Review: Kai-Fu Lee’s ‘AI Superpowers’ unpacks artificial intelligence

While AI is a flashy topic in the news right now, in general, it is not well understood — China’s position in the whole ordeal being even less so. (Kenzie Farrington / The Daily Emerald)

When a band of prominent business people are endorsing a book that dissects artificial intelligence, there is no doubt that it is a must-read. The director of AI research at Facebook, the CEOs of Microsoft, Salesforce and O’Reilly media, and the former CEO of Apple have all publicly affirmed Kai-Fu Lee’s most recent publish.

Lee, the former president of Google China, lives up to the hype with his book, “AI Superpowers.” Beginning with an insightful and nuanced look at how AI will impact the world around us and ending with a serious examination of what it means to be human.

“It’s one of those books you read and think, why are people reading any other book right now when this is so clearly the one they need to be reading?” said Arianna Huffington, HuffPost founder.

While AI is a flashy topic in the news right now, in general, it is not well understood — China’s position in the whole ordeal being even less so.

According to Lee, it is a well known belief within the tech industry that American innovation sets the standard for the rest of the world. China will often take new technologies created by American companies, copy them, and sell them as Chinese products — usually under a very similar name and near identical design. Because of this strategy, American tech companies often see Chinese companies as cheap knock-offs and view their practices as dishonorable and untasteful. Lee argues that America’s attitude toward the situation contributes to the reason they can’t stay in Chinese markets for very long. He asserts that this is one reason among many that China will dominate the the developing AI market and emerge as the new technological world leader.

Lee acknowledges that Chinese companies unabashedly copy American ideas, but he also states that China’s culture, in which copying is not viewed as socially distasteful, breeds an extremely cut-throat startup market. In this situation, the brilliance or originality of the product matters less than how hardworking and dedicated the entrepreneurs striving to further their company are.

“Wang Xing didn’t succeed because he’d been a copycat. He triumphed because he’d become a gladiator,” Lee said of the CEO of the highly successful startup Meituan-Dianping.

Lee calls American companies lazy and argues that they can’t keep up with the cutthroat nature of Chinese business culture. He believes their laziness is the reason they can’t seem to make an impact on Chinese markets. According to Lee, America needs to be worried about China taking over the AI industry.

Though the repercussions of China’s domination are much more complex than a simple matter of brands fighting over markets, Lee believes that AI’s impact on the world will be equivalent — or greater — to the impact of the industrial revolution. Unfortunately, Lee and many other experts in the field believe that the future is looking grim. Lee predicts that 40 to 50 percent of jobs will be automated by AI within the next few decades.

Because so many people are displaced and unemployed, Lee questions how much vocation contributes to an individual’s identity. Is one’s occupation not what gives them a sense of purpose and accomplishment in life? How will 40 to 50 percent of the workforce deal with layoffs — not only economically, but more importantly, psychologically.

Lee’s expertise on the subject of AI, paired with his disturbingly bleak look at the future, makes this book difficult to put down — the ending makes it impossible.

In a time when an industrial revolution-type shift in culture makes robots and algorithms that are better at doing jobs than humans, one might begin to wonder what people will do when robots can do everything? What, then, does it mean to be human?

As if straight out of a movie, Lee believes to have found this answer at a monastery after being diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, and the answer feels almost too easy — love. Lee, a man who has lived his life by inputs, outputs and calculations, finally understands the difference between mankind and machines, and believes this difference is the key to our humanity. Machines will never be capable of compassion, empathy, kindness or love.

“AI Superpowers” surpasses the hype that surrounds it. It predicts the future and explains ethically and technologically complex ideas, all while pulling one’s heart strings.

So, in the words of Huffington, “Why are people reading any other book right now, when this is so clearly the one they need to be reading?”


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