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Book review: 'AI Superpowers China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order' by Kai-Fu Lee

  • March 2019
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee

AI Superpowers
China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order

By Kai-Fu Lee

Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 9781328546395

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

Kai-Fu Lee is one of the most influential people in the field of Artificial Intelligence. He worked at Apple “in between Jobs” (from 1990 to 1996) developing the first voice recognition system 25 years before Siri; he then set up Microsoft Research Asia, the “The World's Hottest Computer Lab” which trained the great majority of today’s AI leaders in China. Later he was president of Google China for 5 years, before becoming a venture capitalist and angel investor. If someone knows the field of AI from both the Chinese and American side, it’s him.

In this book, Lee explains with striking clarity how in less than 20 years AI turned out to be the powerful force it is today, and how China is quickly becoming the AI world leader. China at the moment has the perfect combination of what is needed to be an AI superpower: an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit; supportive government policies; well-trained AI scientists; and more data than any other country in the world. The lead by Silicon Valley is getting shorter and shorter; China has access to massively larger capital, data and human resources, and has leapfrogged the western world when it comes to internet use, online payments and digital infrastructure. In China, online and offline are intrinsically blended, giving rise to opportunities and services that look like utopian (or dystopian) science fiction scenarios to our western eyes.

What is absolutely clear, and this is not only Lee’s view, is that AI is going to dramatically change the nature of human work, and make millions and millions of jobs unnecessary. The magnitude of this change is quite unprecedented, both in terms of the speed at which it will happen and of the consequences on our social systems. Previous technological and industrial revolutions also displaced many jobs and entire sectors, but it took a few generations and several years for those changes to happen. Today instead it won’t take generations to make truck and taxi drivers obsolete: a new car, or just a software update, is all we need.

New jobs will certainly be created; but realistically, they will be a fraction of the many that will become automated. AI, not unlike what happened in the previous industrial revolutions, will lead to a new social contract. One where “work” is not anymore the most important part of our social structure. In fact, concepts like a universal basic income, or social investment stipend, are getting more and more traction as systems to redefine what “work” means in the age of AI and prevent massive social unrest.

The book ends on a philosophical note: AI will allow us to “focus on what truly makes us human: loving and being loved.” This is not a new-age inspired, “love always wins” realisation. It is a deep existential reflection on the fact that the one aspect that is profoundly human and that won’t be replaced by efficient AI algorithms is love. And while it’s beautiful to look forward to a society that puts love as its main core value, there’s a warning sign here: the absence of love in a world with pervasive AI will make humans useless.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading “AI Superpowers” and I recommend it to anybody who wants to understand the basic principles of AI, why it’s so powerful and why we should be concerned about it. A recommendation though: read it now, while we can still do something to shape the future of AI.


  • ai
  • scicomm
  • good read