Silicon Valley was once able to write off Chinese tech companies as mere copycats. The big American players, from Twitter to Facebook to Google, all had a Chinese impersonator. But the rise of hugely successful Chinese messaging apps like WeChat — not to mention all the U.S. tech companies that failed in China — now make clear that the nation’s tech companies should not be underestimated.
In his book “AI Superpowers,” Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known artificial-intelligence expert, venture capitalist and former president of Google China, argues that China and Silicon Valley will lead the world in AI. But his highly readable book covers a lot of other ground as well, and among the most interesting insights are his descriptions of the differences between Chinese and Silicon Valley tech culture.
Lee observes that U.S. companies tend to be more mission-driven, at least in their rhetoric. “It’s all about ‘pure’ innovation, creating a totally original product that generates what Steve Jobs called a ‘dent in the universe,’ ” Lee writes. Where American companies like the idea of “building one thing and building it well,” in China, it’s all about the market. The goal is to make money, and companies will do what it takes to achieve that goal.
The Chinese approach, Lee argues, has its benefits. It allows start-ups to be fast, flexible and open to constant experimentation. Lee was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and emigrated to the United States, where he attended middle and high school, graduated from Columbia University in computer science, and earned a PhD in the same field from Carnegie Mellon.
Lee spends a good portion of his book discussing these Chinese and American differences, which will also play out in the arena of artificial intelligence. AI, most simply put, refers to machines doing things that human beings would normally do. Sometimes machines outperform humans, which happened in 2017 when a computer defeated a Chinese teenager at Go, a board game that once seemed too complex for a computer to win.
The United States may have been a first mover in AI, Lee says, but that advantage will not last forever. The AI era will reward “the quantity of solid AI engineers over the quality of elite researchers,” Lee writes. Strength will come from an army of well-trained engineers and entrepreneurs, and “China is training just such an army.”
But it’s not just about the numbers. China’s edge, Lee says, lies in its “abundant data, tenacious entrepreneurs, well-trained AI scientists, and a supportive policy environment.”
In America, Lee’s choice of words might have a different meaning. Some would read “abundant data” as “surveillance,” and “a supportive policy environment” as “top-down decision-making that isn’t hindered by public opinion.”
Take China’s government-led AI plan, for example. It includes research subsidies, venture capital, special development zones and incubators. The plan aims for China to become the global leader in AI by 2030. Lee admits that China’s AI campaign is likely to be “somewhat inefficient,” but Beijing won’t necessarily let that get in its way. And unlike in the United States, Chinese officials are not hamstrung by the messiness of the democratic process, where politicians risk being punished by voters for ineffective campaigns.
Lee grapples with the dark side of artificial intelligence, exploring job losses and the loss of self-worth when people discover that they have been replaced by machines. But Lee’s concerns about AI are not limited to the dystopian vision of humans mastered by smart robots. His chief worry, which makes a lot of sense, is that AI will exacerbate global inequality by putting disproportionate power in the hands of two nations, the United States and China.
AI by definition trends toward monopoly, Lee explains, namely because of its reliance on data. “Better products lead to more users, those users lead to more data, and that data leads to even better products, and thus more users and more data.” Chinese and U.S. companies have already started this process, he writes, “leaping out to massive leads over the rest of the world.”
This might be great for the United States and China, but it’s terrible news for much of the world. “Deprived of the chance to claw their way out of poverty,” Lee writes, “poor countries will stagnate while the AI superpowers take off.”
Despite these warnings, Lee’s book is ultimately optimistic, and not for the reasons you would think. The latter part takes a deeply personal turn, as Lee describes how a battle with Stage 4 lymphoma caused him to reevaluate his entire life. Before he encountered the disease, he made life decisions on the basis of cold calculations, so much so that he seriously considered missing the birth of his daughter to attend an important business meeting. Confronting his mortality made him realize the limits of machine-like thinking, and the importance of family and love. The lesson for Lee is that robots cannot replace basic human compassion.
These personal insights aside, Lee’s book is fundamentally about the interplay between the United States and China in the world of artificial intelligence and technology more generally. Not everyone will agree with Lee’s rosy assessment of China’s tech culture, which turns many of Silicon Valley’s stated beliefs upside down. China’s approach has drawbacks, and it’s way too early to say that the Chinese model has “won.” But Lee is right to point out that Chinese tech companies must be taken seriously.