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#433282 The 4 Waves of AI: Who Will Own the ...

Recently, I picked up Kai-Fu Lee’s newest book, AI Superpowers.

Kai-Fu Lee is one of the most plugged-in AI investors on the planet, managing over $2 billion between six funds and over 300 portfolio companies in the US and China.

Drawing from his pioneering work in AI, executive leadership at Microsoft, Apple, and Google (where he served as founding president of Google China), and his founding of VC fund Sinovation Ventures, Lee shares invaluable insights about:

The four factors driving today’s AI ecosystems;
China’s extraordinary inroads in AI implementation;
Where autonomous systems are headed;
How we’ll need to adapt.

With a foothold in both Beijing and Silicon Valley, Lee looks at the power balance between Chinese and US tech behemoths—each turbocharging new applications of deep learning and sweeping up global markets in the process.

In this post, I’ll be discussing Lee’s “Four Waves of AI,” an excellent framework for discussing where AI is today and where it’s going. I’ll also be featuring some of the hottest Chinese tech companies leading the charge, worth watching right now.

I’m super excited that this Tuesday, I’ve scored the opportunity to sit down with Kai-Fu Lee to discuss his book in detail via a webinar.

With Sino-US competition heating up, who will own the future of technology?

Let’s dive in.

The First Wave: Internet AI
In this first stage of AI deployment, we’re dealing primarily with recommendation engines—algorithmic systems that learn from masses of user data to curate online content personalized to each one of us.

Think Amazon’s spot-on product recommendations, or that “Up Next” YouTube video you just have to watch before getting back to work, or Facebook ads that seem to know what you’ll buy before you do.

Powered by the data flowing through our networks, internet AI leverages the fact that users automatically label data as we browse. Clicking versus not clicking; lingering on a web page longer than we did on another; hovering over a Facebook video to see what happens at the end.

These cascades of labeled data build a detailed picture of our personalities, habits, demands, and desires: the perfect recipe for more tailored content to keep us on a given platform.

Currently, Lee estimates that Chinese and American companies stand head-to-head when it comes to deployment of internet AI. But given China’s data advantage, he predicts that Chinese tech giants will have a slight lead (60-40) over their US counterparts in the next five years.

While you’ve most definitely heard of Alibaba and Baidu, you’ve probably never stumbled upon Toutiao.

Starting out as a copycat of America’s wildly popular Buzzfeed, Toutiao reached a valuation of $20 billion by 2017, dwarfing Buzzfeed’s valuation by more than a factor of 10. But with almost 120 million daily active users, Toutiao doesn’t just stop at creating viral content.

Equipped with natural-language processing and computer vision, Toutiao’s AI engines survey a vast network of different sites and contributors, rewriting headlines to optimize for user engagement, and processing each user’s online behavior—clicks, comments, engagement time—to curate individualized news feeds for millions of consumers.

And as users grow more engaged with Toutiao’s content, the company’s algorithms get better and better at recommending content, optimizing headlines, and delivering a truly personalized feed.

It’s this kind of positive feedback loop that fuels today’s AI giants surfing the wave of internet AI.

The Second Wave: Business AI
While internet AI takes advantage of the fact that netizens are constantly labeling data via clicks and other engagement metrics, business AI jumps on the data that traditional companies have already labeled in the past.

Think banks issuing loans and recording repayment rates; hospitals archiving diagnoses, imaging data, and subsequent health outcomes; or courts noting conviction history, recidivism, and flight.

While we humans make predictions based on obvious root causes (strong features), AI algorithms can process thousands of weakly correlated variables (weak features) that may have much more to do with a given outcome than the usual suspects.

By scouting out hidden correlations that escape our linear cause-and-effect logic, business AI leverages labeled data to train algorithms that outperform even the most veteran of experts.

Apply these data-trained AI engines to banking, insurance, and legal sentencing, and you get minimized default rates, optimized premiums, and plummeting recidivism rates.

