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Kai-Fu Lee is very bullish about the futureof AI in China. He started his lunch keynote at MIT’s AI and the Future of Workevent by predicting that self-driving cars will become a mass phenomenon in theU.S. in 15 to 20 years. But in China it will be “more like 10 years.”


That may come as a surprise to manyAmerican observers of and participants in the rush to capitalize on recentprogress in artificial intelligence. Especially when such predictions come fromsomeone with the stature of Kai-Fu Lee and his deep familiarity with thestate-of-AI in both North America and China. Lee completed his PhD inartificial intelligence (speech recognition) at Carnegie-Mellon University in1988, worked at Apple, SGI, Microsoft and Google and, in 2009, establishedBeijing-based Sinovation Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm.


Face++, a Chinese face recognition startup(and one of Sinovation’s investments), recently won first place in 3 computervision challenges, ahead of teams from Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and CMU.


The AAAI postponed its 2017 annual meetingby a week when it found out the planned date coincided with the Chinese NewYear. A nearly equal number of accepted papers came from researchers based inChina and the U.S.


“There is no data like more data,” Lee quotedAI pioneer Fred Jelinek. Most of the AI algorithms are open source andwell-known, he said, you just need a few smart people to tweak them. Companiessuch as Facebook and Google owe their success to a virtuous cycle: More dataleads to a product that is better trained with AI which leads to more users andmaking more money, enabling the hiring of more scientists and the acquisitionof more machines, processing and mining even more data.


As Lee pointed out, the data gap betweenthe US and China is “dramatically larger” than the actual gap between therespective populations or the number of active mobile users. Chinese use their phones to pay for goods 50times more often than Americans, he says, and orders for food delivery are 10times greater than in the US. All ofthis is data available for training AI models. “China is leapfrogging the waymobile is and should be used,” says Lee. US used to have the best payment infrastructure in the world—creditcards. But China got the chance to leapfrog, says Lee, with mobile payments:frictionless, peer to peer, instantaneous. This mobile infrastructure and allthe applications built on top of it generate lots of data feeding into the AIvirtuous cycle.


Useful Innovation


‘What really matters is not innovation, butuseful innovation.’”


China provides a “conducive environment forfast launch and fast iterations,” says Lee. Compared to the US, there is lessfocus on data privacy and “less expectation of consensus on moral issues.”There is more focus on execution and a dedication to a singular objective andthe vision for the company. That vision, more often than not, includes globalambitions.


Government support (of the right kind)


The aforementioned Face++ recently raised$460 million in a C-round of financing led by China's state-owned CapitalVenture Investment Fund. Matching funds from the Chinese government increaseddramatically last year to $353 billion, up from $146 billion in 2015 and $129billion in 2014.


“The government becomes an LP [LimitedPartner] in a VC fund with a willingness to take a lower return than otherLPs,” says Lee. “That’s an encouragement to top VCs to take government moneyand spend less time raising funds and more time building great companies. It’sinspired by Israeli and Singaporean practices which are very smart practices,”he adds.


Most important, government funds are guidedby clear government policies. The Chinese government is pro-tech,pro-experimentation, and pro-speed, according to Lee, “as opposed to usingpolicies to forbid things.” Last July, China’s state council announced that by2020 China will catch up in AI technologies and applications and by 2030 itwill become “the world’s primary AI innovation center.”


Quoting the October 2017 speech by XiJinping to the 19th Congress which set the goal of promoting “furtherintegration of the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with thereal-world economy,” Lee says “He gets what we are talking about in terms of AIand combining the virtual world with the real world.”


Venturesome spirit


An adventurous spirit of risk-taking, experimentation,and audacity characterizes Chinese consumers, many companies, even governmentagencies. This was evident in Lee’s talk especially when he ventured to predictthe future along the lines of his “four waves” or stages in the digital transformationof the economy.


In the first wave, companies succeed bysmartly using online data and Lee predicts that “Chinese internet companieswill leapfrog American ones.” Not only because of their lead in mobile andpayments, but also because they “are less restricted by anti-trust laws and aretenacious in terms of territory expansion. Every one of them [i.e., Baidu,Alibaba, Tencent] is going to have a bank, and insurance company, and so on.”


But Lee was a bit more precise andconfident in Chinese superiority in another part of the presentation when hediscussed retail automation or autonomous stores. Amazon acquiring Whole Food?“We think this is a rather primitive activity,” he asserted. Whileacknowledging that Amazon Go is the most technologically advanced example,“autonomous stores are coming up everywhere” in China, said Lee. This is partof a larger trend, Online-Merges-with-Offline (OMO), the merging of the digitalworld with the physical world, which Lee says will impact also education andmany other areas. If you visit China in another year or so, he promised, halfof your shopping will be done in autonomous or semi-autonomous stores. “This isthe speed in which Chinese companies implement things,” Lee says.


Free-wheeling, competitive, bold. “Thatsprit will launch China forward to become a very strong AI power,” concludedLee.


The world’s most dominant spirit ofenterprise has relocated and been reimagined before, transforming from theMerchant Adventurers of 16th century England and their wave-
ruling successorsto the “American System” which first meant protectionism, and later became thebuzzword for the mass production .


Except that history did not end. Instead,the future is being invented elsewhere. The same motivating force that hasanimated economic growth in the West is now producing
economic systems withcompletely new features in China and India. In the preface to the 2010 Chinesetranslation of Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Liah Greenfeld wrote:“Nationalism has finally taken root within the general populations of China andIndia, becoming the decisive collective motivation of these two giant peoples.This has made them economically and politically competitive.”


Lee featured prominently in the storyBuderi told about establishing Microsoft’s research lab in China. “In talkingto Lee,” they wrote, “his sense of familial duty and respect for his mother andfather are inescapable.” Lee’s father, Li Tien-Min, a legislator in thegoverning Kuomintang administration when Mao came to power in 1949, had to fleeto Taiwan. “My father always felt China had not realized its potential,” Leetold Buderi.


Today, China is realizing its potential tobecome a leader in many fields, including artificial intelligence.