By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Amazon opened its first cashierless store in Seattle in January 2018, and by the end of 2021, the company announced plans for 3,000 stores across the United States, sending the retail world scrambling. For many, AmazonGo and its technology that watches and checks us out as we shop, is our first nudge into a world where artificial intelligence (AI) replaces a routine human job.
It is this world, in which machines capable of learning and repeating repetitive human actions, that AI researcher, businessman, and investor Dr. Kai Fu Lee tries to help us prepare for and navigate, through his new book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.” Recently, Lee spoke about his book at The Collective, a private club in South Lake Union. Lee’s publishers told him someone else would write the book better, he joked, but would do well if he put China in the title.
Lee, an extremely prominent figure in China, came to the United States from Taiwan. He went to Carnegie Mellon where he developed a speech recognition system for his thesis. Lee then worked with Apple, moved to Microsoft as Corporate Vice President of its Interactive Services Division in Redmond and started Microsoft Research Labs in China. He earned the favor of Bill Gates and later the company’s wrath when he left to join Google in 2005 and open a research center for the company in China.
“I see the AI tidal wave coming, and mankind is not prepared for it. I also see a lot of other books, which have their value and shortcomings — perhaps the author is not an expert in the space or perhaps they take too pessimistic an outlook. Knowing what I know, connecting the dots, I thought I may be the right person to write the book, and can start waking people, companies, and government officials up to the things they should be thinking about,” Lee, who founded and heads venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures, said.
Living in Seattle, we’re aware of this tidal wave. While we may not grasp the full meaning of its implications, terms such as data mining are familiar. We vaguely recognize they will transform the way we live, thanks to our IT environment and news about software that mimics speech — replete with fillers and human affectations — or driverless vehicles that deliver groceries to your doorstep. One of Lee’s aims in the book is to help us understand how this technology evolved, developed in the United States and China, and how it will transform our lives. What sets his tone apart is a straightforward narration of the massive disruption AI will bring without tones of hype or panic that often accompany it.
“The hype may be over the next one to three years, because sometimes technologies don’t change as much as we hope in a short time. Given 10-15 years, AI is certainly not a hype, but will bring a lot of wealth, change the nature of many industries, and eradicate a lot of jobs,” Lee said.
As for the panic, AI’s movement into our physical world causes, he said, “I don’t think we have to panic. Some issues are not imminent and some like technological singularity and super intelligence concerns are not real. We will know when they become closer to real because between the time that the technology is invented and becomes pervasive, it takes 5-10 years,” he added.
Lee alludes to the fact that today we are in the stage of deep learning and its massive change, but points out it was invented 10 years ago.
“It took 10 years for us to figure out how to make it work in medicine or face recognition. So, there is no need to panic, but we have to start to wake up,” he said.
From copycat to technology leader
The fact that Lee is respected in the field, is clear from the number of (mostly Asian) young software professionals in the audience. Some refer to him as ‘teacher’ and ask questions about AI, its future, and China’s role in it. His book has generated interest as Lee acknowledges how China’s internet companies began as imitators, developed and have evolved into distinct business models.
“Companies in China are no longer copycats, I think that Silicon Valley frowns too much on copying. There are multiple interpretations of copying — infringement, stealing IP, and other illegal things I mention in the book are things we have to say no to.” Lee clarified, however, he finds nothing wrong with melding good ideas.
“Silicon Valley prides itself too much on its unique model of information to the extent that they think other models are not worth it. If Silicon Valley continues to think that way, it will pay a very dear price because there will be entrepreneurs who discover Chinese business models, which at this stage and given their evolution, are every bit worthy of Harvard Business School case studies,” he said.
Giving us a glimpse of the immense evolution and scale of Chinese businesses, Lee talks of Alibaba, a better model of eBay. He mentions WeChat that started out as a Chinese version of WhatsApp, but now has over 900 million users. Those familiar with it agreed it had evolved into a better product, enabling money transfers with a security system that uses a phone camera instead of questions about your favorite football team. Lee also mentions Meituan that began as a Groupon imitator, but evolved to change the way people eat in China and has a current valuation of more than $50 billion by employing an army of people who deliver food from restaurants on battery-operated scooters.
