One of the obligations that comes with my work as a venture-capital (VC) investor is that I often give speeches about artificial intelligence (AI) to members of the global business and political elite. One of the joys of my work is that I sometimes get to talk about that very same topic with kindergarteners. Surprisingly, these two distinctly different audiences often ask me the same kinds of questions. During a recent visit to a Beijing kindergarten, a gaggle of five-year-olds grilled me about our AI future.
“Are we going to have robot teachers??”
“What if one robot car bumps into another robot car and then we get hurt?”
“Will people marry robots and have babies with them?”
“Are computers going to become so smart that they can boss us around?”
“If robots do everything, then what are we going to do?”
These kindergarteners’ questions echoed queries posed by some of the world’s most powerful people, and the interaction was revealing in several ways. First, it spoke to how AI has leapt to the forefront of our minds. Just a few years ago, artificial intelligence was a field that lived primarily in academic research labs and science-fiction films. The average person may have had some sense that AI was about building robots that could think like people, but there was almost no connection between that prospect and our everyday lives.
Today all of that has changed. Articles on the latest AI innovations blanket the pages of our newspapers. Business conferences on leveraging AI to boost profits are happening nearly every day. And governments around the world are releasing their own national plans for harnessing the technology. AI is suddenly at the center of public discourse, and for good reason.
Major theoretical breakthroughs in AI have finally yielded practical applications that are poised to change our lives. AI already powers many of our favorite apps and websites, and in the coming years AI will be driving our cars, managing our portfolios, manufacturing much of what we buy, and potentially putting us out of our jobs. These uses are full of both promise and potential peril, and we must prepare ourselves for both.
My dialogue with the kindergartners was also revealing because of where it took place. Not long ago, China lagged years, if not decades, behind the United States in artificial intelligence. But over the past three years China has caught AI fever, experiencing a surge of excitement about the field that dwarfs even what we see in the rest of the world. Enthusiasm about AI has spilled over from the technology and business communities into government policymaking, and it has trickled all the way down to kindergarten classrooms in Beijing.
This broad-based support for the field has both reflected and fed into China’s growing strength in the field. Chinese AI companies and researchers have already made up enormous ground on their American counterparts, experimenting with innovative algorithms and business models that promise to revolutionize China’s economy. Together, these businesses and scholars have turned China into a bona fide AI superpower, the only true national counterweight to the United States in this emerging technology. How these two countries choose to compete and cooperate in AI will have dramatic implications for global economics and governance.
Finally, during my back-and-forth with those young students, I stumbled on a deeper truth: when it comes to understanding our AI future, we’re all like those kindergartners. We’re all full of questions without answers, trying to peer into the future with a mixture of childlike wonder and grown-up worries. We want to know what AI automation will mean for our jobs and for our sense of purpose. We want to know which people and countries will benefit from this tremendous technology. We wonder whether AI can vault us to lives of material abundance, and whether there is space for humanity in a world run by intelligent machines.
No one has a crystal ball that can reveal the answers to these questions for us. But that core uncertainty makes it all the more important that we ask these questions and, to the best of our abilities, explore the answers. This book is my attempt to do that. I’m no oracle who can perfectly predict our AI future, but in exploring these questions I can bring my experience as an AI researcher, technology executive, and now venture-capital investor in both China and the United States. My hope is that this book sheds some light on how we got here, and also inspires new conversations about where we go from here.
Part of why predicting the ending to our AI story is so difficult is because this isn’t 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. Our AI future will be created by us, and it will reflect the choices we make and the actions we take. In that process, I hope we will look deep within ourselves and to each other for the values and wisdom that can guide us.
Excerpted from AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.Copyright © 2018 by Kai-Fu Lee. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The AI Revolution is Here!
Kai-Fu Lee explores whether there’s space for our humanity in a world run by intelligent machines, and offers inspiration for those who are troubled by the changes new technology will bring. Learn more