Kai-Fu Lee joins Sebastian Thrun for Udacity Talks

The author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order” talks about AI, innovation, and his belief in the human soul.

Udacity Talks with Kai-Fu Lee and Sebastian Thrun was quite an international affair today! People joined from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Switzerland, and more. Here in the US, we had attendees from Arizona, California, Michigan, New Orleans, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington, D.C., just to name a few!

As is to be expected when Sebastian hosts, conversation topics were wide-ranging, running the gamut from China’s rapid ascendance to the status of AI superpower and the end of banking as we know it, to the inevitability of flying cars and the chasm between “narrow AI” and “general AI.”

Highlights included Kai-Fu Lee’s eloquence on the subject of the human soul, and his teasing admonishment to “the CEO of Kitty Hawk” for still using text messaging!

For those viewers not familiar with the latest developments in China, it was remarkable to hear of the innovations already happening, especially when it comes to infrastructure spending. Lee described one such effort, in which a new city “the size of Chicago” is being built; a city that will essentially have two “layers” — a traffic-free one featuring parks, pedestrian walkways, and pet areas, and a lower level where autonomous vehicles drive.

Details like these make the entrepreneurial spirit in China seem almost magical, but as Lee pointed out, there is a downside. He described the Chinese entrepreneurial space as being like a “gladiator ring” in which only one competitor survives!

The conversation took an unexpected turn to the spiritual when Sebastian asked about the “AI endgame” and whether or not Kai-Fu Lee believed in “general AI,” which is considered the equivalent of human intelligence, and is often understood to be the point at which machines have a “consciousness.”

Sebastian Thrun: Do you believe in general AI?
Kai-Fu Lee: I do not. I choose to believe that we have a soul, and that it cannot be replicated.

Sebastian reintroduced variations of this question throughout the remainder of the talk, with Lee at one point stating that, “I’m not saying it’s impossible to build a machine with a soul, I’m saying we shouldn’t.”

It was powerful stuff, but there was levity as well. When asked to give advice to American companies interested in going to China, Lee had this to say:

“My advice to most American companies that want to go to China is, don’t.”

Lee also offered advice to younger generations coming into the workforce, who will increasingly be contending with an AI-powered world:

“Do what you’re good at, and what you love. And be aware of what AI is going to replace. Think of AI as either a job destroyer, or a job enhancer, and go into those areas where AI will enhance.”

Kai-Fu Lee is the former head of Google in China, and the co-founder of Sinovation Ventures. He is also the author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order,” which Sebastian has described as:

“A unique book by one of the leading pioneers of the field of AI. Kai-Fu Lee is a top notch researcher, business executive and investor. He tells the tale of AI — in China and the US — better than anyone else. A great read!”

You can watch the full episode of Udacity Talks on either YouTube or our Udacity Facebook page.

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This post was written by Christopher Watkins, Senior Writer and Chief Words Officer, Udacity