BEIJING: As a journalist, I always try to ask smart questions. But I could not beat the questions that a group of five-year-olds posed to China’s top artificial intelligence (AI) guru, like the ones in the headline of this article.
People pay attention to what Dr Lee Kai-Fu says – lots of people. Fifty million people in China follow him on social media, which means he has more fans than American talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
One of his tag lines is “AI is reshaping the world as we know it”. But beyond having a snappy turn of phrase, the 57-year-old possesses heavyweight credentials.
He was the founding president of Google China, from 2005 to 2009. And his early resume includes stints as vice president at top technology firms, like Microsoft and Apple.
Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella calls Dr Lee’s book on the New York Times bestseller list – AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order – a “must-read”.
That is slightly ironic, since Microsoft actually sued Google in 2005 in an attempt to block the search engine giant from hiring Dr Lee. Of course, this was before Mr Nadella became CEO in 2014.
Back to the clever questions.
What worries Dr Lee is not human-robot marriages, because while a tiny minority of people might want to treat robots as humans, most of us – even children – know the difference between a toy or a pet and a human relationship.
“But for elder care, I think it’s going exactly in the wrong direction. I believe that elder care is the job that we children must do for our parents. And when we don’t do it, we must hire a human,” he says.
Giving them (the elderly) primitive, fake and inanimate non-emotional robots to interact with is a cruel thing that we shouldn’t do as human beings.
He acknowledges that AI can be used for mundane tasks, like reminding us to take our medicine or monitoring safety. But for this AI expert, the human warmth part is paramount.
“My mother had dementia, and when she was alive the last 15 years, it was her children who spent probably five to 10 hours a day with her, which kept her dementia from worsening,” he recounts.
“There’s no way a robot can do that.”
40% OF JOBS WILL DISAPPEAR
Dr Lee predicts, however, that AI will make countless jobs redundant in a short time. He sees 40 per cent – which is hundreds of millions of jobs – disappearing in just 15 years perhaps.
And he has been looking at many jobs and many companies as the founder and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, one of China’s earliest institutional angel investors.
But he says it is not all gloom, as AI will also create millions more jobs.
“For example, when the Internet began, none of us could predict, 20 years later, there’d be 10 million Uber and Didi drivers in the world. And that’s a lot of jobs being created,” he cites.
While many routine jobs will disappear, not all manual jobs will necessarily go.
“For blue-collar jobs, the replacement won’t be that fast. The jobs that require minimal dexterity, like picking up items, is fairly easy … while making an iPhone, that’s actually quite hard,” he says.
“One could put a spectrum. A plumber would be safe for many years, although car mechanics, not so safe. Assembly-line workers making an iPhone – okay. But assembly-line workers folding clothes and doing quality inspections? No.”
WILL ROBOT CARS HURT PEOPLE?
On the question of autonomous vehicles, he thinks we should get them on the roads fast. Not that they will never make mistakes, but he argues that it is about making fewer mistakes than humans do and thereby saving lives.
“That’s the most critical question we mustn’t forget. We mustn’t launch an autonomous vehicle until we know that it’s safe for the people, and furthermore, we know that AI gets better with data,” says Dr Lee.
Initially, it might be 5 per cent safer than people. But in five, 10, 20 years, it might be 90 per cent safer.
“So when you look at that much greater good over a period of time, I’d say don’t be too obsessed on the single issue of explaining why you did it and what’s the liability," he adds.
Just this month, South Korea successfully tested a 5G-connected autonomous vehicle on the streets of Seoul, while Singapore launched a 12-metre autonomous electric bus.
“A quick decision is better than a lengthy debate because the faster we can get the safer autonomous vehicle launched, the faster we’ll be saving lives,” Dr Lee says.
ONLY HUMAN AFTER ALL
The curious thing is that this AI guru keeps coming back to what one might call the warm-and-fuzzy stuff.
Dr Lee sees AI freeing humans from much of the drudgery of many jobs – and what would be in demand are jobs where creativity and compassion are key elements.
He says compassion means being able to work with others, that is, teamwork, communication, empathy and winning trust.
As a final question, I asked him if he thought his children would live in a better world because of AI.
His reply: While they probably would still go through a world in turmoil because of some people losing jobs and issues of privacy versus convenience, things would be pretty good for his grandchildren.
“AI will displace most routine jobs, which is a challenge for the next 20 years. But once that’s done, it will liberate us from having to do routine jobs,” he says.
“Humans will get to do things that we’re passionate about, things we’re good at, and have more time to do the things we love, spend time with the people we love and even time to think about what makes us human.”
Watch the full exclusive interview on Channel NewsAsia’s Conversation With here.