By Kai-Fu Lee
This week, industry leaders from around the world gather for the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China. Two important developments point to the need for renewed efforts to enhance global co-operation on artificial intelligence and remedies to tackle the challenges it poses to society.
First, China has rapidly emerged as a global leader in AI with significant combined structural advantages. These include: a vast ocean of highly valuable data (which is critical for AI applications); increasingly strong companies and research labs turning out huge numbers of top AI scientists; a well-established and explosively ambitious technology start-up ecosystem; and genuine political will to advance the AI agenda with state support and massive financial backing.
I expect China will lead the AI revolution together with the US. This in itself is a new development of considerable geopolitical importance. It will require more open-minded interactions from other players on the world stage.
The rapid development of these technologies will enable AI to perform many analytical or quantitative tasks much better than humans. The success of DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero was just the start. Now technology similar to that which enabled it to become the world’s best player of Go (deep learning, reinforcement learning and so on) are underwriting loans, providing customer service, optimising advertising campaigns and picking stocks significantly better than human professionals. Even for more advanced tasks, such as assembling products, recognising faces and speech, flying a drone, even driving on a highway, AI is now becoming more proficient than people.
Second, the fact that these accurate AI tools will be so much more effective than humans means that a massive job displacement in the near future will be inevitable. I believe that AI and automation will be capable of replacing 50 per cent of current job tasks in the next 10 to 15 years.
The implications for the way we live our lives with technology are enormous. One casualty of this profound shift will be a work ethic constructed around the cultivation of human virtue. AI undermines the age-old belief that it is work, and what we do with the proceeds of it, that gives our lives meaning.
In a world where most telemarketing, customer service, clerking, accountancy, financial analysis will be automated, how do we ensure that those bearing the brunt of these changes are not lost to unemployment, depression and feelings of worthlessness? How do we deal with the wealth gap becoming a chasm? The danger is that the dystopian future imagined by the Chinese writer Hao Jinfang in her science fiction short story “Folding Beijing” becomes a reality. In Ms Hao’s tale, the Chinese capital is divided into three different layers, for the upper, middle and lower classes.
The very idea that such a world might come to pass should concentrate the minds of policymakers grappling with the ramifications of AI and seeking solutions to the challenges it poses.
We face a series of profound questions. How can we reimagine what it means to find dignity in work and be a productive member of society? How do we redesign our education systems to meet the needs of future generations who will have to adapt to the demands of AI? How do we shift wealth and provide opportunity to those left behind by breakneck technological change? And how do we enhance the status of the service and caring jobs which will still need to be done by humans when AI is taking care of a range of other tasks?
These questions are so hard, and the challenges we face so vast, that we cannot afford for the AI revolution to turn into a technological arms race. The US and China will have to work together to solve these common problems. They can start in Wuzhen this week.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures. Oriongal article was published here.