I read AI Superpowers right before visiting China and I have to say, it was my favorite book of 2018. Lee provided profound social, political, and economic analysis on both the United States and China and has truly transformed my understanding of Chinese tech innovation.
I remember hearing of Google’s DeepMind winning a game of Go (2,500 year old Chinese strategy game) in 2016 over the top player in the world; I didn’t think too much of it at the time. In general, there was excitement in Silicon Valley about the progress of artificial intelligence because of it. However, Lee beautifully illustrated how for China it was absolutely terrifying to see a machine beat their best player at their own game. This provoked imperialistic fears in China and kicked off massive investment in artificial intelligence. This event can only be really compared to when the Soviet satellite Sputnik triggered the US to enter the “Race for Space.”
This book paints vivid contrasting portraits of America’s Silicon Valley and the Chinese high tech equivalent. Kai-Fu Lee is one of very few individuals who is a pioneer in both; he describes tech in China more akin to an anything goes street fight in which only the strongest and scrappiest survive through firsthand tales.
Books I read usually fall into one of two categories: those in which I am trying to learn more about a particular subject matter (e.g. artificial intelligence) and those in which I am to learn from the personal life experiences of someone that I respect. I bought this book thinking it would help solely with the former but I was squarely mistaken. Halfway through, the book takes a very personal turn and details Lee’s abrupt cancer diagnosis and his realizations as he reflected on his past. This book shined light on one of my biggest fears—focusing so much on your career and professional life that you forget to enjoy and savor your personal life with the people that matter most: family and friends.
One of the big themes of this book is that artificial intelligence will likely be the first technological innovation from which sufficient new jobs will not be created to replace those jobs which become automated. Lee beautifully weaves his personal realizations from his near-death experience into a thoughtful potential solution for what society can do when there aren’t enough traditional jobs to go around.