How to Think about Technology, Talent, and Trends in the Context of Globalization: An Interview with Richard Liou, Technologist and Business Leader

How to Think about Technology, Talent, and Trends in the Context of Globalization: An Interview with Richard Liou, Technologist and Business Leader

Date: Feb 25th 2022

In 2016, Richard Liou was a successful Sr. Product Manager in Silicon Valley and an avid technologist. With a background in engineering and an MBA, he was contemplating his next career move. At the time, he was being recruited by Google and had a job offer that would advance his career to the executive level.  

However, instead of staying in Silicon Valley, he decided to branch out to Asia.  In 2017, he accepted an offer in Hong Kong to be a General Manager at a public Taiwanese engineering & ODM firm. Fast forward five years, and we have invited Richard Liou, a 12-year veteran of the tech industry, to share his global and unique perspective on technology and talent in both Silicon Valley and Asia with our tech community.

GetLinks:  As you know, GetLinks is a marketplace that is trying to cultivate more “Silicon Valley” tech talent in Asia. As someone from Silicon Valley who has spent a considerable amount of time working in both Asia and California, what do you think is the biggest barrier to creating a “Silicon Valley” in Asia?

Richard:  I believe the biggest barrier is culture, and more specifically, culture inside companies in Asia. The culture in Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies advocates an individualistic bottom-up ownership. Taking ownership of problems and being innovative is part of the job description. In fact, innovation is one of the tools in an employee’s toolkit used to solve problems.

GetLinks:  Innovation is a tool in an employee’s toolkit…could you elaborate more on this?

Richard:  Yes, for example, one of the issues any consumer-facing hardware company encounters is difficulties with merchandising. Technology companies can create great hardware but if you cannot get it into the consumers hand to touch and play with, it will not sell. Short of having one’s own stores, most companies rely on merchandising the product in big box retailers, such as Best Buy or Walmart. Generally, a company will design a display with visual aids that highlight the product’s features to catch the consumers’ attention and invite them to interact with the product. However, retailers are not responsible for your product’s display. Traditionally, companies had to hire expensive third-party merchandisers who would periodically check on the product to ensure it was displayed properly. We had an important product launch during my time in Silicon Valley, but we didn’t have the budget to hire a merchandiser so we could either increase the product’s price to cover the merchandising costs or forgo merchandising altogether. A new assistant pitched the idea of using a crowdsourcing app. Through the app, we hired a few thousand gig workers who lived near the big box stores to handle the merchandising. 

From my experience in Asia, spontaneous ideas like this would never happen. Usually, problems are solved by executives applying pressure to reduce costs (in this case, re-negotiating with the third-party merchandiser), and they may even tie an employee’s pay to achieving the desired, negotiated outcome. Only executives initiated new ideas.

GetLinks:  That’s interesting, so rather than a results-oriented outcome, it is more of a KPI-oriented outcome.

Richard:  Correct. Generally, companies in Asia are very good (and in some ways better than the West) at achieving anything that can be measured, such as cost and performance. However, criterion like innovation, which cannot be measured, generally don’t flourish very well.

GetLinks:  Do you have any proposed solutions to this for companies or the workforce in Asia?

Richard:  It’s a difficult problem to tackle. The companies in Asia need to look at the entire picture to create a culture of innovation. This doesn’t just mean repeating it in speeches or putting it in the employee handbook. It means you must change your business model to allow for innovation to be an asset, and you need to recruit open-minded people who can handle uncertainty well. Also, a company’s internal and external management methods, such as the hiring process, need to support bottom-up ownership and innovation.

GetLinks:  Change the business model to allow for innovation? How so?

Richard:  There are some types of business where innovation isn’t needed. Off the top of my head, some examples are a manufacturing business that succeeds on its cost advantage rather than quality or added value, or an accounting firm whose primary business is customers who want to outsource their accounting. Generally, for a company to be innovative, it really needs to be able to drive its own product roadmap, whether it is in services, intangible products, or physical products. It is difficult to innovate in a business that depends on a few large customers who tell you exactly what they want. 

GetLinks:  Okay, let’s talk about technology. From your experiences in Silicon Valley and Asia, what would you say are the true emerging and disruptive technologies for each region?

