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

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
Author: Dr. Kai-Fu Lee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

During my years as Chief Security Officer at Dell, Michael Dell was always good about sharing with us whatever he discovered in the way of a good read. I recently reciprocated with a recommendation that he pick up, if he hadn’t already happened upon it, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee’s, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. It’s a fascinating read. 

I particularly liked Lee’s insight that “AI will be to the 21st Century what electricity was to the last—and data, the fuel that drives the engine.” Just as 19th-century entrepreneurs soon began applying the electricity breakthrough to cooking food, lighting rooms, and powering industrial equipment, today’s AI entrepreneurs are doing the same with the deep learning of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). Lee’s insights are both incisive and inspiring—a clarion call of caution mixed with an articulate voice of hope and courage. 

As AI is poised to bring about what many consider will be the most disruptive social changes humanity has ever seen, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee invites a detailed discussion of the current state and evolution of AI technology and the global marketplace; who is best poised to benefit from it; and who is most likely to lose as AI assumes its new role. In AI Superpowers, Dr. Lee, the former president of Google China, argues powerfully and even-handedly (particularly given the way he’s straddled U.S. and China business practices over the years) that because of unprecedented developments in AI, dramatic changes will be happening much sooner than many of us expected. 

As U.S.-Sino AI competition continues to heat up, Lee urges both countries to accept and embrace the great responsibilities that come with such significant technological power. Most experts already acknowledge that AI will have a devastating impact on blue-collar jobs. But Lee predicts that the threat to jobs is coming far faster than most experts anticipated, and it will not discriminate by the color of one’s collar but will instead strike the highly trained and poorly educated alike. Transitions to new jobs, such as blacksmiths to auto mechanics, might not be in the offing this time, and we need to consider how best to ensure economic stability for the largest number of people in the face of such bleak predictions.

Lee grapples with these types of questions—including controversial proposals like universal basic income—but he doesn’t arrive at a clear prescription. He provides a description of which jobs will be affected and how soon, which jobs can be enhanced with AI, and most importantly, how we can begin to address these profound changes. The rest is up to us.

At the end of the day, Lee's book is a call for compassion to see AI as a tool that benefits humanity as a whole rather than as the agent of a dystopian future rife with economic inequality and global unrest. No matter who you are or what previous exposure you may have had to the technology, Lee will help you better understand an AI-altered future. Unlike Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Lee presents real-world examples of artificial narrow intelligence and doesn’t shroud his work with the fear, uncertainty, and doubt promulgated today around what artificial general intelligence (AGI) might ultimately portend. Heaven knows there’s enough tied to ANI to go around without tapping into that which we can imagine might be eventually tied to AGI.

According to Lee, part of why accepting this picture as our unavoidable destiny is so difficult is because it’s not just a story about machines. It’s also a story about human beings, people with free will that allows them to make their own choices and to shape their own destinies. In the end, Lee rightly opines that, “our AI future will be created by us, and it will reflect the choices we make and the actions we take.” In that process, he encourages us to look deep within ourselves and to each other for the values and wisdom that can guide us—to rediscover what it is that makes us human.  


This book review was previously published in Issue 2 of PHI Magazine, BlackBerry Cylance’s corporate biannual publication. For a free digital download of PHI, click HERE