Kai-fu Lee’s AI Superpowers, Chapter 1

AI Superpowers: China, Silicone Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-fu Lee is so interesting that I want to share it chapter by chapter. Lee explains artificial intelligence very clearly and makes his argument forcefully. He’s a passionate Chinese nationalist but I don’t blame him. Everybody is a passionate nationalist except for a few boring progressives in the West. Lee exaggerates China’s positives but it’s quite refreshing against the background of the self-deprecating Westerners I meet in a academia.

China awakened to artificial intelligence ten years after the West, says Kai-fu Lee. In 2016, when the Chinese finally noticed that AI was a big deal, the gigantic intellectual breakthrough that made AI possible had already been accomplished by Americans.

Still, says Lee, China will be the biggest beneficiary of the AI revolution. It doesn’t have the brilliant researchers and intellectuals like the US does. But this doesn’t matter because the invention stage is behind us. Currently, we are in the implementation stage where the spectacular breakthroughs accomplished by the Americans aren’t being taken deeper but, rather, wider.

China, says Lee, has no genius inventors but it has what matters more in this stage of AI’s development. Here are the factors that will give it unbeatable advantage:

1. It’s not constrained by copyright restrictions and the Western belief that copying somebody else’s product is dishonorable

2. It has access to tons of data because of a larger and more compliant population, and having more data matters more at this stage than having brilliant minds

3. A government that has no qualms in pushing the world of business and research in a direction it finds useful

4. Hungrier entrepreneurs that move faster and work harder than self-congratulating and smug (sluggish, Lee calls them) Silicone Valley people.

At first, says Lee, China simply copied the US. There was “Chinese Facebook, Chinese Twitter, etc.” But that’s no longer the case. Quantity has turned into quality, and China has used its massive access to data to create much more competent AI systems. Now China is ready to make its TicToc and Co conquer the world.

Whoever gets to impose their tech gets to impose their values, says Lee. China has seethed under the cultural dominance of the US that has been the result of its tech dominance. Now it’s time for China to dominate. Of course, China isn’t really planning to impose its values, says Lee with the degree of sincerity I’ll let everybody here determine for themselves.

Forget tech, though, and forget values, says Lee. In the next 15-25 years, 40-50% of jobs in the US will be wiped out by AI. This is the real big deal in this story.

P.S. Usually, I write “book notes,” not reviews, which means that I share ideas of my own that my readings provoke. However, I don’t know enough about AI or China to have ideas. This is why I keep repeating “says Lee.” I don’t usually retell because it bores me but here I’m doing nothing but retelling.

7 thoughts on “Kai-fu Lee’s AI Superpowers, Chapter 1

  1. A few thoughts in reaction, in no particular order – I’m not sure if I’d equate western capacities in this field with Silicon valley exclusively – there’s an immense lot of stuff that’s being put out as a byproduct of hobbyists applying their time rather than as a product exactly. Not at all sure how much this matters in a world where you absolutely are mainly throwing computer time at data until it knocks out a solution, but it’s worth mentioning anyway just because the framing of the issue as “20% of the world vs a place in San Fransisco” is misleading in its own way.

    I wonder what the weaknesses in the China model are, and to what extent this is them being able to make trains run on time. I also don’t know the specifics, but I’m rather certain a model that’s based off copying other people’s work and extracting data from a compliant population is going to have all kinds of exploitable vulnerabilities. There’s a lot of mistakes China can swallow just because of its general productive capacity and vast population, but the more you rely on tech, the more of a risk you run of everything going everywhere wrong all at once.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are definitely right. He proceeds from a certain set of assumptions that are not necessarily true. He thinks, for some reason, that the US or whomever won’t create another qualitative leap. But why? It always looks like nothing new is possible right until the moment it becomes possible. His future scenario will come true if absolutely everything else remains exactly the same but why should it?


  2. Do you have any advice for people writing book reviews? I’ve noticed your book reviews, whether book notes or more typical reviews, are better than average.


    1. Thank you! A good place to start is to ask yourself, “why am I writing this? What do I want to communicate to people with this?” There should always be at least one thing that is completely your own that you are trying to communicate to the world. And that should be the kernel that everything else grows out of.


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