Book Review: AI Superpowers by Kai-fu Lee

This book was quite a challenging read, not in the sense that it was poorly written – it was very clearly written – but in the sense that it puts a dent in one’s western arrogance. This book talks about the rise of AI technologies, and the rise of China’s thriving technology sector; how Chinese tech companies have gone from emulating what they saw coming out of Silicon Valley, to becoming a world leader in AI research and application.

As a chronicle of China’s tech-history this book is really informative, and I guess it gives me pause for thought about things like “first-mover advantage”, and whether it is feasible to succeed by doing the same thing as someone else, but better. I think the early part of the book is at risk of painting an “us and them” picture of China vs “the West”, but towards the end of the book the author stresses that we should be very careful not to let ourselves fall into another cold war, or even to get into that frame of mind.

The author also presents a thorough discussion on how AI will progress, and what sort of jobs might be at risk; There is need for some careful thought about how this will play out, and whether we can really trust free markets to do solve all the challenges. Perhaps the key point here is we need to be talking about this rather than closing our minds and saying “it’ll be fine”.

What I found most interesting in the book was the chapter where the author shares how a battle with cancer made him realise that he was focusing so much on success that he had robbed his wife and children of the love he should have given them. This realisation gave him new perspective, and hope that rather than AI wreaking havoc on our economy by driving massive wealth inequality, it might give us an opportunity to redefine our society along more communal, humane lines.

I think the key takeaways for me are:

  • You don’t have to be the first at something, you just have to be better at it, and there is no natural right to a monopoly for those who are first.
  • Get your head around AI, it is going to be the foundation of our economy in the near future.
  • Don’t be afraid to work hard, but don’t value or define yourself by your economic success or standing, define it by how much you love.

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