Kai-Fu Lee, a prominent investor and entrepreneur based in Beijing, has been talking up China’s artificial intelligence potential for a while. Now he’s got a message for the United States. The real threat to American preeminence in AI isn’t China’s rise, he says—it’s the US government’s complacency.
Lee is well placed to understand the issue, even if he isn’t altogether unbiased. He worked on machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University during the 1980s, led Microsoft’s research lab in China in the 1990s, and then spearheaded Google’s venture into China in the 2000s. Today Lee leads Sinovation Ventures, an AI-focused incubator based in Beijing. He is also the author of AI Superpowers, a new book that explores the Chinese and American AI booms.
Rather than competition from China, Lee says, the real risk for the US is in failing to invest in and prioritize fundamental AI research—a problem that’s being exacerbated as big US companies suck up much of the top talent in the field. In general, tech firms focus less on fundamental breakthroughs than does academia, which struggles to compete with the private sector in retaining researchers.