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

Author: Kai-Fu Lee

Review by: Al Hodge, president of Hodge Consulting Services

Al Hodge is a professional economic developer with more than 40 years of experience.

Artificial intelligence is a fascination of mine, especially now that it’s touching our lives more and more each day. Evidence of its widespread nature is in the fact that we all refer to it by its shortened form: AI.

A friend and mentor recommended AI Superpowers because he knows my interests both in innovation and international issues.

Author Kai-Fu Lee engages readers by outlining AI’s role in websites and apps, outsourcing decisions and even diagnostics. He deftly shows how it can potentially improve or degrade our quality of life, depending on where we fit in society and how we use this new tool.

Predictably, China and the U.S. are the world leaders in the field through investment by governments, universities and the private sector. China is playing catchup through large-scale public funding and widespread adoption in service of its “techno-utilitarian political culture.” The mix of dominant private companies in this space span the two countries, with Lee dubbing Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent as the “Seven Giants” of the AI age.

Treating AI with the lens of national competition raises big governance questions: Where does public policy intersect with economic development? What should be the role of public funding and subsidies? Where does privacy fit in?

But there’s also a conversation happening in parallel with the geopolitical discussion: namely, the societal implications of adopting this technology.

First, the practical: The U.S. has a clear advantage in the most immediate and profitable implementations of AI. Already, optimizations are taking place in industries like banking and insurance, or really any industry with lots of structured data that can be mined for better decision-making. China’s companies are seeing commercial uses cases too, but its government is also deploying AI more widely in public security, especially in facial recognition, blurring the lines between the physical and digital world and raising concerns about government overreach.

Lee classifies four waves of AI, two already around us — Internet and Business AI — and two on the way: Perception and Autonomous.

Starting future first, Lee shows Autonomous AI will bring us self-driving cars, drone delivery, intelligent robots in factories and automated organic farming.

But Internet and business AI are already reshaping digital and financial worlds, automating tasks like legal research and stock trading. 

Jobs currently in the most danger of being obviated are in physical labor, such as fast food workers and cashiers (especially as minimum wages increase). Incidentally, the safest of physical labor jobs are physical therapists and elderly home caregivers. Psychiatrists, PR directors and CEO are all in the safe zone too. This suggests that the 1980s Megatrend opinion rings truer than ever: the more High Tech we get, the more High Touch we will must be to meaningfully enjoy life!

To underscore this, Lee shares a deeply personal introspection on how his battle with cancer made him reset his perspective and priorities.

“Most of all I’ve stopped viewing my life as an algorithm that optimizes for influence. Instead, I try to use my energy doing the one thing I’ve found that truly brings meaning to a person’s life: sharing love with those around us.”

I finished the book with a new appreciation for how education and life-long learning will grow in importance in the AI age. We must prioritize this now, embracing AI with open arms while formulating the necessary restraints that will balance its promise and perils.

Imagine the possibilities!