While Lee confidently places America in the lead (90-10) for business AI, China’s substantial lag in structured industry data could actually work in its favor going forward.

In industries where Chinese startups can leapfrog over legacy systems, China has a major advantage.

Take Chinese app Smart Finance, for instance.

While Americans embraced credit and debit cards in the 1970s, China was still in the throes of its Cultural Revolution, largely missing the bus on this technology.

Fast forward to 2017, and China’s mobile payment spending outnumbered that of Americans’ by a ratio of 50 to 1. Without the competition of deeply entrenched credit cards, mobile payments were an obvious upgrade to China’s cash-heavy economy, embraced by 70 percent of China’s 753 million smartphone users by the end of 2017.

But by leapfrogging over credit cards and into mobile payments, China largely left behind the notion of credit.

And here’s where Smart Finance comes in.

An AI-powered app for microfinance, Smart Finance depends almost exclusively on its algorithms to make millions of microloans. For each potential borrower, the app simply requests access to a portion of the user’s phone data.

On the basis of variables as subtle as your typing speed and battery percentage, Smart Finance can predict with astounding accuracy your likelihood of repaying a $300 loan.

Such deployments of business AI and internet AI are already revolutionizing our industries and individual lifestyles. But still on the horizon lie two even more monumental waves— perception AI and autonomous AI.

The Third Wave: Perception AI
In this wave, AI gets an upgrade with eyes, ears, and myriad other senses, merging the digital world with our physical environments.

As sensors and smart devices proliferate through our homes and cities, we are on the verge of entering a trillion-sensor economy.

Companies like China’s Xiaomi are putting out millions of IoT-connected devices, and teams of researchers have already begun prototyping smart dust—solar cell- and sensor-geared particulates that can store and communicate troves of data anywhere, anytime.

As Kai-Fu explains, perception AI “will bring the convenience and abundance of the online world into our offline reality.” Sensor-enabled hardware devices will turn everything from hospitals to cars to schools into online-merge-offline (OMO) environments.

Imagine walking into a grocery store, scanning your face to pull up your most common purchases, and then picking up a virtual assistant (VA) shopping cart. Having pre-loaded your data, the cart adjusts your usual grocery list with voice input, reminds you to get your spouse’s favorite wine for an upcoming anniversary, and guides you through a personalized store route.

While we haven’t yet leveraged the full potential of perception AI, China and the US are already making incredible strides. Given China’s hardware advantage, Lee predicts China currently has a 60-40 edge over its American tech counterparts.

Now the go-to city for startups building robots, drones, wearable technology, and IoT infrastructure, Shenzhen has turned into a powerhouse for intelligent hardware, as I discussed last week. Turbocharging output of sensors and electronic parts via thousands of factories, Shenzhen’s skilled engineers can prototype and iterate new products at unprecedented scale and speed.

With the added fuel of Chinese government support and a relaxed Chinese attitude toward data privacy, China’s lead may even reach 80-20 in the next five years.

Jumping on this wave are companies like Xiaomi, which aims to turn bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms into smart OMO environments. Having invested in 220 companies and incubated 29 startups that produce its products, Xiaomi surpassed 85 million intelligent home devices by the end of 2017, making it the world’s largest network of these connected products.

One KFC restaurant in China has even teamed up with Alipay (Alibaba’s mobile payments platform) to pioneer a ‘pay-with-your-face’ feature. Forget cash, cards, and cell phones, and let OMO do the work.

The Fourth Wave: Autonomous AI
But the most monumental—and unpredictable—wave is the fourth and final: autonomous AI.

Integrating all previous waves, autonomous AI gives machines the ability to sense and respond to the world around them, enabling AI to move and act productively.

While today’s machines can outperform us on repetitive tasks in structured and even unstructured environments (think Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas or oncoming autonomous vehicles), machines with the power to see, hear, touch and optimize data will be a whole new ballgame.

