If you haven’t been paying attention, there is a war going on. It’s not a cold war or a hot war – it’s something brand new. We are on the cusp of civilization changing technology reshaping our world and our species – how that reshaping takes place depends on who wins the war. Will it be Silicon Valley and the flawed ‘American Way’ or will it be China and the equally flawed (but for different reasons) ‘Chinese Way’. Or will it be something else? Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a pioneer and luminary in the field of AI has written this very interesting book to prepare us – read on for a review. 

Essentially, for the last 500 years or so – European and American interests have been calling the shots and as Dr. Lee puts it – China now considers that to have been a mistake which will be corrected soon. He’s not just talking trash here. Dr. Lee has an amazing resume with plenty of experience and time to understand both the American and Chinese way of doing things. In this book – he contrasts the two technology ideologies from the developers to the government intervention to the use case scenarios. The result is a world approaching a crossroads with two very different futures ahead of it. 

While the average American may still think of China as the backwater where children are starving (so clean your plate), the reality is that China has awoken and is developing faster than any nation in world history. Dr. Lee says that the ‘sputnik moment’ was when the AlphaGo computer wholloped the world’s best human player repeatedly. At this point the Chinese government – an authoritarian, nationalist, socialist, and completely centralized entity in charge of nearly 1.5 billion humans put a laser focus on the development of AI and all that it will bring – and without the constraints of a capitalist nanny state that has to appear to be rights and property respecting. 

China is not constrained by property rights, patents, human rights, privacy issues, or unions – all of which prevent Silicon Valley from making the next leap. Dr. Lee compares data to electricity in this race and essentially what he posits is that China has a lot less constraints on it in regards to collecting and using data than the US does and this gives China a huge advantage. In addition, China has a population that values safety and security over liberty and privacy – which makes it much easier to implement all data seeing applications, software, and surveillance systems. 

I’ve read other reviews – and it seems that many of them think that Dr Lee is  playing favorites and painting a picture of China having an advantage because of his Taiwanese heritage and the fact that he has spent a great deal of time living in China. I don’t believe this is true, on the contrary, I think that Dr. Lee understates things due to his American bias and longstanding employment and investments in Silicon Valley. 

The Chinese are already deploying self-driving buses and paying for dinner in restaurants with the same app they buy music, message friends, find ride-shares, and rent bicycles with. We are very early in this race, but the US is already a decade behind. 

Dr. Lee’s breakdown of the factors that each country will lead in and his later breakdown of the jobs that will be affected (almost all of them) are about as good as one can hope to envision the future with. Only time will tell if his projections are accurate.  The important thing about this book, however, is the awareness it brings to the fact that we are in a race most American people aren’t even aware of – and we are losing. 

Finally, at the end of the book, Dr. Lee uses his own experience with cancer and how it changed the way he lives to suggest a more human approach to the future – unfortunately, unless the whole world is suddenly diagnosed wth Stage 4 cancer, this is not likely to resonate with people who have to struggle to pay bills, make rent, get educations, and worry about economic survival today. 

He argues that a sort of paid volunteerism is a better way to stave off the massive unemployment that is coming than an Universal Basic Income

He doesn’t seem to recognize that if thousands of senior citizens are suddenly volunteering to do jobs that require humans – that the humans who would have made a living doing those jobs now have no source of income. It seemed to be a pretty glaring blind spot to me in what was otherwise a very aware book. 

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