Blog: AI’s Sputnik Moment
The old enemy is changing guards. Now Washington must watch its back as China comes to dominance in the sphere of artificial intelligence (AI). In Chinese scholar Kai-Fu Lee’s new book, he discusses China’s role in AI’s future and the U.S’s possible decline
I recently finished reading AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese-born venture capitalist in technology and the former president of Google China. In it, Lee — with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University — discusses how China, for centuries playing a game of catch-up with its more technologically advanced competitors the United States and Russia, has finally caught up with them; and, very soon, will lead the race in AI. Taking narrative inspiration from when the United States and the Soviet Union began their ‘Space Race’ in the 1950s, the Soviets’ success of putting Sputnik 1 into orbit gave the United States the ‘kick up the ass’ it needed to beat the Russians to the ultimate prize, the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.
The author has a very unique, as well as an informed viewpoint: his life has straddled two very different, yet similar, worlds: he has worked in high-ranking positions in both the Silicon Valley and in the Chinese business world, working closely with Beijing, bringing him insights that nobody else has.
Chinese revolution in AI is as shocking as it is interesting, transforming lives in all areas of human activity.
‘China’s Sputnik moment’, as Lee calls it in his book, describes the time Ke Jie, China’s greatest player of Go, an ancient game in the country, was defeated by Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo. This proved categorically the scope and magnitude of AI’s potential, and how Lee envisaged China to be the next big player in AI technology globally, and eventually the preeminent force.
It’s only a matter of time.
Yet he believes there is a proviso to all this:
Since the United States and other leading nations have already made most of the big innovations in AI, the author suggests it won’t be in this area where Beijing will develop its successes. He puts it down to how Chinese companies are and will be able to implement such technologies. He believes at the end of the day, it’s about implementation rather than the innovation. That is where, Lee surmises, the Chinese will dominate.
Ruthlessness and Ultra-Competitiveness
One of the advantages Lee sees for Chinese computer scientists is that there already exists a considerable amount of research work on AI easily accessible online, so they can simply utilize the resources available in AI to further develop AI technologies within the country. Another trait which he believes will serve China well in the coming years is its fierce ruthlessness and ultra-competitive nature when it comes to business. Chinese people are also less fearful of their privacy issues than their counterparts in the West, which will allow Beijing to further develop surveillance technology without the interruptions of protests or social media criticism from the general population or political opponents.
The politicians’ own private lives, nevertheless, will never be subject to such scrutinization, one would assume.
China’s ability to copy, make mistakes and repeat the process until they come up with a satisfactory working model in any area of commerce or technology is just the right balance needed to earn success when it comes to the implementation. If they can do this with AI, then the victor is already known.
The United States could be classed as the Nikola Tesla of the AI world, all creativity and artistry; while China is the ever-stubborn Thomas Edison, borne of grit and pure determination.
With China’s business attitude, effective in many aspects but equally inefficient, it’s easy to envisage it will be able to implement AI systems in many areas of technological developments. Additionally, the rapid urban growth which has seen unprecedented migration from the rural districts of the country over the last few decades has forged a massive need in the middle classes for services which AI can cater to if the technology is implemented in the correct way.
China’s arrested development in the past in connection to its technological advancements is yet another advantage where it can leapfrog the United States in respect to AI in the future. Proof of this can be seen with how the Chinese have adopted digital payment systems across the board, whereas western societies — in some cases — are still using outmoded technologies like card payment systems and even antiquated cheques.
Surely this can be the same with AI.
Moreover, the size of China, both in terms of population and users within the country’s demographic, denotes it has the supremacy of scale, meaning the data it can mine from its population is much bigger than its competitors. China’s population of just over 1.4 billion far exceeds Europe’s and the U.S’s (excluding Russia) combined, which comes in at a shade above one billion souls.
Again, a clear advantage.
This is surely a boon for the government as well as entrepreneurs and AI developers in the country who also get the backing of Xi Jinping. Beijing has big ideas for the future and wants its AI to develop far beyond the scope and capabilities of those of Washington. This zealous attitude, one that is not afraid to take risks to achieve its goals, can only be a good thing for software companies and startups alike in the Middle Kingdom.
Lee believes the race between China and the United States with AI has to consider a few factors, which we shall briefly elaborate on:
There are four areas of AI that are of the most importance, and they are as follows:
On the Internet:
The first one is Web AI, otherwise known as Internet AI, which basically follows and tracks what a person searches for on the Internet. This is the most widespread and basic form of AI and is already well developed, both in the United States and in China, but in the not to distant future China may slightly surpass the Americans according to Lee.
Business AI, in contrast, is the kind of AI which allows businesses to utilize the data it gets, make thought-out decisions from the AI data which then allows companies to plan ahead. Here, the author regrets that China is far behind its competitor yet may gain traction in the next few years, though still be trailing Washington in overall developments.
In Facial Recognition:
The next one is facial recognition features and general computer vision (CV) which comes under the umbrella of Perception AI. The author believes China is slightly ahead of the U.S in this and in the years to come will be streets ahead. Not a good sign for Washington.
In Autonomous AI:
Finally, there is Autonomous AI. This kind of AI refers to that which we can interact with in our lives, the high-end form of artificial intelligence like, for example, driverless cars or other forms of technology with ‘some degree of independence or autonomy’. Lee claims that, at the moment at least, China is well behind the U.S here but will, at its current rate of development, be equal to it in the future.
This is not good news for the Americans, as there are no other countries capable of this kind of growth. With China at least competing on a level playing field with the smartest form of AI technology five years from now, who knows what could happen.
He then goes on to discuss, in some detail, how China will very soon lead in the application and use of AI technologies, which he considers, at least from a personal point of view, more effective for the overall growth of the Chinese economy and advancement of its society. By that he means the correct application of deep-thought AI, as is the case with the autonomous kind specified, could improve legal systems, the educational experience of pupils and students, assist doctors’ medical diagnosis, as well as managing traffic and logistical services in cities and other urban agglomerations.
A red flag to this obvious evolution in services could be, he notes, the complete breakdown and dissolution of current working models and labour market practices, creating a society that is at the same time jobless and aimless. However, not everybody would suffer, and like in today’s world, entrepreneurs and business people involved in the development of AI deep thinking systems would manufacture for themselves private wealth which would, in turn, alienate them from the rest of humanity.
So there will always be rich and poor. Technology will not eradicate this divide.
There would still be the mega-rich. Living a life enchanted. Away from the rest of us, the plebs — not hard at work this time, because there won’t be any for us.
AI will never change that, unfortunately.
Anyway, if you want to find out something about China’s destiny on a technological level, especially in AI, and how the United States has an aggressive dragon on its back, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order is a must read.
All I can say is that I highly recommend it.