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CMU hosts weekend summit on US and China innovation

This past weekend Carnegie Mellon hosted the fifth annual CMU Summit on US-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Since 2012 the Summit has“attracted over 3,000 participants and 100 industry leaders” to campus to discuss the latest advances and challenges for people working in technical fields. The Summit is a massive event that works to bring students and industry leaders from all across the U.S. and China together for a schedule packed with speeches, discussions, and networking events.

This year’s Summit was broken down into five major topics, each featuring a keynote speech in the morning followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session. The five pillars of the event were finance, high technology, energy and sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, and start-ups. Energy and sustainability, finance, and innovation and entrepreneurship are regular topics for the conference, having been discussed in previous years. Meanwhile, the focus on high technology, specifically the power of artificial intelligence (AI), and start-ups were new, reflecting new trends in the ever-changing field of technology.

The weekend was opened and closed by five distinguished keynote speakers. Carnegie Mellon professors Terrence J. Collins and Tuomas Sandholm joined entrepreneurs Feng Li, Ning Yang, and Bo Tao in shaping the discussions dozens of panelists and hundreds of attendees would have over the weekend.

The first topic, finance, sparked lively discussion about the future of financial technology, or “fintech.” Deregulation was the word of the hour, with panelists weighing in to a packed auditorium on how fintech can facilitate free global trade with minimal regulation. The question-and-answer session followed a similar theme. Panelists fielded questions about the effect of the 2008 Great Recession on the fintech industry and how future regulation might change the landscape. The panelists pointed out that fintech had grown ever more important since 2008 as traditional banks were restricted by regulations but new, technology – based enterprises remained relatively deregulated and free. Tone Vays, panelist and head of research at BraveNewCoin, said that recent threats to regulate the industry, particularly from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, “may be the best thing that’s ever happened to the industry” because fintech is by nature impossible to regulate, and the more people try to accomplish this the clearer that will become to consumers. When asked to look into the future of fintech, panelist and Carnegie Mellon professor Timothy X. Brown summed it up best, saying the future will be a process of “evolution, not revolution.”

High technology was up next, with the program promising “insights on the cutting-edge issues in Artificial Intelligence.” The panel wrestled with the fundamental questions of the AI industry such as what AI is, what problems it should try to solve, and how it will change our lives. Some panelists advocated for AI that melds with the arts, envisioning technology that facilitates creation and eliminates mental drudgery so people have more time to spend on creativity and entertainment. Others saw AI technology in a more scientific context as a tool to personalize healthcare, remove inefficiencies, and produce and analyze theories the human mind cannot grasp.

The final panel on Saturday focused on energy and sustainability. This panel was the most technical, specific, and down to earth of the three, addressing the opportunities and challenges the industry faces from government policy, changes in prices of oil and natural gas, and consumer interests. One panelist summed up the mood of the discussion, saying, “we’re moving the needle, but not fast enough.” The governments in both the U.S. and particularly China are pushing for clean energy by providing incentives to the private sector to invest, but these steps are tempered by economic concerns. Consumers are beginning to invest in sustainable products, but many remain apathetic about the issue. Finally, technological developments like smart meters, meters that provide information on how much energy a particular household or area is using, have helped create an energy supply system more conducive to clean power, but there is still a lot more progress needed on issues like energy storage.

The Sunday panels provided platforms for industry leaders to discuss and give advise on how to navigate technological fields. The start-up panel brought entrepreneurs from a variety of start-ups together to give advice on getting ideas off the ground and turning a concept into a company. According to the program, the innovation and entrepreneurship panel is “dedicated to creating a platform for prestigious investors and entrepreneurs from both China and the U.S. to network, share experiences, and exchange ideas” and to “promote a bilateral dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.” This year the panel spotlighted the robotics industry.

The Summit also invited attendees to take an active role. There were networking sessions after every panel discussion, and the New Venture Competition asked teams of student entrepreneurs to create start-up solutions to real world problems. The competition was judged based on real world feasibility and likelihood of economic success and offered a $15,000 cash prize to the winning team.

The entire event offered invaluable opportunities to technology-focused students in terms of information, experience, and connections.