The Automation Revolution

Up until last month, the topic of artificial intelligence to me were mere buzzwords of a distant future that I wanted little to do with. I had long separated artificial intelligence and my own interests; I viewed computer scientists and political scientists as opposite sides of the career spectrum. Thus, I picked up AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order with scant interest, but left with rambunctious thoughts. Here is an attempt to organize my ideas into coherence:

Paradoxical Advantages

Kai-Fu Lee’s book starts off with examining the advantages and disadvantages that China and the United States have in the AI race through multiple lenses: political, economic, ethical, and more.

America is often celebrated as the leader of cutting-edge technology due to the “freedom” that the government offers to corporations relative to other countries, particularly China, which we view as Communist. And this makes sense; a lack of government oversight allows room for corporations to research, create, and innovate without constraints. Yet, when examining the AI race, the opposite seems to be the case. There are a few reasons here:

  • The United States has intellectual property laws, which allows companies to brand their own products and limit imitation. For example, Apple will continuously churn out iPhones that have had basically the same functions for the past few years but customers will eagerly purchase them. Thus, Apple does not need to make break-through innovations if they don’t want to. On the other hand, Chinese companies often start as copies of US companies/other Chinese companies, and are forced to innovate and tailor to consumer interest in order to make a profit (survival of the fittest).
  • The American government’s hands-off approach also means that the government spends less on AI research and development, whereas China’s government actively gives monetary incentives for AI companies to innovate and grow.
  • China’s large population size and lack of civil liberties regulations allow companies to collective massive amounts of data. This is especially useful in medical technology. The lack of intellectual property laws also mean that one app (i.e. WeChat) can copy functions of other apps until it becomes a master application that offers services for one’s entire lifestyle–food, social media connection, payment, etc, which aids the ability for data collection. On the other hand, the US’ phone functions are separated on a variety of apps. The closest app to WeChat that the US has is Facebook, which has continuously faced condemnation for its intrusiveness.

Ironic, right? Yet, Americans refuse to let go of the idea that we will win the AI race because due to our superiority complex when it comes to “backwards” countries like China–an orientalist assumption that has costly implications for the future of AI.

Career Implications

Lee then dives into how artificial intelligence impacts the labor market:

There are a few theories as to how we can cope with the loss of jobs. Perhaps, new career fields will open up, perhaps we will need to adjust the number of hours in a normal work day, or perhaps we are bound for extreme and irreversible class stratification.

But, what Kai-Fu Lee does not address deeply is a question that’s constantly nagging me in the back of my mind: what is a human? What characteristics separate artificial intelligence with humanity? Empathy, altruism, aspiration–are these enough to ensure that artificial intelligence does not overtake humanity? And, will we answer these questions before it becomes too late?

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