This article marks the beginning of my blog’s focus on The Big Picture — namely, on technology, digital trends, and how these are impacting the business world. We’ll start with the book AI Superpowers, by Kai-Fu Lee.
AI Superpowers paints a potentially bleak picture of the upcoming AI revolution.
The author is an engineer, an AI expert, the man who ran Google in China, and the author of the first AI program to defeat the world Othello champion.
So, in my opinion, you can’t get much more “big picture” than that.
AI Superpowers: A New World Order
In AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, Lee claims that the AI revolution is the successor to the industrial revolution … only bigger in scale.
He also claims that China will either surpass or stand toe-to-toe with the United States in terms of AI capabilities. Hence the title of his book.
Some data to back up this claim include:
- PricewaterhouseCoopers’ estimate that “AI deployment will add $15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030.”
- iResearch’s estimates that mobile payments in China will be 50X greater than in the USA
- China’s massive access to personal data, which is overwhelmingly greater than Silicon Valley’s access to mobile data
- Predictions that AI will “technically be able to replace” as much as 50% of US jobs within 15 years
- When it comes to research, AI citations from China have exploded in recent years, and some institutions outrank US institutions
- China’s massive government investment in AI is fueling exponential industry growth
And that’s just for starters.
He’s not so quick to hide his jab at Silicon Valley’s naive perspective on China, either.
According to Lee, Silicon Valley tends to view China as an unsophisticated market that can merely copy the innovations of China.
But instead of denying the undeniable copycatting by Chinese startups, Lee says it’s a strength.
He points out that how this has worked in their favor, particularly when they evolve beyond the original copy … and how this has spawned massive businesses. And that this behavior comes from an entirely different culture, economic context, and marketplace.
Silicon Valley vs. China
The picture he paints of the “cutthroat” Chinese marketplace should be sobering to Silicon Valley tech professionals:
- Chinese entrepreneurs work insanely harder than their Silicon Valley counterparts, in part because they come from a backdrop of centuries of “grinding poverty”
- They play by different rules, which, when placed in the context of the global marketplace, will likely throw do-gooder Silicon Valley entrepreneurs off their game (to say the least) — think of Silicon Valley as a boxing match, and the Chinese startup scene as a UFC match … where the referees would rather not get involved
- China’s AI industry is, as mentioned, being fueled by the Chinese government
Perhaps even stronger than the data presented is the picture he paints.
One way he does this is with stories and images. Alongside the narrative and the data, these really hammer home this disparity between AI professionals in
China and the USA.
For instance, the images of:
- Dorms that cut off their electricity at 23:00 hours — and students who venture outside en masse to study under street lights
- Chinese entrepreneurs engaging in bloodthirsty, all-out warfare to win
- Government-funded smart cities built from scratch, in a matter of years
- Future roads flooded with self-driving cars and skies swarming with AI-powered drones
Put all this together, and it seems the US is facing a juggernaut bent on AI dominance.
And if that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, then let’s look at Lee’s most frightening statistic:
AI Could Replace Between 40-50% of US Jobs in the Next 15 Years
Lee cites several studies that make multiple predictions about automation. Some predictions are less severe than this one.
He goes into detail about their methodologies, which ones he agrees with, which ones he doesn’t, and why.
However, this statistic forms the “jewel in his crown of statistics” so to say. His book leads with it and is centered around the bleak potential future that it could lead to.
And, unlike many popular media outlets, Lee goes into engineer-like precision about:
- The categories of AI
- Which jobs will be replaced in what order
- Why white collar jobs will be hit hardest, fastest
And much more.
This poses a very grave threat to the welfare and well-being of humanity, he claims, saying that:
The AI world order will combine winner-take-all economics with an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few companies in China and the United States. This, I believe, is the real underlying threat posed by artificial intelligence: tremendous social disorder and political collapse stemming from widespread unemployment and gaping inequality.
Not only will this separate these two superpowers from other, less powerful countries, it will also increase the divide inside these two countries.
