May 31, 2023
The NexTech Week Blockchain, AI and Quantum Computing Expo at Tokyo Big Sight leaves much to be desired.
I share this reflection with caution. Expos take an enormous amount of effort to put together, and all organizers deserve due credit for their work. And, no less am I grateful to have had the opportunity to experience up close what was, for me, a business convention in a new field, language and country. From my perspective as an American woman, I am struck by the procession of it all, that is, how everything and everyone seemed to go through a series of motions, like they’d this many times before, probably they had. The event was one collective shrug: shoganai, as it is said in Japanese, “this is just how it is”.
That resignation to status quo is precisely what baffles me: everyone just goes through the motions. Twice a year, NexTech Week Tokyo brings together 30,000 professionals in blockchain, AI and quantum computing—some of the brightest minds, from a technical perspective. Naturally, the convention presents a massive opportunity to discuss the state of technological affairs: How is technology solving real world problems? How does quantum computing enable new discovery in astrophysics, medicine? How is blockchain making financial transactions secure and supply chains reliable? How might Artificial Intelligence help us cure disease? I went looking for these answers at booths around the expo. I didn’t find them.
Instead, I found several applications that turned my enthusiasm to concern. One cryptocurrency exchange claimed to go “beyond crypto” but defined such as offering users “more flexibility in investing in various virtual assets” through greater services such as staking, launchpads, swaps, and sellbacks”—essentially, functions that all fall within the cryptoverse . At another booth hosted by several young men in black polos with iPads, the blockchain company Levius touted the tagline “make your life your asset”, building on the emerging concept of “play to earn” with various activities like “run to earn”, “learn to earn” and (perhaps most concerning), “parent to earn.” Through their model, people could purchase a membership token as entry to “play”. When participants completed an activity, such as ran and recorded five miles, they could redeem points and, due to the volatility of cryptocurrency, potentially cash out at a higher value than they paid to participate.
Like similar experiments, this idea has yet to see the market. That’s probably a good thing—is not the underlying implication of “parent to earn” that parents should be financially incentivized to raise children? On the flip side, I suppose that in the most charitable of readings, one could argue that selling NFTs is an innovative solution to capturing the economic value of under-appreciated activities, especially when those activities are good for society. For example, international development agencies have debated ad nauseum how to address the 61.4 billion hours of unpaid caregiving that occurs around the world each year, particularly when 72% of it is performed by women who receive no earned income for their labor . Could NFTs reward women for this work? In this way, could NFTs advance gender equality? If they could, something about the way these young men in polos waived their scripts all lackadaisical, told me that social change was not their motivation.
Is my disappointment lost on this expo? In other words, is it a waste of energy to be disappointed in an initiative that may never have intended to generate more than pure profit in the first place? According to the organizer, RX Japan, the purpose of the establishment “is to contribute to the development of various industries and the revitalization of the Japanese economy by creating exhibitions where exhibitors and visitors can engage in serious business discussion” . The statement is deliberately vague: RX Japan hosts annually 84 exhibitions on topics ranging from technology to livestock to human resources. With such an engine establishing and dismantling trade shows at a rate of seven per month, coordinating the movements of 2.5 million people each year, it is no wonder that RX Japan markets itself to cater to a diverse spread of people .
Undoubtedly, the economic upside drives their pace: with each exhibit costing between 1,030,000 JPY (7,622 USD) and 2,900,000 JPY (21,460 USD), RX Japan stands to generate 55.8 billion JPY (>400M USD) per year . And this is just in Japan: according to a press release from 2021, RX Global generates more than 551B USD per year . Naturally, faster production—that is, optimization by going through the motions—yields greater profit. In such an environment, thoughtful consideration of global dialogue towards collective wellbeing and equity has no place.
As an entrepreneur, I understand the hustle. RX Japan is only executing the very ethos of business: optimize, scale, earn. But the question remains: if RX Japan, and more generally, for-profit conference organizers around the world, are to be absolved of responsibility to curate events that not only make money (for themselves or for their exhibiting companies), but that also further a global dialogue about how to create a more equitable world with the technology at hand, who does hold this responsibility? Surely the opportunity should not be missed when so many actors convene in the same room.
One possible answer is: no one. Proponents of a laissez-fair economy might argue that consumer choices themselves constitute a global dialogue: where market actors decide to spend reflects what kind of world they wish to live in—if, for example, it incentivizes adults to parent for money, or fuels same-day delivery in a global pandemic; if it encourages more community gardens, or accelerates gentrification, if if if— In a political economy that defines human progress in terms of market outcomes, companies at trade shows, organizing and exhibiting, impact society simply by being there—by going through the motions. By earning profit, these companies, “contribute to economic revitalization”, to borrow the phrase from RX Japan. In this sense, the responsibility to calibrate business activity to its relevant global context falls on no single company. Put another way one might say that the onus to create a better world falls not on no one, but on everyone. We are all consumers of a global economy that can drive wellbeing if we so choose.
