Artificial intelligence will be the electricity of the twenty-first century – a technology that will supercharge industries across the board. That’s just one of many bold observations from Taiwanese venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee’s new book, AI Super-powers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.
It’s a provocative must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the trends in technology that are going to transform global business – and our daily lives.
Lee argues that China will become the dominant power in AI. This is a claim that is vulnerable to challenge, but it’s important not to let any skepticism about his argument feed complacency. Lee’s book should be read as a loud wake-up call for the U.S. and Taiwan. Both need to get their acts together in serious ways and find ways to tighten their alliance so that they can better compete in the age of AI.
One of Lee’s bolder and most controversial points is that AI’s “age of discovery” is over. This era was dominated by brilliant elite thinkers, mostly clustered in the U.S. and Canada. Lee says their research led to the spectacular ramping up of what computers could do. But he says the fundamental AI technology has already been developed and that engineering talent has reached its threshold. Now we’re shifting to a new era – the “age of implementation” – when AI is applied to a vast range of products and services.
Dominating the age of implementation will require lots of data, computing power, hungry entrepreneurs, an AI-friendly policy environment, and a big pool of strong – but not necessarily elite – AI algorithm engineers. China has an abundance of all of these things, Lee says.
That may very well be true. But let’s return to Lee’s initial claim that the age of discovery is mostly over. Is that possible? When has innovation ever ended? Predicting how technology will evolve is a tricky task, and many of the most brilliant experts have gotten it wrong.
Lee’s arguments feed into a bigger popular discussion about how the world is dividing into two techno blocs, one dominated by China and another aligned with the U.S. America’s advantage is that it has longstanding relationships with allies that bring a lot of talent and potential for innovation.
Taiwan is one of those key allies, so Washington needs to have a deeper appreciation of the role the island plays as a U.S. ally. A robust Taiwanese economy that creates interesting jobs for young workers and retains talent is squarely in the U.S. strategic interests during the AI era.
In Taiwan, policymakers need to make sure they’re doing everything they can to strengthen the country’s position as a safe haven for intellectual property. Officials need to be savvier about attracting the foreign investment that Taiwan desperately needs if it’s going to be a hub for innovative industries.
Both sides have spent far too much time locked in long-running disputes over issues such as Taiwan’s ban on U.S. pork. Such squabbles have blocked progress toward beginning talks about a free trade agreement and focusing on more pressing issues, such as AI and the rapidly expanding digital economy.