Review of Ai Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, by Kai Fu Lee

Review

Rating: 7/10* (9/10 for the first six chapters)

AI Superpowers is an China-optimistic perspective from a Chinese venture capitalist on the state of advancing competition between China and the rest of the world, which one might (understandably) believe was only Silicon Valley after having read this book. In the first several chapters, Lee sets up a framework to defend his optimism for Chinese firms potential to compete in artificial intelligence by contrasting Chinese entrepreneurial culture to Silicon Valley’s, and drawing stark contrasts between American and Chinese governments approaches to their respective technology industries. Some of Lee’s claims require scrutiny, including his bolstering for Chinese government, borderline-advocacy of ruthless business practice, and characterization that Silicon Valley is pitting elite researchers against Chinese good-enough engineers. However, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to gain better understanding of how entrepreneurship operates in China, and how the rising Chinese technology economy may overwhelm expectations as an unprecedented powerhouse in emerging technology areas. My interest I suspect the emergence of China as a technological superpower bodes ill as a spectre of things to come with regards to the Chinese reputation of undermining humanism and political freedoms.

Lee’s deconstruction of AI as a field is most comprehensive in the middle of the book. Lee gives a careful analysis of the four application “waves” of Artificial Intelligence, in considering those that Chinese firms will be most competitive in. He weighs questions about “grid” versus “battery” approaches to artificial intelligence. Championing for the Chinese government’s inefficient, yet clear, approach to stimulating growth with massive incentives, and invasive data collection practices, Lee’s analyses are sometimes poetic, but always optimistic.

In the last half of the book, Lee (rather abruptly) changes topic. His close encounter with cancer drives him to climb a mountain, to talk to a monk, to celebrate a volunteer golf cart driver, and finally present his thesis on how AI tech has the capacity to displace whole societies. His last two chapters describe what we as a society might do to limit the negative consequences of what will be gradual but massive displacement and unemployment. Though I'm persuaded that society will undergo a massive displacement, Lee's newfound enlightenment in how to reorganize a post-work society were underwhelming at best, or as I feel is more likely, merely insincere poetry. He proposes a new culture code for society, around the principles of human love, service, and compassion, over present imperatives to find productivity. His transformation story, both for himself and for society land a bit clumsily: his personal transformation from human-turned-work-algorithm to friend and teacher read as an abrupt turn: an out of place single chapter in the book.

By the end of the book, I felt I had a plausible and detailed thesis for how Chinese entrepreneurs might compete with their American counterparts. I understood the advantages that Chinese businesses wield, and the role the Chinese culture and government may play in that transition. The latter half of the book read more clumsily. Lee’s arguments for how we may transform society to avoid dramatic social upheaval were well considered, though less insightful, and more castle-in-the-sky than his exposition on the Chinese technology story.

Rating

First half (6 chapters): information dense enough for a 9/10.

Second half: often off topic, with a cancer story, an underdeveloped thesis for post-work social change, punctuated with emotionally disingenuous personal anecdotes. 5/10

Total: 7/10

updatedupdated2020-06-302020-06-30