China, AI, and the Future of Work

While the Full Impact of AI May Still Be Unclear, China Moves Ahead

AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

By Paula Klein

Some said the current state of artificial intelligence (AI) is one of hype and misconceptions. Others see a true acceleration in technological advancements and acceptance under way.

In either case, AI, and what it means for the future of work, was top-of-mind for speakers and hundreds of attendees at an event hosted by MIT’s Computer Science and AI Lab group (CSAIL) and the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) on Nov. 1.

On the first of a two-day conference held at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., researchers, designers and business leaders debated everything from the viability of driverless cars, to the growing wealth gap resulting from digitization and automation. Will we be able to create new jobs as fast as workers are displaced by AI and automation? Which jobs are safe, and which will be the first to go?

Daniela Rus, CSAIL Director, led off by citing advances in medical diagnosis, energy efficiency, and manufacturing, as areas where AI and machine learning are already demonstrating tangible benefits while keeping humans at their jobs.

Daniela Rus

Working With Machines

She introduced a common theme of the day when she said that people, working in combination with machines, will yield the greatest results. Erik Brynjolfsson, IDE Director, agreed that humans don’t have to be replaced by machines for AI to automate tedious work and improve lives.

One speaker who is aggressively pursuing the rewards of what he calls “the golden Age of AI,” is venture capitalist, Kai-fu Lee, Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures. Lee said that half of the firm’s $1.3 billion investments since it was founded in 2009 have been in AI. The company’s latest deal is a $20.6 million stake in Zhuiyi Technology, an AI-up developing chat bots.

Kai-fu Lee

At his lunch presentation at the conference, Lee declared that “AI can do 50% of current job tasks in next 10–15 years,” including many white-collar jobs. For example, technology introduced by Face++, a face-recognition company that is also a Sinovation investment, could ultimately eliminate “tens of thousands” of front-desk and security jobs. Face recognition is a legitimate, commercial app and is making huge gains in China and globally.

Radical Transformation

This radical transformation of the workforce will require many new education and training programs, but fundamentally, “We will have to change our industrial age work ethic and replace it with new values,” according to Lee.

He also spoke about the Chinese government’s commitment to pursue AI on all levels. Right now, AI is led by American researchers, but China’s presence is growing very fast and attracting the best and brightest students, Lee said. Chinese researchers are publishing many more research papers today, and funding is being provided.

In addition, mobile use is skyrocketing, and smartphones are ubiquitous in China. Chinese consumers use phone payments 50 times more often than U.S. consumers, and cash transactions are becoming a thing of the past — bypassing credit cards, as well. Every transaction generates more data which then yields better products, services, and algorithms, he said.

All of these changes are also moving China from a saving economy, to a spending one. “Online and offline sales are becoming fully integrated,” Lee said. Moreover, the quality of Chinese tech products has improved greatly and the country is becoming a leader, rather than an imitator, of U.S. products. High on its to-do list are mobile apps, AI programs, and robotics. At this rate, Lee expects China to meet and then exceed the U.S. in robotics leadership in the next two years. Whether this is more AI hype, or true acceleration is yet to be seen.

Video now available on YouTube here.