Richard:  New technology trends come up every five to ten years, but it doesn’t mean these technologies are the next significant trend. I think many are overhyped. Artificial Intelligence is truly the next disruptive technology, while technologies like augmented/virtual technology, blockchain, and fintech are more evolutionary. To be clear, I am saying blockchain has evolutionary potential, and I am not referring to the cryptocurrency instantiation of blockchain. These technologies are not region-specific and there is demand for them globally, however, some may have more applications in certain countries.

GetLinks:  Overhyped? It’s funny. Usually when we talk to technologists, they think every new technology is great and will be the next thing that revolutionizes an industry. What would you say are some of the overhyped technologies?

Richard:  Yes, being an engineer who is passionate about technology, I truly love innovation and new technologies but the reality of economics, people, and in some ways, governments must be considered. For example, I believe eVTOLs and drones are overhyped. People believe they will revolutionize the transportation and last-mile delivery industry, but I don’t think that will happen. Don’t get me wrong, I think they are useful technologies, but they have specific applications. eVTOLs will make cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly helicopters, but at the end of the day, they are simply helicopters that are cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly. Back in the 50s, lots of people thought helicopters would revolutionize travel and that everyone would be riding in helicopters. I think it’s safe to say that most people we know have never been in a helicopter.  

Quadcopter drones have a range problem and are highly inefficient. Most of them cannot fly more than 30 minutes and cannot carry more than five pounds. Also, regulation makes it difficult for drones to fly within 30 nautical miles of an international airport and forbids drones from flying within ten nautical miles. Most metropolitan areas have at least one major airport. It is difficult to see how drones can solve the last-mile delivery problem in major metropolitan areas, especially in crowded cities with high rises. Drone delivery can only have specific applications of time-sensitive, light-weight goods on specific routes, such as delivery of plasma or emergency medical supplies.

Just to be clear, I personally love both these technologies and I am fascinated by them. I don’t want to discourage anyone working in these sectors as I am a FAA-licensed instrument pilot myself and regularly fly in California. I love aviation, but we must all think in the realities of physics and economics.

GetLinks:  So, you don’t think we could ever have electric airplanes like we have electric cars?

Richard:  No, not at all. In fact, I am convinced electric aircraft will be in the air in ten years or less for flights in the range of two hours or 500 nautical miles. This covers major city pairs such as San Francisco – Los Angeles, Sydney – Melbourne, London – Paris – Frankfurt, Beijing – Shanghai. Over 40% of the world’s flights are 500 nautical miles or less, which is a significant amount of the world’s routes where electric aircraft could be used. At the best current battery density of 250 kg/watt, we can have electric aircrafts with one hour endurance plus reserves. Assuming a linear battery density growth rate of 8% per year, we can double this by 2032. There is evidence that battery density growth will be non-linear, so this could happen even sooner than predicted. I believe electric aviation can cover most regional routes and allow societies to save money on capital-intensive infrastructure, such as high-speed rail. 

GetLinks:  That’s interesting that airplanes can be fully electric. Do you think they will also be autonomous?

Richard:  Well, this is a tough one mostly due to the lack of regulations and agreements on a common standard. The technology for autonomous flights is already mostly developed, however, we do not have a proven safety record, the right regulations, and an agreed upon common infrastructure. Remember, from a fatality rate, commercial aviation is 50-100 times safer than travel by cars. That means the AI used to fly planes autonomously must show that it can be 50-100 safer than self-driving cars. This is a much higher threshold to prove, and no-one wants to be the guinea pig. At the same time, countries must update regulations and agree on a common standard of communication between autonomous airplanes and air traffic control, and whether this communication should be centralized or decentralized. 

GetLinks:  Let’s talk more about AI. You said this is the next major disruptor.  What region and industry do you think AI will disrupt? 

Richard:  Asking what AI will disrupt is like asking what software would disrupt back in the 80s. In essence, Al is a new, non-deterministic paradigm to program computers. Software engineers used to spell out case-by-case what a computer program should do in each scenario. An AI neural network program no longer needs that detail, instead it needs data and feedback so it can educate itself on what to do in each scenario. Every industry will be disrupted by this technology. Just like today, you cannot find a single industry that does not use some form of software, in 10-20 years you won’t find an industry that doesn’t use AI. 

