Most of the attention on the relationship between the U.S. and China is about whether or not there will be a trade war, and, more generally, about how each country is trying to displace the other in a zero-sum game to be the world’s dominant superpower. But the more important consequence of that relationship is how the two countries have created a duopoly — as the dominant powers in AI — which is going to change the world much more dramatically than any trade war has the potential to. That’s the thesis of Kai-Fu Lee’s brilliant new book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. It’s one of those books you read and think, “Why are people reading any other book right now when this is so clearly the one they need to be reading?”
His thesis — urgent but hopeful — goes something like this: Work on artificial intelligence has been going on since the 1950s. But in the last 5 or so years, advances have accelerated in deep learning, or what Kai-Fu Lee calls “narrow AI” technology, which can digest huge amounts of data from one particular domain and make decisions much more effectively or accurately than a human can. Most of these advances have occurred in the U.S.
But as Kai-Fu Lee writes, there’s another recent development worth noting. Not only is China catching up and leaving “the copycat phase,” it’s about to become the leader. That’s not just because of China’s economic development, but because, as Lee writes, “data is what makes AI go.” And China has more data — much more data — than the U.S. For instance, it has three times as many mobile phone users, and a huge share of the population uses mobile payments for everything. This puts us in a transition between the Era of Discovery and the Era of Implementation. “With American researchers leading AI discoveries, and Chinese engineers leading AI implementations,” writes Lee, “these two superpowers will bring about the fastest and greatest technology revolution ever.”
And this is where the urgency comes in. According to Lee’s estimate, in the next two decades, that implementation is going to wipe out up to half of all jobs. And those aren’t just going to be factory jobs, but whole professions, like loan officers, paralegals, radiologists, and financial analysts. And that’s going to create massive social disruption. So, as Lee writes, “tech companies should stop pretending AI won’t destroy jobs.”
This is both a huge challenge and a massive opportunity — it will be “the best of times and the worst of times.” It’s a chance to rethink not just the nature of work, but how we find meaning and purpose in our lives.
The solution, Lee says, is to shift our focus — quickly and on a huge scale — to jobs that are fueled by qualities that AI can’t replicate: creativity, compassion, and love.
It’s not just Lee’s professional background but also his remarkable personal story that makes him the perfect person to be able to pull all of this together. Lee was born in China, studied computer science in the U.S. and has spent his career shuttling back and forth between the two countries. And much of his work has focused on developing artificial intelligence, with stints at Apple, Microsoft, and Google, where he was the founding president of Google China.
For most of that time, Lee was a self-proclaimed workaholic, and describes almost missing the birth of his daughter because he was scheduled to give a presentation at Apple that he refused to cancel. What rearranged his priorities — and his life — was being diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. “I came to see how foolish it was to base my self-worth entirely on my accomplishments at work,” he writes. “Like so many people forced to suddenly face their own mortality, I was filled not just with fear for my future but with a deep, soul-aching regret over the way I had lived my life.” In short: too many distorted priorities.
What’s unique about our humanity that machines can’t replicate, let alone exceed, was suddenly front and center in his life: “Mesmerized by my quest to create machines that thought like people, I had turned into a person that thought like a machine,” he writes. So Lee has a unique perspective on the transformation we need to make globally. “It’s a journey that I’ve taken in my own life,” he writes, “one that turned my focus from machines back to humans, and from intelligence back to love.”
What would that journey look like on a global scale? It means putting a premium on what Lee calls “service jobs of love” — not just social workers, teachers, and health aides, but acts of service we don’t yet think of as jobs: stay-at-home parents, or caring for the elderly and the disabled. “These are exactly the kinds of loving and compassionate activities that we should embrace in the AI economy,” Lee writes, “but the private sector has proven inadequate so far at fostering them.”
What this also means is rethinking our relationship between work and meaning. “The work ethic born out of the Industrial Revolution has brainwashed too many of us to believe that work defines the meaning of our lives,” Kai-Fu Lee says in a TED Talk. And if our worth is defined by work, that means more work is always better. That collective delusion, combined with the way technology has accelerated the pace of our lives, has given us the global epidemic of stress and burnout that we’re currently living under.
But the AI revolution gives us the opportunity to rethink that equation. We know what gives us meaning and purpose. As Lee found out when he got sick, it’s love, compassion, and connection. So what if we start with that and then restructure work around it, rather than the other way around? “We should make careers out of humanistic labors of love,” says Lee.
This would mean restructuring our education system to nurture qualities, like creativity and compassion, that would be most likely to land graduates jobs that were safe from AI. Given how many jobs would revolve around caregiving, and that caregiving starts with caring, it would change the way we think about compassion — going from something considered nice but a bit soft, to an essential quality necessary to succeed in a world where AI dominates.
It might seem pie in the sky, but the smarter business leaders are already seeing the iceberg — or the opportunity, depending on how we react. In an interview last year, Jack Ma, the Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba, talked about how important what he calls the “love quotient” will be to success in the 21st century. “There is IQ and there is EQ,” he said. “But more important is LQ. You can become a money machine, but what’s the use of that? If you’re not contributing to the rest of the world, there’s no LQ.”
It’s as much a cultural as a technological revolution. But in order to make the most of it, we need to redefine the place of work in our lives and do all we can to cultivate the very qualities that make us uniquely human. It’s time to move beyond augmented reality to augmented humanity. Or, as Kai-Fu Lee puts it, “Let us choose to simply use our machines, and more importantly, to love one another.”
This article first appeared on Thrive Global.