Think: swarms of drones that can selectively spray and harvest entire farms with computer vision and remarkable dexterity, heat-resistant drones that can put out forest fires 100X more efficiently, or Level 5 autonomous vehicles that navigate smart roads and traffic systems all on their own.

While autonomous AI will first involve robots that create direct economic value—automating tasks on a one-to-one replacement basis—these intelligent machines will ultimately revamp entire industries from the ground up.

Kai-Fu Lee currently puts America in a commanding lead of 90-10 in autonomous AI, especially when it comes to self-driving vehicles. But Chinese government efforts are quickly ramping up the competition.

Already in China’s Zhejiang province, highway regulators and government officials have plans to build China’s first intelligent superhighway, outfitted with sensors, road-embedded solar panels and wireless communication between cars, roads and drivers.

Aimed at increasing transit efficiency by up to 30 percent while minimizing fatalities, the project may one day allow autonomous electric vehicles to continuously charge as they drive.

A similar government-fueled project involves Beijing’s new neighbor Xiong’an. Projected to take in over $580 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 20 years, Xiong’an New Area could one day become the world’s first city built around autonomous vehicles.

Baidu is already working with Xiong’an’s local government to build out this AI city with an environmental focus. Possibilities include sensor-geared cement, computer vision-enabled traffic lights, intersections with facial recognition, and parking lots-turned parks.

Lastly, Lee predicts China will almost certainly lead the charge in autonomous drones. Already, Shenzhen is home to premier drone maker DJI—a company I’ll be visiting with 24 top executives later this month as part of my annual China Platinum Trip.

Named “the best company I have ever encountered” by Chris Anderson, DJI owns an estimated 50 percent of the North American drone market, supercharged by Shenzhen’s extraordinary maker movement.

While the long-term Sino-US competitive balance in fourth wave AI remains to be seen, one thing is certain: in a matter of decades, we will witness the rise of AI-embedded cityscapes and autonomous machines that can interact with the real world and help solve today’s most pressing grand challenges.

Join Me
Webinar with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee: Dr. Kai-Fu Lee — one of the world’s most respected experts on AI — and I will discuss his latest book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Artificial Intelligence is reshaping the world as we know it. With U.S.-Sino competition heating up, who will own the future of technology? Register here for the free webinar on September 4th, 2018 from 11:00am–12:30pm PST.

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#432884 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ROBOTICS
Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini Robot Dog Goes on Sale in 2019
Stephen Shankland | CNET
“The company has 10 SpotMini prototypes now and will work with manufacturing partners to build 100 this year, said company co-founder and President Marc Raibert at a TechCrunch robotics conference Friday. ‘That’s a prelude to getting into a higher rate of production’ in anticipation of sales next year, he said. Who’ll buy it? Probably not you.”

Also from Boston Dynamics’ this week:

SPACE
Made In Space Wins NASA Contract for Next-Gen ‘Vulcan’ Manufacturing System
Mike Wall | Space.com
“’The Vulcan hybrid manufacturing system allows for flexible augmentation and creation of metallic components on demand with high precision,’ Mike Snyder, Made In Space chief engineer and principal investigator, said in a statement. …When Vulcan is ready to go, Made In Space aims to demonstrate the technology on the ISS, showing Vulcan’s potential usefulness for a variety of exploration missions.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Duplex Shows Google Failing at Ethical and Creative AI Design
Natasha Lomas | TechCrunch
“But while the home crowd cheered enthusiastically at how capable Google had seemingly made its prototype robot caller—with Pichai going on to sketch a grand vision of the AI saving people and businesses time—the episode is worryingly suggestive of a company that views ethics as an after-the-fact consideration. One it does not allow to trouble the trajectory of its engineering ingenuity.”

