Remember when Elon Musk, speaking at SXSW in March 2018, scared the dickens out of us by warning against artificial intelligence (AI)? “The danger of AI,” Musk stated, “is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads … more dangerous than nukes.”
Now comes yet another worrisome prediction, this time from Chinese venture capitalist and the world’s foremost authority on AI, Kai-Fu Lee. In an interview to be aired this Sunday on 60 Minutes, Lee says that in as soon as 15 years, 40 percent of the world’s jobs could be done by machines.
“AI will increasingly replace repetitive jobs, not just for blue-collar work, but a lot of white-collar work,” Lee tells CBS reporter Scott Pelley. “Chauffeurs, truck drivers, anyone who does driving for a living — their jobs will be disrupted more in the 15-to-25 year time frame.” Lee has also said (in an interview with PBS’s Amanpour & Company last September) that AI will never be capable of creativity or empathy.
If you’re unaware of Lee’s impact as an influencer in tech, you should read up on this guy: For starters, he’s got 50 million social media followers for his micro-blog (on China’s Sina Weibo). As an immigrant, he attended high school in Tennessee, graduated from Columbia University and earned his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, developing the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as his thesis subject.
He’s been an executive at Apple, Microsoft and Google. And he’s written the recently published bestseller AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.
Now 57, Lee is based in Beijing, where he focuses on helping young Chinese achieve in their studies and careers. Education is a big part of this, Lee tells Pelley, in a profile that depicts Chinese students even in remote rural villages using technology with aplomb.
Lee finances the companies installing those classroom AI systems and he has some intriguing, some might say frightening, things to say about what he sees as the eventual outcome both for the students and their nation, 70 percent of whose citizens use cellphones often for routine transactions. The enormous data blocks that have resulted are helping China’s companies develop AI. “China clearly has an advantage,” Lee says.
Overall, “I believe [AI] is going to change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity,” Lee says. And the sea change in jobs?
“What does that do to the fabric of society?” Pelley asks in the interview.
“Well, in some sense, there is the human wisdom that always overcomes these technological revolutions,” Lee says. “The invention of the steam engine, the sewing machine, electricity, have all displaced jobs. We’ve gotten over it. The challenge of AI is this 40 percent, whether it is 15 or 25 years, is coming faster than the previous revolutions.”
For the moment, America is ahead in terms of its advanced technological research, Lee says, noting that this scenario versus China’s will be “about 50/50 for the next five years.”
But after that, who knows? Huge job losses? Chinese advances? A lack of empathy from all those future AI machines? Maybe Elon was right to worry.