Humanity’s own technological creations turning against their masters has been a recurring theme in pop culture and science fiction for years. Film franchises such as The Terminator (beginning in 1984) and The Matrix trilogy (with its first film released in 1999) revolve around super smart machines revolting against their human overlords, waging war and — in the latter’s case — enslaving them. As our devices become smarter and we grow increasingly reliant on them, the question remains: are we, too, headed towards such a bleak future?

The bestselling book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order by Kai-Fu Lee probes into the big questions on technology as we stand at the cusp of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution. In this brave new world, data is as precious as oil and the two dominant superpowers of our age — namely China and the United States — are in a race to achieve dominance over the other.

But who is in the lead at this particular moment in time? Is it the name we automatically assume, or is someone else speeding ahead? Having worked for technology giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google and as a venture capitalist in Beijing, the author — a Taiwanese-born American computer scientist — is best placed to make such an analysis. While American technology firms are household names, there isn’t much that is known about the leading Chinese companies. The Chinese companies were previously content with copying from their American rivals; now, however, they have progressed to become technology pioneers themselves and in many respects have become superior to their American counterparts.

A Taiwanese-American computer scientist examines what the race for global Artificial Intelligence dominance between the US and China will mean for less advanced countries and for humankind

Take, for instance, Weibo (launched in 2009), a microblogging platform similar to Twitter (launched in 2006). In 2017, the Chinese app was valued at $11.3 billion. This was $200 million more than what the American company was worth in the same year. Didi (launched in 2012), meanwhile, is a ride-hailing app that registers more rides in China alone than Uber (founded in 2009) does across the entire world. Then there is the fact that in 2017, the value of total transactions on Chinese payment platforms reportedly surpassed $17 trillion — an amount greater than the whole GDP of China, which was reported by The World Bank to be $12.14 trillion for the same year. Such clout has enabled the Chinese companies to not just compete with Silicon Valley on an equal footing, but it has also primed them to harness what the author dubs the “electricity of the future.”

Lee’s book places all this information in the context of AI and its social and economic impact on the coming future. But what really is AI? A common definition could be that it is the development of computer systems and software that act as substitutes for human intelligence, performing such functions as decision making, speech recognition and visual recognition, among others. It also poses a certain dilemma, as machines and devices powered by AI may be making life easier for us, but might potentially take jobs away from humans as technology progresses in the coming decades.

This could actually be the most troubling aspect of how this technological change is going to pan out. As AI becomes increasingly capable of automating or replacing the jobs that humans traditionally perform in the economy, there is immense risk of human labour becoming redundant in many cases, leading to massive unemployment and economic and social inequality across the globe. Taking away people’s livelihoods could lead to rioting on the streets and other social upheavals.

It doesn’t matter where an idea came from or who came up with it. All that matters is whether you can execute it to make a financial profit. The core motivation for China’s market-driven entrepreneurs is not fame, glory, or changing the world. Those things are all nice side benefits, but the grand prize is getting rich, and it doesn’t matter how you get there. — Excerpt from the book

The oligopolistic concentration of technological power will also mean that poorer countries will become dependent on China and America and a select few countries. As Lee writes, “deprived of the chance to claw their way out of poverty, poor countries would stagnate while the AI superpowers take off. I fear this ever-growing economic divide will force poor countries into a state of near total dependence and subservience. Their governments may try to negotiate with the superpower that supplies their AI technology, trading market and data access for guarantees of economic aid for the population. Whatever the bargain is struck, it would not be one based on agency or equality between nations.” In other words, we will end up with a juiced-up, technological version of the International Monetary Fund. If one has any reservations about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and what it portends for us, China’s lead in AI may ring even more alarm bells.

Lee’s book would appeal to anyone interested in international relations, tech start-ups or those who just want to keep their finger on the pulse of how the future is shaping up to be. It would also serve as complementary reading to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and ‘futurist’ Amy Webb’s The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity. Both these books — like Lee’s — pontificate on a similar future shaped by AI. Is there any way to avert this dismal future? Is humanity doomed? Will AI — as pop culture would want us to believe — turn against us, or will it usher us into a golden age of man-machine collaboration? Only time will tell, but this book attempts to give some thoughtful and insightful answers.

The reviewer has worked as a producer in news media, an analyst in the NGO sector and is currently a lecturer at SZABIST University

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the
New World Order
By Kai-Fu Lee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US
ISBN: 978-1328546395
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 8th, 2019