Book Review: AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

Oct 14, 2018 | Book Review

 

Predictions about AI and job loss are, like nutrition advice, all over the map. Some pundits are quite pessimistic. Others, noting the net-positive job effects of prior technologies, are entirely optimistic. And, of course, there are the Goldilocks folks occupying the middle ground. Given all that, I had sort of dismissed the whole thing as something not worth worrying about.

No longer. Kai-Fu Lee is, quite possibly, the single person on the planet most qualified to assess the current state of artificial intelligence and where it’s going. Lee got his AI start as a Ph.D student at Carnegie Mellon, followed by executive positions at Microsoft, SGI, and Apple, eventually becoming

Kai-Fu Lee’s brand new book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, tells us we need not worry about the singularity, the point when machines gain artificial general intelligence (AGI) and, not long after, decide to stop taking orders from inferior humans. In fact, he thinks AGI is unlikely:the founding president of Google China. Then in 2009 he launched Sinovation, a VC firm focused primarily on China’s AI entrepreneurs. He was selected as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2013.

“There remain no known algorithms for AGI or a clear engineering route to get there . . . We are still many decades, if not centuries, away from the real thing. There is also a real possibility that AGI is something [machines] will never achieve.”

Kai-Fu Lee’s brand new book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, tells us we need not worry about the singularity, the point when machines gain artificial general intelligence (AGI) and, not long after, decide to stop taking orders from inferior humans. In fact, he thinks AGI is unlikely:

“There remain no known algorithms for AGI or a clear engineering route to get there . . . We are still many decades, if not centuries, away from the real thing. There is also a real possibility that AGI is something [machines] will never achieve.”

Despite that, Lee is certain that AI threatens to usher in cataclysmic upheaval of an entirely different sort — job loss on a scale unprecedented in human history. He estimates that within ten to twenty years AI will be capable of automating close to half of all jobs in the United States. Though he doesn’t expect actual job losses to be that high, he does expect a larger and larger pool of unemployed workers to compete for an ever smaller pool of jobs, ratcheting down their bargaining power in the process. In case that doesn’t sound sufficiently grim, he notes that a recent Bain study calculated that if we include both job displacement and wage suppression, “a full 80 percent of all workers will be affected (emphasis added).”

Compounding the problem, Lee notes that the AI revolution will be on the scale of the Industrial Revolution, but probably larger and definitely faster. “Whereas the Industrial Revolution took place across several generations, the AI revolution will have a major impact within one generation.”

And because AI success largely accrues to those with the most data, its natural effect is toward monopoly and winner-take-all economics. The net effect will be a bifurcated job market which squeezes out the middle class. “The ‘great decoupling’ of productivity and wages has already created a tear between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Left to its own devices, artificial intelligence, I worry, will take this tear and rip it wide open.”

Fortunately, Lee doesn’t leave (most of) us there on the ledge, contemplating our imminent, machine-driven demise. Instead, he proposes radical, but eminently hopeful, solutions for how humans can not only survive, but thrive, in the coming age of AI. But that’s in the third, and final, portion of the book. Preceding that are two very different, but equally fascinating, sections.

In the first half of the book, Lee charts out the recent history and immediate prospects for AI, concentrating on the growing rivalry between China and the U.S. As a clear-eyed insider to both Silicon Valley and the Chinese entrepreneurial scene, he cogently makes the case that China’s application of AI is already fully equal to that of the U.S. Furthermore, he argues that China possesses several advantages — especially more and better (deeper) data, more-supportive government policies, and competitively-honed entrepreneurs — that may give it a decisive edge over the next decade or two. He also makes clear that no other countries are even capable of mounting a challenge to the AI hegemony of China and the U.S. This first section of his book then concludes with Lee’s dire assessment of the disruption to come as more and more of our jobs get done faster, cheaper, and better by machines.

But then the book goes someplace entirely unexpected. In September, 2013, Lee was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. Like many others who suddenly face their own mortality, Lee took a hard look at his life and did not like what he saw:

“I had spent my research career working to build ever more powerful artificial intelligence algorithms. In doing this, I came to view my own life as a kind of optimization algorithm with a clear goal: maximize personal influence and minimize anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal . . . I didn’t entirely neglect my wife or daughters, but I always sought to spend just enough time with them so they didn’t complain . . . [Now I saw that] my family had given me nothing but warmth and love, and I had responded to that on the basis of cold calculations.”

Slowly, Kai-Fu changed his life. He now focuses on “doing the one thing I’ve found that truly brings meaning to a person’s life: sharing love with those around us.”

Which brings us to the concluding section of Lee’s book in which he proposes radical reforms intended to allow us to thrive alongside our increasingly-capable machines. Not surprisingly, his vision for coexistence flows directly out of his own transformation:

“For all of AI’s astounding capabilities, the one thing that only humans can provide turns out to also be exactly what is most needed in our lives: love . . . This is the synthesis on which I believe we must build our shared future: on AI’s ability to think but coupled with human beings’ ability to love.”

Specifically, Lee proposes that we (both entrepreneurs and governments) focus on creating a large number of service jobs for displaced workers. His key idea is a social investment stipend to pay those who do care work, community service, and/or education. These, he says, “would form the pillars of a new social contract, one that valued and rewarded socially beneficial activities in the same way we currently reward economically productive activities.”

Lee concludes with this arresting thought: “If we believe that life has meaning beyond this material rat race, then AI just might be the tool that can help us uncover that deeper meaning . . . Let us choose to let machines be machines, and let humans be humans. Let us choose to simply use our machines, and more importantly, to love one another.”

Which is Lee’s AI-updated variation on the time-tested maxim: Use money and love people, not the other way around. And pretty much what Jesus was driving at when he told us we were meant to love God, not money. Evidently circumstances change, but not human nature.

Tim Weinhold

Tim Weinhold

has been a long time business leader in commercial real estate and more recently a speaker and author in numerous venues on integration of faith, work and better models for responsible business. Tim is a Red Sox fan from Boston where he graduated from Harvard.

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