‘AI Superpowers,’ Kai-Fu Lee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $28.
China’s “Sputnik moment” came on May 27, 2017. On that day an algorithm thrashed Ke Jie, the world’s best player of Go, an ancient and demanding Chinese board game. Within months after Ke’s defeat by AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence (AI) system developed by DeepMind, a British firm that had been bought by Google, China announced ambitious plans to dominate AI by 2030.
Kai-Fu Lee thinks it will succeed. Formerly a senior manager at the likes of Apple and Microsoft who now runs a Chinese venture-capital fund, Lee has a ringside seat for the contest between China and America, the two “AI Superpowers,” he says in his book of the same name.
The book has some controversial claims, not the least of which is that he thinks China will win. The West has the best researchers, but he said his former colleagues have become complacent and companies no longer have real rivalry among them.
Values are the missing character in Lee’s narrative. The West is enamored of the idea that innovation and creativity require free speech, Lee writes. Yet China’s consumers already have willingly given up privacy for convenience, he said as proof of China’s apolitical approach.
What he fails to consider is how that may change as average people become wealthier and may fight back against, for example, the role of government surveillance. True, AI represents the new space race, and China and America are set to lead it. But China’s capitalism is 30 years young, so there is not enough comparative data to support Lee’s claims.