DESIGN
What Artists Can Tech Us About Making Technology More Human
Elizabeth Stinson| Wired
“For the last year, Park, along with the artist Sougwen Chung and dancers Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman of the dance collective Hammerstep, have been working out of Bell Labs as part of a residency called Experiments in Art and Technology. The year-long residency, a collaboration between Bell Labs and the New Museum’s incubator, New Inc, culminated in ‘Only Human,’ a recently-opened exhibition at Mana where the artists’ pieces will be on display through the end of May.”

GOVERNANCE
The White House Says a New AI Task Force Will Protect Workers and Keep America First
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“The meeting and the select committee signal that the administration takes the impact of artificial intellgence seriously. This has not always been apparent. In his campaign speeches, Trump suggested reviving industries that have already been overhauled by automation. The Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, also previously said that the idea of robots and AI taking people’s jobs was ‘not even on my radar screen.’”

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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432646 How Fukushima Changed Japanese Robotics ...

In March 2011, Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a terrible tsunami. Thousands were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done in one of the worst disasters of modern times. For a few perilous weeks, though, the eyes of the world were focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Its safety systems were unable to cope with the tsunami damage, and there were widespread fears of another catastrophic meltdown that could spread radiation over several countries, like the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. A heroic effort that included dumping seawater into the reactor core prevented an even bigger catastrophe. As it is, a hundred thousand people are still evacuated from the area, and it will likely take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars before the region is safe.

Because radiation is so dangerous to humans, the natural solution to the Fukushima disaster was to send in robots to monitor levels of radiation and attempt to begin the clean-up process. The techno-optimists in Japan had discovered a challenge, deep in the heart of that reactor core, that even their optimism could not solve. The radiation fried the circuits of the robots that were sent in, even those specifically designed and built to deal with the Fukushima catastrophe. The power plant slowly became a vast robot graveyard. While some robots initially saw success in measuring radiation levels around the plant—and, recently, a robot was able to identify the melted uranium fuel at the heart of the disaster—hopes of them playing a substantial role in the clean-up are starting to diminish.



In Tokyo’s neon Shibuya district, it can sometimes seem like it’s brighter at night than it is during the daytime. In karaoke booths on the twelfth floor—because everything is on the twelfth floor—overlooking the brightly-lit streets, businessmen unwind by blasting out pop hits. It can feel like the most artificial place on Earth; your senses are dazzled by the futuristic techno-optimism. Stock footage of the area has become symbolic of futurism and modernity.

Japan has had a reputation for being a nation of futurists for a long time. We’ve already described how tech giant Softbank, headed by visionary founder Masayoshi Son, is investing billions in a technological future, including plans for the world’s largest solar farm.

When Google sold pioneering robotics company Boston Dynamics in 2017, Softbank added it to their portfolio, alongside the famous Nao and Pepper robots. Some may think that Son is taking a gamble in pursuing a robotics project even Google couldn’t succeed in, but this is a man who lost nearly everything in the dot-com crash of 2000. The fact that even this reversal didn’t dent his optimism and faith in technology is telling. But how long can it last?

The failure of Japan’s robots to deal with the immense challenge of Fukushima has sparked something of a crisis of conscience within the industry. Disaster response is an obvious stepping-stone technology for robots. Initially, producing a humanoid robot will be very costly, and the robot will be less capable than a human; building a robot to wait tables might not be particularly economical yet. Building a robot to do jobs that are too dangerous for humans is far more viable. Yet, at Fukushima, in one of the most advanced nations in the world, many of the robots weren’t up to the task.

Nowhere was this crisis more felt than Honda; the company had developed ASIMO, which stunned the world in 2000 and continues to fascinate as an iconic humanoid robot. Despite all this technological advancement, however, Honda knew that ASIMO was still too unreliable for the real world.

It was Fukushima that triggered a sea-change in Honda’s approach to robotics. Two years after the disaster, there were rumblings that Honda was developing a disaster robot, and in October 2017, the prototype was revealed to the public for the first time. It’s not yet ready for deployment in disaster zones, however. Interestingly, the creators chose not to give it dexterous hands but instead to assume that remotely-operated tools fitted to the robot would be a better solution for the range of circumstances it might encounter.