Of course, this is dissatisfactory logic. What that explanation yielded in this narrow experience was a gathering of 30,000 potentially creative, intelligent, compassionate individuals with deep technical skills who did not meaningfully address challenges that do face these societies. At its worst, self-indulgent profiteering is grounds for greed, corruption and exploitation. NexTech Week Tokyo demonstrates that the market alone cannot address complex global challenges—but the good news is that with a conscious effort on behalf of all those involved—indeed, all of us as those which make up these companies—we can initiate change.
When it comes to technology expos, I propose a few ways forward that may reconcile goals of profit and social impact:
First, we can acknowledge the limitations of technology. As a consumer, I want the technology innovators to assume responsibility for acknowledging first the limitations of their innovation. This is because they understand the creation best. Without adequate stock of what an invention can and cannot do, technology innovators risk misleading society at large into thinking that their inventions will solve swaths of problems, thereby potentially attracting funding and attention away from other sources, like civil society, research organizations or government programs that strengthen long term resilience.
This has been apparent lately with the hype surrounding ChatGPT: despite excessive debate over the possibilities and ethics of the chatbot, In the words of chatbot creator, Francesco Rulli, ChatGPT is “eloquent, not intelligent”—at least, not in the capacity that humans can be or need to be. If funding for after school homework help we’re to be suddenly done away with because students now have ChatGPT to help them—why pay teachers extra?— the long term consequences would undoubtedly be lower exam scores, higher dropout rates, and a number of other foreseeable consequences that ultimately depend on actual learning, not factual regurgitation. There are qualitative benefits to social debate and interaction that transcend pure technology and which technology alone cannot provide.
Second, technology companies can collaborate in more meaningful ways. At the same time technology companies need to liaise with the public with honest transparency, they also need to talk to each other. So much of the expo was one-way: I was shocked to see—multiple times—presenters go on stage and deliver their spiels without a single person in the audience. They appeared totally un-phased. The representative would simply ramble on, eyes to the screen or sometimes at a distance point of no significance and deliver the sales pitch. Who was she talking to? What was the point of talking at all if no one was listening? Again, it was a matter of going through the motions, without really connecting to people. But a fundamental principle of any convention is there in the title: a convention means to convene people, to bring us together, to put our work in context of one another’s.
I propose then, that future forums include an intentional effort to convene, such as an opening speech, keynote speaker, or panel topic to set the stage. I understand that presentations cry ‘conference’ more than ‘expo’, but then, perhaps I am calling into question the entire format of an expo altogether. It is true that we resemble a large office of cubicles, just enlarged and set in a gymnasium or auditorium. And the cubicle work model is well researched to have little effect, negative effect in fact, on overall company work culture.
Instead, what if three companies of no obvious relation were to exhibit in the same space and tasked with finding a common narrative among them? Groups might work together to identify synergies and present a narrative that appealed to attendees. Tasked with incorporating external, unpredictable information, companies would not only learn from each other, but they would also render the booth-going experience more intriguing for expo attendees. Interdisciplinary narrative building cannot be accomplished by going through the motions: it requires critical thought, teamwork, and an honest confrontation with what each company has to offer.
Finally, companies might extent their new collaboration to construct a more dynamic narrative to the expo attendees—indeed, asking of them not to be merely an attendee but a participant. I recognize that this is not what conventional expose expect of their attendees—but neither is it too much to ask. As a social enterprise keen on accelerating social and environmental impact, it is only natural that we ask this question. We wouldn’t be living up to our own expectations if we did not. What is the social or environmental impact opportunity here? And how are we capitalizing on it, encouraging it?
Perhaps the greatest impact one can have, at least, the deepest impact, is through leading by example. While one can only do so much and so this is not a “scalable solution” perhaps, leading by example will affect those around you, in your context. In our context, we can lead by example, starting with how we reflect on this expo and approach the next one.
Written by Madi Lommen.
Madi Lommen is a writer, athlete, and Partnerships Lead for Socious.
1. Kanga. https://kanga.exchange/we-are-entering-a-new-era-of-cryptocurrency-trading-with-kanga-beyond-crypto
2. ILO (2018). Care Economy (Press Release). https://www.ilo.org/asia/media-centre/news/WCMS_633284/lang--en/index.htm#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20report%2C%20Globally,rises%20to%2080%20per%20cent.
3. RX Japan. « Philosophy » https://www.rxjapan.jp/en/message/
4. This number is calculated by multiplying the exhibitions that RX Japan hosts annually (84) by the number of visitors that the most recent exhibition attracted (30,000). The average number of visitors per exhibition is not given.
5. This number is calculated by multiplying the number of exhibitors per year (30,000) by the mean cost of exhibition (1860,000 JPY). Details on costs per exhibition are here.