In terms of regions, I think countries need to think deeply about how to encourage and regulate AI. For countries with low populations, Al has the potential to significantly increase output per capita. For countries with excess labor and low productivity rates, AI can increase productivity, and if supported by the right policies, can lead to overall improvement in the quality of life. Although AI can significantly increase the productivity of humans, it is up to governments to develop the correct policies to ensure such productivity improves the overall livelihoods of mankind.  

We do need to be cautious with AI. If you look at the math behind neural networks and machine learning, it is all linear and polynomial. There isn’t anything that is exponential. Neural networks are modeled on how we believe the parallel processes in the human brain’s right hemisphere work. Traditional deterministic computing can be compared to how the brain’s left hemisphere works. So, Al can be thought of as a combination of what the human brain’s right and left hemispheres can do, just on a much faster scale with a much larger memory. 

Research from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and influential academic Nicholas Taleb shows the human brain is terrible at reasoning on a non-linear scale. It seems an unlikely coincidence that the math behind neural networks and machine learning is also linear. It would be wise to surmise that AI is also terrible at predicting black swan events but has overconfidence from its exorbitant computing power. It’s why the scenario that was portrayed in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” is plausible. AI is likely to incorrectly assess situations, behaviors, or even people that are outliers to the norm and will do so with overwhelming confidence. We absolutely need international regulation in AI ethics and practices with the power of enforcement.

GetLinks:  Wow, it seems like you have thought a lot about AI, which seems very disruptive.  What about the blockchain, fintech, and AR/VR emerging technologies you mentioned earlier?

Richard:  Before I get into this, I like to say I’m very excited that GetLinks has launched their own token. It will certainly make digital talent-related transactions more efficient and enhance the tech talent ecosystem in Asia. Yes, I see a lot of evolutionary potential in all three of these technologies and valuable specific applications in certain regions.  Blockchains are essentially decentralized ledgers that are immutable, secure, and have consensus. Blockchain’s most well-known implementation is in a decentralized currency, but it has applications well beyond this in multiple industries and is conceivably more useful in developing countries where the physical and legal infrastructure are not fully developed. Countries that do not have strong mechanisms to enforce contractual or copyright law can use blockchain to automate copyright ownerships and contractual enforcements on all digital goods. For example, using smart contracts running on a decentralized blockchain, payment in exchange for titled assets (e.g., homes or properties) can be enforced automatically without needing escrow agencies and local recorder offices. Proof of ownership on digital goods can be automatically verified to aid copyright enforcement. Nevertheless, mechanisms are still needed to ensure physical non-digital goods align with their digital counterpart.   The role of fintech in this domain is to create products by mixing decentralized technology, such as blockchain, with the more traditional centralized financial techniques.  As you know, many startups have entered this fintech space.

Furthermore, considering that GetLinks is the leader in Asia’s tech talent ecosystem, your launch of the token will add a lot of value to this ecosystem.   Asia needs more tech companies like GetLinks to lead the advancement of Web3 and help define the forthcoming global standards.

GetLinks:  Thank you for the compliment. We try our best to keep growing the value of our digital talent ecosystem and embrace new technologies. Can you speak to the AR/VR you mentioned earlier?

Sure.  AR/VR at its core is just a UI that allows for a new way to interact with the web or software. Yet because of its “reality” aspect, it offers an innovative way to democratize learning and training and offers applications beyond the current predominant use in gaming and “metaverses”. Traditionally, infrastructures, such as schools, teachers, laboratories, etc., are needed to teach and train the next generation of professionals. With AR/VR, anyone with a unit and a connection to the internet can access education that allows them to become the next generation of professionals. This has immediate applications in skilled industries that are short on labor, such as nursing, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, technicians, etc. Technical training programs can be set up and distributed widely across multiple countries and continents through AR/VR. I believe countries in Asia with excess labor can significantly benefit from deployment of AR/VR to advance the much-needed skilled labor force. 

GetLinks:  That’s amazing. You mentioned earlier there are many startups in fintech leveraging blockchain technology.   Have you ever thought of starting a company yourself?

Richard:  Yes, in fact, I have already done so. The company has a proprietary business model and will leverage much of the technology I spoke about by developing proprietary software. Since we are still in stealth mode, I cannot share any additional details.

GetLinks:   No problem. Thank you for sharing these insights with our tech community. We look forward to welcoming you back again, especially once your startup is announced.

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