This shift in focus for humanoid robots away from entertainment and amusement like ASIMO, and towards being practically useful, has been mirrored across the world.

In 2015, also inspired by the Fukushima disaster and the lack of disaster-ready robots, the DARPA Robotics Challenge tested humanoid robots with a range of tasks that might be needed in emergency response, such as driving cars, opening doors, and climbing stairs. The Terminator-like ATLAS robot from Boston Dynamics, alongside Korean robot HUBO, took many of the plaudits, and CHIMP also put in an impressive display by being able to right itself after falling.

Yet the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed us just how far the robots are from truly being as useful as we’d like, or maybe even as we would imagine. Many robots took hours to complete the tasks, which were highly idealized to suit them. Climbing stairs proved a particular challenge. Those who watched were more likely to see a robot that had fallen over, struggling to get up, rather than heroic superbots striding in to save the day. The “striding” proved a particular problem, with the fastest robot HUBO managing this by resorting to wheels in its knees when the legs weren’t necessary.

Fukushima may have brought a sea-change over futuristic Japan, but before robots will really begin to enter our everyday lives, they will need to prove their worth. In the interim, aerial drone robots designed to examine infrastructure damage after disasters may well see earlier deployment and more success.

It’s a considerable challenge.

Building a humanoid robot is expensive; if these multi-million-dollar machines can’t help in a crisis, people may begin to question the worth of investing in them in the first place (unless your aim is just to make viral videos). This could lead to a further crisis of confidence among the Japanese, who are starting to rely on humanoid robotics as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

But if they continue to fail when put to the test, that will raise serious concerns. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, you can see all kinds of flash robotic toys for sale in the neon-lit superstores, and dancing, acting robots like Robothespian can entertain crowds all over the world. But if we want these machines to be anything more than toys—partners, helpers, even saviors—more work needs to be done.

At the same time, those who participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 won’t be too concerned if people were underwhelmed by the performance of their disaster relief robots. Back in 2004, nearly every participant in the DARPA Grand Challenge crashed, caught fire, or failed on the starting line. To an outside observer, the whole thing would have seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and a pointless investment. What was the task in 2004? Developing a self-driving car. A lot can change in a decade.

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#432456 This Planned Solar Farm in Saudi Arabia ...

Right now it only exists on paper, in the form of a memorandum of understanding. But if constructed, the newly-announced solar photovoltaic project in Saudi Arabia would break an astonishing array of records. It’s larger than any solar project currently planned by a factor of 100. When completed, nominally in 2030, it would have a capacity of an astonishing 200 gigawatts (GW). The project is backed by Softbank Group and Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and was announced in New York on March 27.

The Tengger Desert Solar Park in China, affectionately known as the “Great Wall of Solar,” is the world’s largest operating solar farm, with a capacity of 1.5 GW. Larger farms are under construction, including the Westlands Solar Park, which plans to finish with 2.7 GW of capacity. But even those that are only in the planning phases are dwarfed by the Saudi project; two early-stage solar parks will have capacity of 7.2 GW, and the plan involves them generating electricity as early as next year.

It makes more sense to compare to slightly larger projects, like nations, or even planets. Saudi Arabia’s current electricity generation capacity is 77 GW. This project would almost triple it. The current total solar photovoltaic generation capacity installed worldwide is 303 GW. In other words, this single solar farm would account for a similar installed capacity as the entire world’s capacity in 2015, and over a thousand times more than we had in 2000.

That’s exponential growth for you, folks.

Of course, practically doubling the world’s solar capacity doesn’t come cheap; the nominal estimate for the budget is around $200 billion (compared to $20 billion for around half a gigawatt of fusion, though, it may not seem so bad.) But the project would help solve a number of pressing problems for Saudi Arabia.

