Michael Keane, Curtin University
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the west achieved territorial and economic dominance on a global scale. Western supremacy was reflected in modern communications infrastructure (the postal telegraph, satellite TV, and the internet), in technological innovation (electricity, nuclear power), and in the legitimacy of its institutions (intellectual property).
Many scholars, diplomats and commentators believe that Asia’s rise will lead to comparable dominance in the 21st century. However, talk of an Asian century, while triumphant, is perhaps premature. The more likely development is that most nation-states in Asia, even the most technologically developed among them, will be increasingly tied to the fortunes of China.
According to Lee Kai-fu, author of AI Superpowers. China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, technological innovations developed in the US have assisted China in its latest mission of becoming a global AI superpower. Already Chinese technology companies like Huawei and ZTE are rolling out fibre optic infrastructure in central Asia. This has implications for regional stability. With south-east and central Asia among the world’s fastest growing markets for social media, more data will accumulate on Chinese servers, which will make China a digital superpower.
This scenario is causing trepidation in the White House. On October 4th, 2018, US Vice-President Mike Pence unleashed a fresh invective of trade war accusations against China. Pence repeated accusations made by Donald Trump that tech entrepreneurs in China are stealing ideas and wantonly flouting intellectual property.
Lee sees it differently. Chinese tech entrepreneurs are gladiatorial; their margins are slim and it’s a fight to the death in a hyper-competitive ecosystem. Businesses copy and clone each other’s innovations without fear. It doesn’t matter if competitors are domestic or international. Moreover, the government provides valuable guiding assistance but allows the market to take its own course.
In 2015, innovation became a buzzword with the State Council launching a policy called ‘mass entrepreneurship and innovation.’ The term innovation featured in government’s work report that year fourteen times. Now there are literally masses of Chinese becoming entrepreneurs, busily innovating in the Chinese way. It is happening at breakneck speed because regional governments and mayors are buying into the idea of China as an AI superpower.
Having represented Google’s business ambitions in China, however, Lee Kai-fu is well-placed to pass verdict on the differences between these two AI superpowers. One of the key reasons why China will become an AI superpower, Lee says, is that people in China are happy to release their data to the big tech companies whose algorithms are getting exponentially stronger. Technology is generally considered to be good for the economy and for people’s lives, a view that is heavily promoted by government plans.
It’s not without risk however. Facial recognition and big data harvesting are helping the Chinese government regulate society, along with the practice of scoring people’s social behaviour called Social Credit, which is likely to expand nationally, following success pilot schemes. Predictive algorithms increase efficiency and regulate unruly behaviour but they also endanger civic freedoms. Lee does not moralise about digital surveillance, the effects of data privacy breaches and hacking activities, topics that have animated public debates in the west where tech companies have been culpable of playing fast and loose with people’s data.
The willingness of people in China to surrender data stands in contrast to traditional Chinese society in which people only shared personal information among family and close friends. The traditional social model (guanxi) that cemented ties between people has morphed, particularly among younger people, into an online universe of liking, matching and sharing. The Chinese social behemoth WeChat has almost a billion users, mostly in China, which is about half the numbers attributed to Facebook and its messaging app, WhatsApp.
Writing about what he sees as a dearth of innovation in the US, Tyler Cowen points to a social media saturated society in which people find quick answers to problems by using available apps. While productivity increases, power is concentrated in the hands of the tech overlords.
The darker side of the information-rich society is also the subtext of Lee Kai-fu’s book. Low-cost employment, the kind of work that has allowed developing countries to make economic gains in the past, will diminish significantly as robots displace workers, not only in routine tasks but in many whiter collar domains.
With machines taking away livelihoods, a solution must be found from within the beast. Lee says that the solution is in the hands of the tech leaders of today, and tomorrow. Many of the problems can be alleviated if we imagine a world in which the future of work and the social expectations surrounding work are recalibrated. The super-rich, here he refers to those who have benefited from the technology boom, can kick-start a new way of imagining the future of work, a future in which machines create the productivity nations needs and where people provide tasks that machines can’t.
What are these new ‘humanistic’ services? A new range of consultancy and caring professions will emerge. In medical services for instance Lee identifies ‘compassionate care givers’ who would support the intelligent machines that would do the actual diagnosis. Such discussions about the future, while unlikely to solve current problems of unemployment and income redistribution brought about by the AI revolution, do need to be conducted. If China becomes an AI Superpower as Lee suggests, Asia may be in for a bumpy ride.