“These models have incredible high ambition, high risk, and incredible operational excellence. That is one way to innovate and change people’s lives. Another way is to be Steve Jobs and be brilliant. Both are possible and if we deny the other one exists, we are not being intellectually honest,” Lee said.
“Think about how we learn art or music, it always began by copying. You emulate a piece of music or art and if you are really good, you eventually emerge with your own style. There is nothing wrong with copying as a first step to learn and people have to be less harsh on China for the early stages — not IP infringement.”
He reasons that, at the time Google was founded, internet penetration in the United States was 150 times larger than in China.
“How were people going to innovate with such few users. You have to copy, and the ones that copy legally, I think to look down upon them is not right,” he said.
A global approach
Lee estimates 40 percent of human jobs will be impacted as AI enters the physical world. At a time when a globalized response could help us learn and deal with an AI future faster, countries and societies seem more insular. Lee agreed and said, “That is the trend globally and I think it is not good, but each country has their own ideas and merits. If each shares its best practices — Europe on the protection of privacy, Switzerland and Japan on the value of craftsmanship, and Korea on the value of gifted education — we will be okay.”
When it comes to an AI future, Lee advocates a balance between enablement and regulation.
“I think a utilitarian enablement approach will get AI going faster, but regulations will prevent a disaster. Governments should ask how to balance these two. The other is how to plan to deal with the necessary shift of wealth and transition of jobs that is needed given the disparity of wealth in the economy, loss of routine jobs, and how to start to evolve education, so we are ready for an AI enabled future,” he said.
Notes for the next generation
Growing up in a world where AI will displace routine jobs will be hard on young adults and Lee recognizes this. He has two daughters who are pursuing careers in the Arts.
He believes people should first become aware of what AI is capable of, so they can use it as a tool to build a profession with an AI-human symbiosis.
“If AI will displace most jobs, then it’s about reskilling and moving onto the next type of job that is safer from AI displacement. That’s the tactical part,” Lee said.
The strategic part he believes is following your heart and doing what you love.
“AI taking routine jobs away from us means we can do something interesting and creative and contribute to the world,” he said. He believes young people should spend more time on emotional intelligence. “That’s one thing AI cannot do, that everyone can. It may or may not be possible to train creativity. If people are young, it may be a little easier, but if you are 30, it may not be your strength or may be education has stifled it. But the ability to have compassion, communicate, and work as a team member is going to become even more important,” he said.
Lee stresses the importance of soft skills in the workplace.
“The single, most important skill I learnt is how to be trusted and much of that is based on soft skills. A lot of young people focus too much on using their phones, rather than talking to people. The time has come for us to realize that connecting with other humans is not only a way to find and keep a good job, but also something that fulfills our inner needs.
Communicating with other people, whether its gaining trust, working together, comforting or helping people, will make us grow and feel better as humans. Doing routine jobs won’t do that,” he said.
As someone who came to the United States from Taiwan as a young boy, Lee feels it is important for young Asians in the United States to be true to themselves.
“I don’t think it’s right to just meld into the environment. America is striving hard to create greater respect for diversity and I think that it is better to sharpen areas where you are strong and be true to yourself, rather than fake something that fits in. Understanding one’s environment is important,” he said.
His second pointer is to learn how to make sure you are reaching out and grasping every opportunity. “Many Asians wait for opportunities to happen, but it doesn’t work that way in America. You must make sure people know what you’ve done, what you stand for, and your skill set so, when the opportunity comes, it comes to you. I think being too passive is a challenge. We need to be more assertive, seeking the next step rather than thinking that someone will decide the next step for you.”
The last point he makes is that we have to really give before we take.
“The way that you become trusted and respected is by being generous and not being too pragmatic. Trust is built by taking the initiative to give without asking in return — it’s the spirit of ‘pay it forward.’ If people apply that, they will realize that this provides the biggest dividends.”
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.