klee2_Jonas GratzerLightRocket via Getty Images_robotchild Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Insider Interview

The Art of AI

As the world enters a new decade, research and development into artificial intelligence and its many applications are barreling forward, and nowhere more so than in China. Although popular narratives tend to focus on the threats posed by AI, the truth is that many of the technology's dangers have been overhyped, and its promises neglected.

A leading figure in the Chinese tech scene and in artificial-intelligence development globally, Kai-Fu Lee earned a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 1988 before serving in executive roles at Apple, SGI, Microsoft, and Google, where he was president of Google China. Now the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures in Beijing, he is the author of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Here, he discusses the global AI race, the current state of the field, and what may – and should – come next.

Project Syndicate: As someone who long worked for US companies and now oversees a tech venture capital firm, you’re deeply familiar with the world’s two main settings for AI development and research. What are the trade-offs of each R&D environment? What advantages does China offer over the US, and what must policymakers change or improve to achieve China’s goal of catching up to and surpassing the US?

Kai-Fu Lee: There is now a clear US-China AI duopoly. AI in China is rising rapidly, boosted by several structural advantages: huge data sets, a young army of technical talent, aggressive entrepreneurs, and strong and pragmatic government policy. The attitude in China can be summarized as pro-tech, pro-experimentation, and pro-speed, all of which puts the country on track to becoming a major AI power.

The big players in China are competing fiercely with their US counterparts, and rapidly catching up in terms of research and scientific expertise, as well as global platform experience. Because China is a latecomer in the world’s technology leadership, clear and consistent government policy has also helped accelerate the growth in R&D funding, as well as encouraging the adoption and implementation of AI technologies across the Chinese public and private sectors.

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