The Chairman of Asus has spent the last 20 years revolutionising the computing and smartphone business, and is now looking to build the world’s first home robot companion…
Don’t know the winner of our Lifetime Achievement award? You should. Asus Chairman and Chief Branding Officer Jonney Shih is one of the most entertaining, enthusiastic and downright tireless executives in the tech world, pumping out high-energy presentations at trade shows packed with positivity and panache. But it’s not just his stage presence that’s made Shih a legend; since joining the company in 1994, he and his team have built Asus from a niche motherboard manufacturer into the fourth largest PC vendor in the world, a leader in home internet kit, and even a player in the smartphone market.
Now Asus is looking forward and in a field that could push tech even further. For the T3 Awards, we caught up with Shih to talk robots, AI, future-thinking and building a brilliant brand.
T3: You seem to enjoy yourself when you give press conferences. You’re quite free.
Jonney Shih: Yeah, maybe because of my passion about technology, about new products. Even though I have been the chairman of Asus for almost three decades, I’m still an engineer deep down. Engineers are always straight-talking, right? I’m always excited about the breakthroughs. So I think that’s why.
T3: What do you think most defines Asus as a brand?
JS: Asus is defined by our brand promise, ‘in search of incredible’. You may think it’s a marketing tagline, but to me I think each one of the words reflects who I am and who Asus is. We are passionate about technology and driven by innovation. We are always in search of incredible ideas and experiences, and we aspire to deliver the incredible in everything we do.
T3: What are your key rules for success?
JS: Think through, and execute thoroughly. I’m an engineer, and this philosophy comes from the engineering spirit. You have to know the theory, the computing architecture, you have to master both hardware and software. And I believe you also need to deliver the results. So that’s why I have to execute thoroughly, and I try to apply this philosophy through management to design. A lot of people will talk about the principle to be persistent, to be genuine, to
be authentic. But if you think through, the rest follows from that.
T3: If somebody was thinking of setting up their own tech hardware brand, what advice would you give them?
JS: Even if you’re trying to set up a brand, I think you have to focus on innovation and value in your technology. You need to master software in order to be a good tech hardware brand, so forget about pure hardware. We’ve been striving for design thinking in our company for more than 10 years already. Design thinking forces you to start from the consumer’s desire first, and only then do you consider the business viability, and eventually the technical feasibility. So there are a lot of different parameters, from the emotional to the functional, and you need to trade them off to make the best combination.
T3: What’s your favourite Asus product?
JS: Zenbo, our first home robot. We have a philosophy we call the evolving reality. It’s my ambition to become the company that enables robotic computing for every household. Some may think it’s far-fetched, but I beg to differ. Robots will revolutionise our definition and perception of computing. We all love our computers – imagine just how great it’ll be when it proactively comes to you and asks you your wishes. In the past two years, I’ve tried to drive this project.
T3: Is it a problem that everyone sees robots as a fictional, sci-fi thing?
JS: That’s actually why I have this ambition. Humans have talked about robots for such a long time since, I think, Descartes. And even today, the most intelligent ones, maybe like the Asimo from Honda, are just for demonstration. We have to be very realistic in order to really penetrate every household. So we think the best design thinking is to make it cute, drive the best user experience. It’s practical, and can be a home robot. That’s why I think it’s a significant product. And we’ve tried to price it from $599 – it’s a tough target. We have to cherish every cent we spend.
T3: People talk to phones, speakers, things that don’t move. Is the robot the next evolution of that?
JS: Our goal is to further expand upon the functionalities of today’s machine-learning-based AI. I think Zenbo can be two steps ahead of these kinds of inanimate objects, with a mobile physical body and also a personality. It’s designed to be a sweet little companion, so his facial expressions and choice of words reflect this persona. My 86-year-old mother is very attached to Zenbo, after spending a few weeks with him. She even missed him when she went on vacation.
T3: Many people see AI as the greatest threat potentially facing humanity. Do you have any worries about it?
JS: Actually, no. Today’s AI technology is still built upon machine-learning, narrow AI. Only general AI can potentially become a threat to humans, but we are still a long way from that. According to the Cyc project, it will take around 100 years to establish an AI with common sense. The real AI achievements so far are still worse than a cockroach, and it’s very difficult to achieve even that kind of level. So I’m not that worried, frankly speaking. If someone tries to develop something to hurt a human being, it’s like a bomb. We should take the same approach as we would to prevent that happening, to stop those scientists, those developers.
T3: Do you have any other predictions for how the tech world might look in another 10 years’ time?
JS: In 10 years I think it will be very different. Everything will be online, and that’s very important, a new era. Information will be like today’s electricity, which powers everything. Our learning, our work, our play, our buying. And I think every industry will be very different. The whole-world economy ecosystem will become a kind of consumer-centric connected value network, a genuine digital economy. Before, industry guessed the demand, so you’ve always got that long tail effect, inventory problems. But in 10 years, everything starts from the consumer.
T3: Can the laptop still improve?
JS: Maybe not big leaps forward, because it’s already quite a mature product. But even today, people can’t live without their smartphones. And I think people also cannot live without their laptops. For professional computing you need to have a laptop, you need to have a bigger screen. The evolution for laptops will continue. But that’s evolution, not a big leap forwards. It will still focus on design, mobility and productivity.
T3: Is there any Asus product you feel was underrated?
JS: The PadFone. It was a product that was ahead of its time. Even today the PadFone is a perfect phone. We care a lot about our eyes, or our kids’ eyes, right? Phone screens are too small. I think that’s a perfect solution, a smartphone big enough to cover the tablet function. It came out around 2011, and I think in today’s market it would be more suitable.
“It’s my ambition for Asus to become the company that enables robotic computing for every household. We all love computers so imagine just how great it will be when it comes to you and asks you your wishes”