient numbers of engineers and scientists that were compensated for by importation from India, China and elsewhere, but "in a flat world, where people can now stay home and compete with us, and in a post-9/11 world, where we are insanely keeping out many of the first-round intellectual draft choices in the world for exaggerated security reasons, we can no longer cover the gap."
  • An education gap: A gap so startling that US firms outsource not merely because of lower salaries but because they "can often get better-skilled and more productive people than their American workers."

Friedman cites Microsoft's Bill Gates comment that the US high-school education system is "obsolete": "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations."

Gates also addresses the matter of numbers: "In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did. China graduates twice as many students with bachelor's degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind."

Friedman closes in his signature style, and while I have been cross of late with some of his international commentary as being excessively preachy, I believe that he is spot on here, and at the top of his game:

We need to get going immediately. It takes 15 years to train a good engineer, because [this] really is rocket science. So parents, throw away the Game Boy, turn off the television and get your kids to work. There is no sugar-coating this: in a flat world, every individual is going to have to run a little faster if he or she wants to advance his or her standard of living. When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, ''Tom, finish your dinner -- people in China are starving.'' But after sailing to the edges of the flat world for a year, I am now telling my own daughters, ''Girls, finish your homework -- people in China and India are starving for your jobs.''

A signature trend of US technological slippage is our declining performance in the Olympics of programming, the 2005 world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. Reflecting a "gradual ascendance of Asian and East European schools during the past decade," the first three winners were China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and two from Russia, Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. The nearest US performance was a tie for 17th. Commenced in 1970, the US historically dominated this ACM contest, and dominated it in depth.

The technological and weapons systems that we have today are the product of designs twenty years earlier created by engineers and scientists educated a decade or more earlier still. Today we are coasting without a "moon shot" plan to resuscitate our scientific base and educational system. Worse we are trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which US technology firms conduct basic research and development activities in Asia as US student interest in computer science declines amid the dot-com collapse and the well-advertised offshoring by US tech firms to low-wage countries like India.

I took the effort to look at the last 15 years of the ACM contest, not only for the winning school and nation, but the number of teams competing, and US standing towards the top of the rankings. The net results are worse than losing the title as it reflects a lack of US depth and bench strength in comparison to its scholastic competitors:

2005 Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China (second win), USA 17

2004 St Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, Russia, from 3,150 teams, USA 5,7,9

2003 Warsaw University, Poland, from 3,850 teams, USA 13

2002 Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, from 3,082 teams, USA 2,5,8

2001 The St. Petersburg State University, Russia (second win), from 2,700 teams, USA 2,7,10

2000 The St. Petersburg State University, Russia, from 2,400 teams, USA 9

1999 The University of Waterloo, Canada, from over 1,900 teams, USA 5,6,7,8

1998 Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, from 1,250 teams, USA 5

1997 Harvey Mudd College, USA, from over 1,100 teams, USA 2,9

1996 University of California, Berkeley, USA, from 1,001 teams, USA, 2,5,7

1995 Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat Freiburg, Germany, from over 900 teams, USA, 2,4,5,6,7

1994 University of Waterloo, Canada, from 628 teams, USA, 3,4,6

1993 Harvard University, USA, from over 600 teams, USA, 2,3,4,6,7

1992 University of Melbourne, Australia, from over 600 teams, USA, 2,3,4,5,6,7

1991 Stanford University, USA, from over 500 teams

1990 University of Otago, New Zealand, from 459 teams

It's a Flat World, After All
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
New York Times
April 3, 2005

U.S. slips lower in coding contest
By Ed Frauenheim
CNET News
April 7, 2005

Students saying no to computer science
By Ed Frauenheim
CNET News
August 11, 2004

Gordon Housworth



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