53 pages 1 hour read

Kai-Fu Lee

AI Superpowers

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers (2018) is a nonfiction examination of the tech industry’s socioeconomic impact on China and the United States. As an artificial intelligence (AI) scientist and venture capitalist (VC), Lee focuses specifically on the history of tech entrepreneurship and AI-powered products.

Lee believes that the US and China are in a struggle for dominance over the global AI-driven economy and argues that China is poised for victory. He supports this argument with cultural, political, and sociological observations drawn from his extensive experience working in both the US and Chinese tech industries. Though AI Superpowers is primarily a work of business journalism, it also incorporates elements of memoir, as Lee relies on his own personal experiences, beliefs, and professional acumen to support his arguments.

AI Superpowers was largely well-received. It was named a bestseller by The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. It also made POLITICO’s “Top 50 Reading List” of 2018. However, it has also received criticism for biased argumentation, “zero-sum thinking” (Zwetsloot, Remco et al. “Beyond the AI Arms Race.” Foreign Affairs, 2018), and a general lack of focus.

This guide corresponds to the first edition of AI Superpowers eBook.

Content Warning: This book includes discussion of cancer, dementia, death, and medical procedures.


Each chapter in AI Superpowers is divided into a series of small subsections that typically range from two to five pages in length.

Chapter 1, “China’s Sputnik Moment,” discusses China’s economic and cultural relationship to AI and the tech industry at the time of writing. On the global stage, the Chinese tech industry has lived in Silicon Valley’s shadow for decades. However, the late 2010s saw precipitous advancements for Chinese tech developers and entrepreneurs. Lee compares this boom of progress to the advancements brought on by the Soviet/American space race in the 1950’s. He argues that China is in the process of surpassing the United States in their developing “AI race.”

Chapter 2, “Copycats in the Colosseum,” explores the cultural landscape of Chinese tech startups. This chapter centers the career of entrepreneur Wang Xing as a microcosm for the Chinese tech world’s evolution. While Wang was originally dismissed as an unimaginative “copycat” by westerners, his business savvy and technological expertise made him a “world class entrepreneur.” Lee also explains the cultural conditions that make Chinese tech entrepreneurs into “gladiators.”

Chapter 3, “China’s Alternate Internet Universe,” delves into the history of the “Avenue of Entrepreneurs,” China’s rough equivalent to Silicon Valley. Unlike the Valley, the Avenue of Entrepreneurs is heavily subsidized by the Chinese government at the local and national levels. This resulted in a string of similar areas across China. Lee also discusses the social and economic dominance of the all-purpose Chinese app WeChat.

Chapter 4, “A Tale of Two Countries,” delves further into China’s tech boom. It also introduces readers to “seven giants” of the AI age: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. While the first four giants are American companies, the latter three are Chinese. This chapter also compares and contrasts these giants and their methods to the scrappier ethos of small tech startups.

Chapter 5, “The Four Waves of AI,” provides an overview of the four “ages” of AI: internet AI, business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI. According to Lee, the ages of perception and business AI are already in full swing; the age of perception AI is just beginning; the age of autonomous AI is in its infancy. While the US is leading in business AI, Lee believes that China has “a better shot” at harnessing its power. He writes that dominance in internet and perception AI is currently split between the US and China.

Chapter 6, “Utopia, Dystopia, and the Real AI Crisis,” Lee explores cultural anxieties around the AI boom. Rather than a dystopian singularity, Lee predicts that the major crisis of the AI age will be economic. He predicts that at least a third of American and Chinese workers will be replaced by AI in the coming decades—particularly white-collar workers. He calls this “one-to-one replacement.” He predicts that at least 10% of jobs will also face “ground-up disruption,” and up to 80% of jobs will be impacted by AI in some form or fashion. While this bodes ill for Chinese and American workers, Lee predicts that “AI-poor” countries will also face economic crises.

Chapter 7, “The Wisdom of Cancer,” is about Kai-Fu Lee’s battle with lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes). He explains how confronting his mortality led him to rearrange his values. Prior to his diagnosis, Lee put his career before all else in his life. When he learned that he could die sooner than he had expected, he regretted having put research and entrepreneurship before his family. This experience changed the way he interacts with his loved ones, his employees, and strangers. Lee writes that love is the thing that makes us human; he believes that humans’ capacity for empathy, love, and fellowship has the potential to gird us from the economic catastrophe described in Chapter 6.

Chapter 8, “A Blueprint for Human Coexistence with AI” proposes a theoretical future in which humans circumvent the economic crisis wrought by AI implementation. He explores three potential policies geared toward mitigating the crisis, and then introduces a speculative alternative. Lee believes that humanity’s capacity for compassion holds the key to a prosperous future. He suggests that venture capitalists will create a swath of “human-focused service projects” to place unemployed people in civically oriented jobs.

Chapter 9, “Our Global AI Story,” is a short conclusion. It reiterates the broad strokes of AI Superpowers with a particular focus on Chapters 7 and 8. Lee reiterates the importance of proactivity, human connection, and humility.

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