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What Does The Future Of Tech Hold? AI Crisis Awaits, Former Google China Head Says

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Top Chinese technologist Kai-Fu Lee talks about China, the U.S., the race for dominance in artificial intelligence and how we can survive the AI revolution.


Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, an early-stage incubator and investment fund. Former president of Google China. Former executive at Microsoft, Apple and SGI. Author of “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.” (@kaifulee)

Highlights From The Interview

Why China is one of the key places to look for the future of artificial intelligence.

“To be sure, [the] US leads in the AI research area, however, we are now past the era of research. We are now into implementation. It’s about applying AI into a lot of problems, banking, autonomous vehicles, computer vision, and China has a lot of engineers, and more importantly, China has a lot more data. In the age of AI, data is the new oil, and China is going to be the new Saudi Arabia. With a large amount of data, the AI algorithm that you train will perform a lot better.”

How the Chinese view the strides they’re making in artificial intelligence.

“I think there’s a lot of humility in how advanced the American scientists are, and a lot of appreciation for how willing they are to publish their papers for the whole world to build on. And I think, on the other hand, there’s also a lot of pride in how much faster the Chinese entrepreneurship is building valuable AI companies.”

Lee on his biggest concern as AI progresses.

“I think the biggest concern in the next 15 to 20 years is that it will displace a lot of people’s jobs because a lot of people’s jobs are repetitive and routine, and AI can be trained to do singular jobs better than people. Most people think of AI displacing jobs as one robot displaces one assembly line worker, but AI is going to disrupt industries that could be gone once people’s habits have changed.”

How AI will increase inequality. 

“AI will displace routine jobs that are at the lowest end of the income spectrum. I think it’s important to think about redistribution of income. Redistribution is probably easiest implemented as a tax on the ultra rich. Imagine there might be companies that might make net profits of hundreds of billions of dollars, so charging on that marginal, additional income seems like a reasonable and fairly easy thing to do. I’m not in favor of a universal basic income because it just gives people the money so that they overcome the loss of income. But with the job, there’s also the meaning of life. Many people think work is the meaning of life, and not getting a job back and just getting eternal social welfare is not going to put them in a good state.

Lee’s views on jobs that won’t be threatened by AI. 

“The AI engine today is basically a number cruncher that looks at one single task and out-crunches people, so if you pick tasks that can’t be quantified by right and wrong, good and bad, make money and lose money, that’s where the human touch and compassion comes in. Jobs like nurses and nannies and teachers and social workers, psychiatrists, even salespeople, as long as the job has to do with the human trust, respect, compassion, that’s something robots do not know how to emulate. I believe there’s going to a large migration from the routine jobs to the jobs with empathy. The largest segment of jobs will be in empathy and human touch.”

Lee on how AI could change the meaning of life.

“Do we really want to make work our primary meaning of life? In 30, 50, 80 years, maybe we can all work part-time. Maybe some of us don’t have to work. I think work ethic meaning of life is something we can all rethink. But I also realize we can’t change what people already believe. We can do what we love and think about fun things and be with our families and think about the meaning of life. ”

From The Reading List

The New York Times:What China Can Teach The U.S. About Artificial Intelligence” — “The Chinese government understands that as A.I. moves from affecting the purely digital world to the physical one, public infrastructure and institutions will have to change. If we want autonomous cars to reduce accidents, we may need to embed sensors in our roads. If we want A.I.-powered diagnosis to spot cancer earlier, we may need hospital administrators to develop data-sharing agreements that protect privacy while also allowing research to be conducted.”

Wired: “If VCs Aren’t Socially Responsible, The Robots Will Win” — “When a man overseeing $5.7 trillion speaks, the global business community tends to listen. So when BlackRock founder Larry Fink, head of the world’s largest asset management company, posted a letter to CEOs demanding greater attention to social impact, it sent shockwaves through corporations around the globe. In the letter, titled ‘A Sense of Purpose,’ Fink wrote,

“We … see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. … Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. … Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

“Fink’s letter dropped just days before the 2018 World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the global financial elite in Davos, Switzerland. I was attending the forum and watched as CEOs anxiously discussed the stern warning from a man whose firm controlled substantial ownership stakes in their companies. Many publicly professed sympathy for Fink’s message but privately declared his emphasis on broader social welfare to be anathema to the logic of private enterprise.”

Recode: If they don’t want to lose their jobs to a machine, doctors will need to become compassionate ‘human connectors’” – “Former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee is betting heavily on artificial intelligence; his investment firm Sinovation Ventures has invested more than $600 million in computer vision, machine learning and other forms of automation. And he’s confident that soon this technology will dramatically change the job landscape.

“‘If we look at what AI cannot do, there are really two main things,’ Lee said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. ‘One is creative jobs. Jobs like scientists, storytellers, artists and so on. And the other are the compassionate people who really have created a human-to-human connection, trust.’

And what about the jobs that require low creativity and compassion?

“‘All those jobs will be taken by AI,’ he said.”

Artificial Intelligence could render 50 percent of today’s jobs obsolete. And much of that technology isn’t just coming from Silicon Valley. It’s coming from China. Longtime AI researcher and investor Kai-Fu Lee says that the U.S. has much to learn from China’s rapid advances in AI. And that we’ve all got to cope with the coming AI driven future where vast wealth is concentrated into the hands of even fewer people.

— Meghna Chakrabarti

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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