For a start, solar power works well in the desert. The irradiance is high, you have plenty of empty space, and peak demand is driven by air conditioning in the cities and so corresponds with peak supply. Even if oil companies might seem blasé about the global supply of oil running out, individual countries are aware that their own reserves won’t last forever, and they don’t want to miss the energy transition. The country’s Vision 2030 project aims to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy by that year. If they can construct solar farms on this scale, alongside the $80 billion the government plans to spend on a fleet of nuclear reactors, it seems logical to export that power to other countries in the region, especially given the amount of energy storage that would be required otherwise.

We’ve already discussed a large-scale project to build solar panels in the desert then export the electricity: the DESERTEC initiative in the Sahara. Although DESERTEC planned a range of different demonstration plants on scales of around 500 MW, its ultimate ambition was to “provide 20 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050.” It seems that this project is similar in scale to what they were planning. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is going to be incredibly difficult. Only large-scale nuclear, wind, or solar can really supply the world’s energy needs if consumption is anything like what it is today; in all likelihood, we’ll need a combination of all three.

To make a sizeable contribution to that effort, the renewable projects have to be truly epic in scale. The planned 2 GW solar park at Bulli Creek in Australia would cover 5 square kilometers, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that, across many farms, this project could cover around 500 square kilometers—around the size of Chicago.

It will come as no surprise that Softbank is involved in this project. The founder, Masayoshi Son, is well-known for large-scale “visionary” investments. This is suggested by the name of his $100 billion VC fund, the Softbank Vision Fund, and the focus of its investments. It has invested millions of dollars in tech companies like Uber, IoT, NVIDIA and ARM, and startups across fields like VR, agritech, and AI.

Of course, Softbank is also the company that bought infamous robot-makers Boston Dynamics from Google when their not-at-all-sinister “Project Replicant” was sidelined. Softbank is famous in Japan in part due to their mascot, Pepper, which is probably the most widespread humanoid robot on the planet. Suffice it to say that Softbank is keen to be a part of any technological development, and they’re not afraid of projects that are truly vast in scope.

Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 led Japan to turn away from nuclear power, Son has also been focused on green electricity, floating the idea of an Asia Super Grid. Similar to DESERTEC, it aims to get around the main issues with renewable energy (the land use and the intermittency of supply) with a vast super-grid that would connect Mongolia, India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea with high-voltage DC power cables. “Since this is such a grandiose project, many people told me it is crazy,” Son said. “They said it is impossible both economically and politically.” The first stage of the project, a demonstration wind farm of 50 megawatts in Mongolia, began operating in October of last year.

Given that Saudi Arabia put up $45 billion of the Vision Fund, it’s also not surprising to see the location of the project; Softbank reportedly had plans to invest $25 billion of the Vision Fund in Saudi Arabia, and $1 billion will be spent on the first solar farms there. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, 32, who recently consolidated power, is looking to be seen on the global stage as a modernizer. He was effusive about the project. “It’s a huge step in human history,” he said. “It’s bold, risky, and we hope we succeed doing that.”

It is the risk that will keep renewable energy enthusiasts concerned.

Every visionary plan contains the potential for immense disappointment. As yet, the Asian Super Grid and the Saudi power plan are more or less at the conceptual stage. The fact that a memorandum of understanding exists between the Saudi government and Softbank is no guarantee that it will ever be built. Some analysts in the industry are a little skeptical.

“It’s an unprecedented construction effort; it’s an unprecedented financing effort,” said Benjamin Attia, a global solar analyst for Green Tech Media Research. “But there are so many questions, so few details, and a lot of headwinds, like grid instability, the availability of commercial debt, construction, and logistics challenges.”

We have already seen with the DESERTEC initiative that these vast-scale renewable energy projects can fail, despite immense enthusiasm. They are not easy to accomplish. But in a world without fossil fuels, they will be required. This project could be a flagship example for how to run a country on renewable energy—or another example of grand designs and good intentions. We’ll have to wait to find out which.

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