November 6, 2019

AI Superpowers

“The AI superpowers of the United States and China may be the countries with the expertise to build these technologies, but the paths to true human flourishing in the AI age will emerge from people in all walks of life and from all corners of the world." - Kai-Fu Lee

AI Superpowers

Kai-Fu Lee in his recent publication, AI Superpowers, discussed the future of AI and dived into why China is set to become the global leader in AI, and most likely surpass the United States. In fact, he believes that when you measure the AI developments by looking at the value created, how much market capitalisation, how many users and how much revenue, China is probably already ahead.

It is well known that the recent breakthroughs in AI are significantly changing our lives. More remarkably, how the U.S. and China AI developments unfold in the next few years will dramatically impact every corner of the world and every single industry. Including white-collar jobs. While no one really knows what lies ahead, Kai-Fu Lee is in a very good position to predict at least the basics of the future before us. Having been at the epicenter of the AI revolution for thirty years, he brings the practical view of establishing Google in China, seeing its departure from the country and helping in the rise of China’s tech scene.

“Today, successful algorithms need three things: big data, computing power and the work of strong - but not necessarily elite - AI algorithm engineers.”

Out of these three elements, one is of determining impact: data.

"If data is the new oil, then China is the new Saudi Arabia."

Due to the latest 10 years of intense development in China's tech scene, this amount of data has now been made abundant.  This is not just due to it's large population, but also to China's march to be the world's first cashless society, meaning that the amount of data generated just by payments has surpassed anywhere in the world.

When comparing the Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs against the young founders of Chinese startups, Kai-Fu Lee observes:

“I can tell you that Silicon Valley looks downright sluggish compared to its competitor across the Pacific”

The competitive environment in which Chinese entrepreneurs live has forced them to consistently innovate their products and business models at a high speed. It’s a powerful combination. They are not only moving at an incomparable speed, but they also have access to an overabundance of data. To add to this, the Chinese government’s pledge for becoming an AI superpower means it has taken a full hands-on approach to entrepreneurship in the nation. A very different approach to what is seen by the U.S. government.

It was exactly at this speed that China developed such an abundant amount of data. The faster it’s entrepreneuers moved, the faster better products were being released in the market, which attracted more users and generated more and more data. It was a loop that was hard to beat.

So how did it all start? We could point to AlphaGo’s victory against the then considered best player in the word, Ke Jie in the game of Go. In China, this episode was seen as the triumph of the western technology companies over others. Something that China was not willing to easily accept. The day poisoned China’s first efforts towards AI breakthrough, and shortly after that, China’s State Council released a document entitled the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. The document outlines China’s goals for artificial intelligence by 2030:

“...by 2030, China’s AI theories, technologies, and applications should achieve world leading levels, making China the world’s primary AI innovation center, achieving visible results in intelligent economy and intelligent society application, and laying an important foundation for becoming a leading innovation-style nation and an economic power.”

If you are curious about how the above plans are developing, CNA has recently released a four-part documentary series, called Becoming Human, where comedic actor Chua Enlai embarks on a journey to explore who will have real power over artificial intelligence. As part of one of the episodes, Chua Enlai examines the pursuit of A.I. in America, China, Sweden and Singapore.

The episode captures how China is rapidly moving forward to become the global leader in AI.

So where does that leave the rest of the world? In the words of Kai-Fu Lee:

“The AI world order will combine winner-take-all economics with an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few companies in China and the United States. This, I believe is the real underlying threat posed by artificial intelligence: tremendous social disorder and political collapse stemming from widespread unemployment and gaping inequality.”

But it’s not all a lost battle. It’s still possible to work towards a world where humans can thrive alongside with AI. In the last chapters of his book, Kai-Fu Lee suggests that as a first step, technical fixes would be required, such as retraining employees, adapting work hours and reinventing an income system. But crucially, this world would demand the collaboration of the private sector and government to create investment and development for human-centric jobs. And this is just the beginning.

More beautifully, Kai-Fu Lee ends his predictions:

“The AI superpowers of the United States and China may be the countries with the expertise to build these technologies, but the paths to true human flourishing in the AI age will emerge from people in all walks of life and from all corners of the world”.