Kai-Fu Lee on How to Weather the Economic Impact of AI

Oct 23 2018 | Video Courtesy of Columbia Video Network

Experts may quibble over the details, but no one doubts that artificial intelligence (AI) is on the verge of ushering in a brave new world. Some make look eagerly toward the “singularity” that melds humans with the cloud or sound the alarm of sentient machines, but in the very near term, AI’s most critical impact will likely intersect more with everyday economics than science fiction.

AI icon Kai-Fu Lee, who earned his BA in computer science at Columbia, returned to campus this month to lay out his blueprint for a symbiotic working partnership between AI and people detailed in his new book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Lee joined Dean Mary Boyce in conversation at Davis Auditorium, along with a full house of faculty, students, and alumni, who participated in a lively Q&A and reception.

Watch Kai-Fu Lee's talk in its entirety

In her opening remarks, Dean Boyce touched on the School’s deep focus on AI research. “This is an area that Columbia Engineering is quite committed to,” she said, adding that over 50 faculty members—almost a quarter of the faculty—are actively investigating artificial intelligence across all departments. “They are either working on the foundations of AI or they are bringing AI into their domains. They may be discovering new materials, creating innovative new business models, or looking at how do we bring engineering impact into medicine.”

Lee, who devised a first-of-its-kind speech recognition system for his PhD thesis, is a widely cited expert on the subject. Presently head of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital (VC) firm that has launched five, billion-plus-dollar tech startups, and the author of seven best-selling books, Lee also served as founding president of Google China. In 2017, he spoke at Columbia Engineering’s graduation ceremony, which he credited with sowing the seeds for his latest venture. “It’s great to be back at my alma mater and to be talking about my new book, the idea for which actually came from my Class Day speech,” Lee told the crowd at Davis. 

I propose that if we do a very good job in the next 20 years, AI will be viewed as an age of enlightenment.

Kai-Fu Lee

The financier began his talk with a brief overview of how and why AI technology has advanced so rapidly in China over the past decade. In the last ten years, a fierce approach to entrepreneurship combined with favorable regulation and access to a uniquely rich trove of data transformed the country into an AI juggernaut. In 2017, VC funding in China eclipsed similar investment in the US.

But while the pace of China’s rise might give some pause, Lee cautioned the audience not to view AI development in the two countries as a zero-sum game. “The growth of one doesn’t imply shrinking of the other,” he said.

The more pressing issue is an AI-induced existential threat faced by both, he argued. Unprecedented risks to areas such as privacy and security lurk just below our collective horizon. The greatest challenge, however, will likely arise from AI’s potential to undermine labor markets and social systems across the globe as it greatly exacerbates income inequality and automates many jobs out of existence by midcentury.

But we needn’t feel powerless in the face of such dire predictions, Lee said.

“I propose that if we do a very good job in the next 20 years, AI will be viewed as an age of enlightenment,” he said.

To effectively and fairly manage the transition will require nothing less than a realignment of the world economy, Lee posited, so as to adequately compensate work based on the kind of compassion and creativity machines are incapable of. It also requires redirecting our parochial instincts toward a new era of international cooperation. Such a golden age would not only liberate humanity from routine work, but also push people to think more deeply and expansively about what it means to be human.

“For those who fear AI, fear not,” he said. “Because AI is just a tool. We are the masters of AI. We uniquely have free will, and we will be the ones to write the ending of the story of humans and AI.”

Lee’s talk was the first in a new Engineering for Humanity lecture series focusing on how technology can have a positive impact on humanity. The next installment takes place on Nov. 28, when Dean Boyce and Biomedical Engineering Professor Elizabeth Hillman join alumni Greg Dorn and Shivrat Chhabra to discuss health and wellness technology at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.