After describing this bleak scenario, Lee’s book changes tone and shifts gears completely.
He recounts his brush with cancer, how it affected his worldview, and then offers his solution to the upcoming AI conundrum.
I fully expected some deeply insightful strategy, such as:
- A technological approach
- An investment solution such as that being spearheaded by Chamath Palihapitiya
- Regulating or breaking up AI monopolies
- Some sort of innovative restructuring that would counter the impending economic income gap
Instead, he proposed a government stipend.
This approach, he said, would go further than the commonly touted Universal Basic Income, by providing meaningful work as well as income.
I won’t go into my personal feelings on this solution.
However, from a marketing standpoint, this book takes an interesting tactic — suddenly shifting tone away from data and analysis, relying instead on an appeal to emotion.
It reminds me of the long-form ads for investment newsletters produced by Agora Financial, though not as well executed. (They employ the world’s best copywriters, after all.)
A chain of logic (in this case, rather tenuous) is used alongside the emotional button-pushing, driving the sale. This style is in stark contrast to the first part of the book, which contained dense data, analysis, historical information, and stories to make its case.
From a marketing communications perspective, this is a fairly well-crafted sales document, one worthy of study.
Regardless of one’s personal feelings about his predictions or his solution, the book is worth a read, because…
The AI Revolution Will Impact Your Business and Your Life
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, small business owner, marketing professional, freelancer, or executive…
AI is already impacting your life.
Will it automate away 50% of jobs?
Will it automate away your job?
It depends on the nature of your work.
As Lee says, it will apply a great deal of pressure across a spread of industries. He even offers a very interesting grid that breaks down which jobs will be affected, how, and in what order.
Job replacement isn’t the only danger.
People forced out of their occupations will begin seeking work elsewhere, which means more competition for those jobs that don’t get automated away. This, in turn, will increase demand for jobs, shrink supply, and depress wages even further.
Not a good combination.
While Lee proposes that the government rescue us from AI, my first suggestion for business owners is more practical.
You personally cannot control government actions or AI monopolies, but you can…
Innovate Now and Use AI to Gain an Edge
AI tools are already in your hands, even if you don’t know it.
Marketing technology (martech), for instance, makes extensive use of AI for:
Anyone with an ounce of programming skill can leverage emerging AI tech to develop their own custom tools.
For instance, even though I’m just at the level of a junior developer, I’ve already built an app that uses two readily available AI tools: Google Vision API and Google Translate API.
In a short amount of time, I put these two together to create an app that:
- Recognizes Japanese text from an image (from Google Vision API)
- Parses it
- Retrieves individual word translations (from Google Translate API)
- Stores and displays all of this information on a single page
The result: you have immediate access to the phonetics and English meanings of a Japanese text.
When combined with other features, such as flashcards, text storage, etc., you have a fully functional, AI-driven language learning app.
By using cutting-edge AI tech — what Lee calls grid-based AI — even low level developers can produce innovative products.
And business owners can exploit state-of-the-art, AI-driven solutions to gain an edge in their marketplace.
My point is this:
Conclusion: AI Now
Bring your job to AI.
Don’t wait for AI to come to your job.
As I mentioned in my article on AI and copywriting, you’ll have to find ways to adapt and innovate in the AI “new world order,” as Lee calls it.
This means learning to use AI (now, not tomorrow, when everyone else is scrambling), learning new job skills, looking ahead, and finding ways to differentiate yourself … not just from competitors, but from AI itself.
If you’re a copywriter, for instance, why should a business hire you instead of a machine?
Especially if that machine is orders of magnitude cheaper, faster, and better than you?
Anyways, this book is an excellent read and very thought-provoking.
It is a full-length book, so it will take time.
Also, note that I barely scratched the surface of the book. To really grasp its contents, you should read it yourself.
However, if you’re concerned about the future, AI, automation, and the impacts of impending tech innovations, give it a read.