On the eve of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square tragedy, China is tightening its controls on online services of foreign companies such as LinkedIn, Google, and the Wall Street Journal. At a time when China faces its own serious challenges, including a slowing economy, rising ethnic tensions, and a rapidly degrading environment, China’s leaders are concerned that free access to foreign content could destabilize the country. But the experience of other countries actually suggests the opposite: new information communications technologies can become a catalyst for economic growth and prosperity; and once 21st century disruptive technologies are widely adopted, it is extremely difficult to reverse the process without fomenting discontent. What if we reframe the issue?  Might China and the West be missing a unique historic opportunity to collaborate in finally breaking the sound barrier between spoken English and Chinese? What disasters will be avoided, what human potentials and possibilities released, if we take this bold and creative step together? 

Imagine you are sitting at your desk in Palo Alto, California. Your son, a twenty-two year-old entrepreneur and CEO of a California-Shandong startup, and his team have arranged a SKYPE conference call with their Chinese pals in Shanghai. They are planning to develop the world’s most advanced user-friendly headset. The location hardly matters anymore. The language barrier is dissolving before everyone’s very ears! The SKYPE set up and smart phone contain an intriguing new app. Your son begins the meeting with a brief summary of where the U.S. team is in securing angel funding. Approximately thirty seconds later his briefing is transmitted in fluent Chinese in his own voice; the Chinese team leader ponders the proposal, discusses it with her team, and responds. The conference call proceeds perfectly and bilingual communication between the Chinese and American partners without human intermediaries is seamless. I hope you get the idea. The app will cause a sea change in China’s international relations. It will change the world. 

Some of the brightest people backed by the most innovative companies—Google, Apple, Nuance, Microsoft, IBM-- with virtually unlimited resources have struggled for many years to develop this app or something like it. At last and made possible by their achievements virtually all the core technology and capabilities needed to accomplish the goal in a cost effective manner are largely in place and available. Yet, we still do not have a truly viable product in the market, only precursors, and many more years may still be required to deliver it. Why is that? What is missing is a Crucible of Convergence, a force of innovation integration that will imaginatively assemble all the disparate parts—technology, business, legal framework, culture, and a powerful market application-- in one practical dynamic whole. What is needed, we believe, is a new collaborative model that is “coopetitive,” networked, and regenerative, in other words, one suited to the challenges and dynamics of the 21st century. We believe a different kind of public/private international consortium could deliver a first generation breakthrough app within twelve months. Here’s our game plan.
* Technology- Essentially, we intend to take advantage of the "long tail" of existing core technologies now available, and integrate (or “mash up”) a software/hardware application. The most significant innovation integration challenges will require: a. enhanced speech recognition of the key words, phrases, metaphors, and images in a dynamic field of first application. b. improvements in context processing and accuracy c. enhanced functionality in real world noisy environments through improved designs in microphone technology d. an integration of all of the above and other elements into a coherent system of systems.

* Business and Legal Framework-- As the enterprise will confer huge public and private benefits, it should optimally include both philanthropic (non-profit) and commercial dimensions. We envision that a non-profit research/educational institution or group of institutions would retain rights to the humanitarian applications; the for-profit consortium would hold the commercial rights. A central challenge then will be the ownership of the intellectual property. Why would U.S. and other foreign companies enter into a public/private consortium with Chinese companies, when the former have spent $ billions in developing their intellectual property (IP) and don’t trust Chinese companies? The answer is the IP pie can be vastly expanded for the benefit of all. Today we possess proven tools and processes to meet this IP challenge: a. Mega-patents: all members of a consortium will share a common interest in an uber-patent rather than balkanizing their IP in smaller less significant patents, which will position them as rivals. b. IP escrow which will control the timing of the commercial release of the IP for the benefit of all c. IP insurance which will secure the risks. d. Strategic alliance mediation which will convert serious differences among the players into assets for the consortium. e. Metrics: the consortium would agree upon a common methodology to measure intelligibility and other key factors which would assist in focusing efforts and defining contributions under the mega-patent.

* Market Application—A missing link in developing an effective English/Chinese/English voice recognition platform has been the absence of a focused and powerful application. We believe that the field of trade and innovation is an ideal initial focus. The U.S. is China’s #1 trading partner, and China is # 2 for the U.S. The two countries have every incentive to make their trading relations even more robust. Millions and millions of highly motivated users, rapidly iterating and experimenting with the product(s) will drive innovation and acceptance. Moreover, a viable platform already exists, Tradeport. Incorporating instantaneous voice recognition will transform Tradeport into a unique Single Window for U.S.-China trade facilitation, which can rapidly connect to other national windows. 

* Big Heart (Xin)—A final element in the proposed 21st century collaborative model may be most important. It will be a commitment by all parties to cultivate what from ancient times in China is called “Big Heart” or “Xin.” “Heart” in Chinese is conceived not simply as a physical organ, but rather as a dynamic energy field that is the connective tissue between individuals, corporations, communities, nations, and the greater universe. In the Chinese concept the extraordinary powers of the human mind derive from and are tempered, guided, and enriched by Heart. Big Heart then becomes the basis for wisdom, trust, creativity, kindness, cheer, stability, durability, and resilience—all essential ingredients for the success of our venture.

Other writers are predicting that within a generation a singular merger between computers and human consciousness will help humans overcome virtually all our basic challenges. Although as entrepreneurs we recognize the importance of technology, we do not believe it alone can heal the terrible wounds we are inflicting on each other and our planet. From this perspective breaking the sound barrier of English/Chinese voice recognition presents a monumental opportunity to discover a more imaginative way to get on together that could prove crucial for our survival in the 21st century.
©Copyright Julian Gresser, Howard Lieberman, and William Moulton, June 2014; All rights reserved. Julian Gresser is Co-Chairman of Alliances for Discovery and the author of Piloting Through Chaos--The Explorer’s Mind. Howard Lieberman is the Chairman of the Silicon Valley Innovation Institute. He led the Apple Team that produced Apple's Plain Talk speech recognition microphone, selling over 20 million units between 1993-1997. William Moulton is a Board Member of Alliances for Discovery and a frontier designer of collaborative online systems. The authors express their appreciation to Donald Lewis for his comments.