AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and New World Order by Kai- fu Lee
At a time when Artificial Intelligence (AI) will enter the club of General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) after the steam engine and the electric bulb, the book Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and New World Order comes at an opportune moment. It is a book that will appeal to different kinds of audiences and is richly informative. AI has become the new buzzword for the masses and classes alike and Kai-fu Lee ably explains to his readers the origins and the evolution of AI on the global stage. AI is no longer an inexplicable phenomenon that is a permanent part of the fantasy world but is now a living reality today. Through the course of this book, he discusses and deliberates on key subjects that will draw the attention of governments in the coming years as AI becomes a part and parcel of the human existence such as the genesis of AI, the nuanced role played by human beings in this age of machines, the after effects of digitization on the larger world economy, the impact of AI on human employment and the link between education and AI among others.
Every chapter is replete with information for the average reader. The book grows on the reader as Kai-fu Lee attempts to join the dots with ingenuity and introduce the world to the marvel named AI. As a reader, I found two areas particularly interesting for the purposes of research in the future, firstly: the exponential growth of AI in China and the fact that China (Zhongghuo) is set to become an AI superpower in the coming years due to the availability of abundant data, tenacious entrepreneurs, a well trained AI support system and supportive policy environment. (p. 82) China with its bull-dog tenacity and its ubiquitous copy culture has slowly closed the technological gap with the United States.
Similarly, the intellectual debate between the utopians, dystopians and techno optimists is a heated one and the fact that Kai-fu Lee ably refers to it despite being a self-confessed technologist and early stage investor (p.162) is commendable. I have come to understand that there is a beautiful mélange of business and intellect in the digital world. It is beneficial to know that the research output generated in the ivory towers has takers in the real world of business and technology because that is the true and righteous victory for an industrious researcher.
Similarly, the references to the four waves of AI which include internet AI, business AI, perception AI and autonomous AI give us a more comprehensive understanding of the all pervasive nature of AI. Lee uses captivating examples to explain the penetration of AI into our lives. A funny yet intelligent example is that of the shopping cart in grocery stores like Yonghui in China that Lee refers to and the interesting conversation that the shopping cart has with him. Clearly the Chinese have learnt to barter a part of their personal space to welcome AI into their lives. But, this level of fervent penetration of technology also raises serious questions about the existential threat AI poses to the human race- an oft repeated question that Kai-fu Lee also asks in the book?
Are we all ready to embrace AI and allow technology to dictate terms and decide our future course of action? While we enjoy the company of Siri and Alexa, are we ready to allow technology to play an exceeding important role in our lives. This bring us to the socio –economic ramifications of AI. Kai-fu Lee suggests that the advent of AI will increase the gap between the haves and have nots. This is a worrying scenario because the increasing gap at the micro level will have a corresponding impact on the macro level leading to rising inequality levels. The gulf between the developed and developing world will expand and a nation’s human resource seen till date as an asset will become a liability. Though Kai-fu Lee argues that AI has the potential to alleviate poverty, it is still far away from reaching that target. Though states like India have successfully endorsed this view through campaign slogans like #AIForAll, the reality continues to be reasonably different.
The advent of AI has its share of merits and demerits and Kai fu Lee objectively discusses this in detail. He proposes several ideas throughout the contours of the book that intellectually stimulated me. However, the central idea that stood out for me personally was the creation of what Mr. Lee called the “social investment stipend”. (p.220) This stipend would help in ‘promoting a kind, compassionate, and creative society and people who invest their time in care work, community service and education will get an incentive to continue with this task. This is necessary considering AI or machines can never replace human beings and the emotions attached to them. In the process, ordinary people will be adequately rewarded for their contribution to our lives. Kai-fu Lee brings in his experience and proposes that a balance between machines and the human experience is essential for maintaining a positive equilibrium in society. He has discussed his own battle with cancer while corroborating this point. For example his reference to what he has termed as “the centrality of love in the human experience” is a case in point. (p.225)
While the book attempts to deal with all possible probabilities, it is potentially restrictive as well. It is a book that may be termed “sinocentric” because it presents a Chinese perspective to AI. While this is understandable to some extent considering Lee is Chinese, he cannot disregard the fact that AI has the potential to be global common good in the near future, like the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) this book could have potentially discussed the impact of AI on the new world order since the title of the book suggests the same. At the same time, this book tacitly defends the “copycat culture” prevalent in China. Kai-fu Lee’s condemnation of the copycat culture is limited. In fact, he has indirectly encouraged it because he feels this copycat culture has led to the rise of “tenacious entrepreneurs”. While one does not deny this fact, the ways and means adopted by the Chinese entrepreneurs to acquire knowledge on AI is not in keeping with internationally accepted norms and not in accordance with the basic tenets of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Lee feels that China will overtake the United States soon in the field AI and these “tenacious entrepreneurs” will have an upper hand over their US counterparts. While this is possible and also partly true, it can be suggested through a fine reading of the book that China is trying to use AI to re-invent the world order. The ongoing trade war between the United States and China needs to be viewed within this context.
However, despite these prevalent flaws, the book needs to be seen in its entirety and without doubt, one can say that the book is a rare find for those interested in acquiring information on AI. While AI’s tentacles tactfully spread across the globe, it is necessary to view AI as an opportunity and not as an obstacle. For an emerging economy like India, AI can be a major game-changer and educating the masses about AI is crucial. While it cannot be denied that AI is akin to a double-edged sword for any developing economy, it is emerging as a major subfield of computer science and one that has the potential to drastically alter our understanding of life on planet earth. The quintessential north-south divide may widen further if emerging economies do not acquire adequate expertise in the field of AI. Therefore, it is time that Indians adopted a more belligerent attitude and tried to increase its talent pool in AI. Considering India has the scientific prowess and expertise in the field of software technology, knowledge generation in the field of AI will give Indians a latent advantage in the forseeable future and aid in India’s economic development. AI is the future and embracing this new technological fad is a practical option for everyone. However, coming back to the question of humans and machines, as Lee says with poignance, “Let us choose to simply let machines be machines, and let humans be humans. Let us choose to simply use our machines, and more importantly love one another.” (p. 232) This should be the thrust of our AI plan. For now, we can begin this process by reading Kai-fu Lee’s book!
This piece is written by Anuttama Banerji. Anuttama is Associate Researcher at Govern.