I recently read Kai Fu Lee’s book AI Superpowers
for the Peter Thiel course
on nationalism and technology that I’ve discussed before
. It’s a quick and engaging read and an opportunity to hear a perspective from someone fully immersed in the Chinese AI ecosystem.
One of Lee’s most interesting arguments is a sociological one about the differences between Silicon Valley and Chinese startups: in Silicon Valley the highest ideal is to be a software-only platform, to write code that abstracts away the messiness of the real world; in China, the winners are those who vertically integrate and embrace the messiness and logistical complexity of “offline”. This, Lee argues, will allow China to “win" the next wave of AI, which will be much more integrated in the physical world.
Interestingly, Lee believes this has policy consequences. Why has Silicon Valley so embraced universal basic income
(see previous coverage
), a fringe policy until fairly recently? It’s not the only possible policy response to automation, but says Lee:
UBI is the epitome of the [Silicon Valley] light approach to problem solving… Best of all it doesn’t place any further burden to think critically about the societal impacts of the technologies they build.
I’m not convinced that China is a paragon of virtue
when it comes to tech policy, but it’s an interesting and important critique.