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Review of AI super-powers: China, Silicon Valley and the new world order by Kai-Fu Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Affairs
Published1 Mar 2019

King's Authors

Abstract

The Trump–Xi trade war over semi-conductors is just one manifestation of the trepidation about who holds tech supremacy: the US or China. Does the future lie in Silicon Valley, the epitome of American entrepreneurship and home to the mission-oriented founders who have connected us and organized the world’s information? Or with the growing Chinese tech behemoths, which we presume are propped up by the state? The two countries’ relative artificial intelligence (AI) capacity is of particular interest in answering this question.

Anxiety over the advance of AI is rife as, even in the hands of American engineers,
it sparks deep-seated worry about the social dislocations it could cause in the form of
widespread unemployment. More worrisome yet is the potential of AI beyond human
control, operating without the right moral underpinnings. This is where pundits exclaim that AI in China’s hands could spell limitless (and sinister) use, especially in the realm of security. This consternation has fuelled western commentators’ fascination with the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative and its unabashed aim for the country to be a world leader in AI.

There are two standard narratives in response to these concerns. One is a variation on the argument that ‘China is just a copycat’ so not a real threat. Subscribers to this paradigm do not quibble over the country’s ability to overtake Silicon Valley at its own game. The future of AI, so they say, will stay in American hands, but the US government must stop China from easily accessing this technology. The other camp is deeply worried about China’s ability because the match is rigged. They cry foul, pointing to the extensive role of the state in boosting its tech companies. The US government and its allies should apply pressure to China to stop them from giving their entrepreneurs this unfair advantage.

Kai-Fu Lee’s book offers an informed account that does not succumb to either of these overplayed narratives. Lee draws on his impressive experience in both countries to give first-hand insights into which side will be victorious, and why. His argument is clear: China will be the victor, but not for the reasons we typically encounter.

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