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AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, And The New World

Author Kai-Fu Lee begins his book with an unexpected invitation to look within ourselves and each other to guide us through the new age of AI. He notes that our AI future will be created by us and reflect the choices we make and actions we take together. If we allow it, AI provides us all an opportunity to discover what makes us human. But our path will not be straightforward, nor will it be easy. Technology is calling for us to face the critical issues confronting our societies today – growing inequality, widespread unemployment, and our beliefs about what gives us value and meaning as humans. More than a simple book about the race between China and the U.S to lead the world into a new age of technology, Kai-Fu proposes a new direction that could lead to humanity flourishing.

Broken into three parts, Kai-Fu takes us on a journey through the changing landscape of AI, details the challenges that lie ahead, and invites us to grasp the opportunities that our move to an AI age will present. AI Superpowers is like an action novel! It is hard not to be carried along by the ideas or be excited about this new age that is dawning.

The rise of the machines

Until the world champion of "Go," Ke-Jie, was overcome by Deep Mind's AlphaGo AI algorithm in 2017, China seemed mostly disinterested in boarding the AI train. Two months after AI's triumph over a human, the Central Chinese government launched plans to build their own AI capabilities.

China helped move AI from the age of discovery to the age of implementation. And from an era of expertise to an era of machines making complex decisions based on data. Today, the success of AI is no longer reliant on a select group of expert computer scientists. Three factors feed its development: big data, computing power, and new AI algorithms.

AI development plays to many of China's strengths. A cut-throat entrepreneurial environment, a drive to endlessly innovate and iterate business models, and endless enthusiasm for exposing new areas of profit is already bringing about their development of life-changing apps.

Both the U.S and China are incubating AI giants set to dominate global markets, extract wealth from consumers, and advance AI-driven automation into every corner of society. While this will create an exponential increase in productivity across nearly every industry, it will also extend unemployment lines, concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and create a genuine threat of social and political unrest, even collapse.

Four waves of change

Disruption from AI will wash over our world in four waves. Beginning with Internet AI, moving through to Business AI, Perception AI, and culminating in Autonomous AI, each wave will bring new opportunities and challenges.

Internet AI is already a big part of our lives today – rooted in the recommendation algorithms that learn our preferences and idiosyncrasies to serve hand-picked content that keeps us online and consuming a wide range of products and services.

Business AI is also fast becoming a part of daily transactions. Algorithms mining vast amounts of health, financial, and insurance data are displacing many mid-level white-collar jobs. Micro-financing, house loans, faster and more accurate medical diagnoses, fraud detection, and myriad other functions can be handled by a computer algorithm – and more effectively too. In many cases, these systems are already pushing humans out of their positions and forcing them into new roles. Why employ a credit risk manager when an algorithm can outperform them in terms of speed, accuracy, and the analysis of multiple data points to deliver more reliable recommendations than a human ever could?

Perception AI is also creeping into our lives via the Internet of Things (IoT). By extending the capabilities of AI with sensory input – sight, hearing, and in some cases, touch - Perception AI can learn from and influence our perception of our environment. This blending of digital and real-world information blurs the lines between virtual and 'real' experiences to deliver smart buildings and cities, enhanced learning, retail, and domestic experiences.

Autonomous AI represents the integration of the three previous waves of changing technology to shape the world we share.

China and the U.S are adopting AI from different ends of the spectrum – America is adapting AI to their current infrastructure. China is adapting and creating new infrastructures – AI's trajectory is such that it will radically change and shape our societies, cultural expectations, and almost every aspect of our lives. The question is: Will AI bring us a technological utopia, dystopia, or a dangerous mix of each?

A choice between roads

As disruptive as the steam engine or electricity, yet faster than both, AI could eat more jobs than it produces – certainly in the short term. Although we may dream of a world in which work is unnecessary, and all have the time for creative and altruistic pursuits, that fact remains that our identity, purpose, and meaning is inextricably tied to our occupations.

The social impact of a world without work, growing unemployment lines, financial insecurity, and rising inequality is hardly a happy fantasy. However, along with the risk of economic and societal upheaval, AI presents an opportunity for humanity to free itself from the idea that our intrinsic worth is tied to our economic value. It offers us a possibility to double-down on what truly makes us human to focus on people, relationships and prioritize love over intelligence.

How – and if - we do this, our societies' fabric could be woven from a richer thread to create widespread fulfillment and flourishing across our planet. We could build an amalgamation from AI's ability to think and our innate ability to give care, love, and compassion. This is one way for us to harness AI's power and generate prosperity while embracing our essential humanity.

To do this, we will need to combine several approaches, bravely trial, and follow the policymaking results to discover the best AI governance method. Both the free market and government policy will need to combine to create the foundation for this new societal contract. The incremental implementation of these policies could lay the foundation for shifting cultural views towards more caring and supportive communities.

Retraining displaced workers, reducing the hours of a regular working week, and redistributing AI-generated wealth won't be enough on their own. Kai-Fu argues that Universal Basic Income (UBI) could well be a red-herring – working like a magic wand to subdue the masses while allowing tech oligarchs to carry on as they wish.

Kai-Fu proposes another solution that would support a positive future with AI – one that reinforces the message: "It took efforts from people all across society to help us reach this point of abundance. We are now collectively using that abundance to recommit ourselves to one another, reinforcing the bonds of compassion and love that make us human."

AI's potential to disrupt and destroy isn't in international military contests; it lies in what we do with our labor markets and societal systems. We have the opportunity to leverage this new technology to build the kinds of societies we desire.

When it comes to shaping the future of AI, we aren't passive spectators; we are the authors. We can choose to use AI as a tool that exposes the deeper meaning of what it is to be human. We can use it to come together, work across class boundaries and national borders, to write new chapters of cooperation and compassion in our story of humanity.