How two AI su­per­pow­ers – the US and China – bat­tle for supremacy in the field

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY was once able to write off Chi­nese tech com­pa­nies as mere copy­cats. The big Amer­i­can play­ers, from Twit­ter to Face­book to Google, all had a Chi­nese im­per­son­ator. But the rise of hugely suc­cess­ful Chi­nese mes­sag­ing apps like WeChat – not to men­tion all the US tech com­pa­nies that failed in China – now make clear that Chi­nese tech com­pa­nies should not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

In his book “AI Su­per­pow­ers”, Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence ex­pert, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and for­mer pres­i­dent of Google China, ar­gues that China and Sil­i­con Val­ley will lead the world in AI. But his highly read­able book cov­ers a lot of other ground as well, and among the most in­ter­est­ing in­sights are his de­scrip­tions of the dif­fer­ences be­tween Chi­nese and Sil­i­con Val­ley tech cul­ture.

Lee ob­serves that US com­pa­nies tend to be more mis­sion-driven, at least in their rhetoric. “It’s all about ‘pure’ in­no­va­tion, cre­at­ing a to­tally orig­i­nal prod­uct that gen­er­ates what Steve Jobs called a ‘dent in the uni­verse’”, Lee writes. Where Amer­i­can com­pa­nies like the idea of “build­ing one thing and build­ing it well”, in China, it’s all about the mar­ket. The goal is to make money, and com­pa­nies will do what it takes to achieve that goal.

The Chi­nese ap­proach, Lee ar­gues, has its ben­e­fits. It al­lows star­tups to be fast, flex­i­ble and open to con­stant ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Lee was born in Taipei, Tai­wan, and em­i­grated to the United States, where he at­tended mid­dle and high school, grad­u­ated from Columbia Uni­ver­sity in com­puter sci­ence, and earned a PhD in the same field from Carnegie Mel­lon.

Lee spends a good por­tion of his book dis­cussing th­ese Chi­nese and Amer­i­can dif­fer­ences, which will also play out in the arena of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. AI, most sim­ply put, refers to ma­chines do­ing things that hu­man be­ings would nor­mally do. Some­times ma­chines out­per­form hu­mans, which hap­pened in 2017 when a com­puter de­feated a Chi­nese teenager at Go, a board game that once seemed too com­plex for a com­puter to win.

The United States may have been a first mover in AI, Lee says, but that ad­van­tage will not last for­ever. The AI era will re­ward “the quan­tity of solid AI en­gi­neers over the qual­ity of elite re­searchers,” Lee writes. Strength will come from an army of well-trained en­gi­neers and en­trepreneurs, and “China is train­ing just such an army.”

But it’s not just about the num­bers. China’s edge, Lee says, lies in its “abun­dant data, tena­cious en­trepreneurs, well­trained AI sci­en­tists, and a sup­port­ive pol­icy en­vi­ron­ment”.

In Amer­ica, Lee’s choice of words might have a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. Some would read “abun­dant data” as “sur­veil­lance”, and “a sup­port­ive pol­icy en­vi­ron­ment” as “top-down de­ci­sion-mak­ing that isn’t hin­dered by pub­lic opin­ion”.

Take China’s gov­ern­ment-led AI plan, for ex­am­ple. It in­cludes re­search sub­si­dies, ven­ture cap­i­tal, spe­cial de­vel­op­ment zones and in­cu­ba­tors. The plan aims for China to be­come the global leader in AI by 2030. Lee ad­mits that China’s AI cam­paign is likely to be “some­what in­ef­fi­cient”, but Bei­jing won’t nec­es­sar­ily let that get in its way. And un­like in the United States, Chi­nese of­fi­cials are not ham­strung by the messi­ness of the demo­cratic process, where politi­cians risk be­ing pun­ished by vot­ers for in­ef­fec­tive cam­paigns.

Lee grap­ples with the dark side of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ex­plor­ing job losses and the loss of self-worth when peo­ple dis­cover that they have been re­placed by ma­chines. But Lee’s con­cerns about AI are not lim­ited to the dystopian vi­sion of hu­mans mas­tered by smart ro­bots. His chief worry, which makes a lot of sense, is that AI will ex­ac­er­bate global in­equal­ity by putting dis­pro­por­tion­ate power in the hands of two na­tions, the United States and China.

AI by def­i­ni­tion trends to­ward monopoly, Lee ex­plains, namely be­cause of its reliance on data. “Bet­ter prod­ucts lead to more users, those users lead to more data, and that data leads to even bet­ter prod­ucts, and thus more users and more data.” Chi­nese and US com­pa­nies have al­ready started this process, he writes, “leap­ing out to mas­sive leads over the rest of the world”.

This might be great for the United States and China, but it’s ter­ri­ble news for much of the world. “De­prived of the chance to claw their way out of poverty,” Lee writes, “poor coun­tries will stag­nate while the AI su­per­pow­ers take off.”

De­spite th­ese warn­ings, Lee’s book is ul­ti­mately op­ti­mistic, and not for the rea­sons you would think. The lat­ter part takes a deeply per­sonal turn, as Lee de­scribes how a bat­tle with Stage 4 lym­phoma caused him to re-eval­u­ate his en­tire life. Be­fore he en­coun­tered the dis­ease, he made life de­ci­sions on the ba­sis of cold cal­cu­la­tions, so much so that he se­ri­ously con­sid­ered miss­ing the birth of his daugh­ter to at­tend an im­por­tant busi­ness meet­ing. Con­fronting his mor­tal­ity made him re­alise the lim­its of ma­chine-like think­ing, and the im­por­tance of fam­ily and love. The les­son for Lee is that ro­bots can­not re­place ba­sic hu­man com­pas­sion.

Th­ese per­sonal in­sights aside, Lee’s book is fun­da­men­tally about the in­ter­play be­tween the United States and China in the world of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and tech­nol­ogy more gen­er­ally. Not ev­ery­one will agree with Lee’s rosy as­sess­ment of China’s tech cul­ture, which turns many of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s stated be­liefs up­side down. China’s ap­proach has draw­backs, and it’s way too early to say that the Chi­nese model has “won”. But Lee is right to point out that Chi­nese tech com­pa­nies must be taken se­ri­ously. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

AI Su­per­pow­ers: China, Sil­i­con Val­ley, and the New World Or­der By Kai-Fu Lee Pub­lished by Houghton Mif­flin Har­court Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt471 Re­viewed by Emily Parker

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