Review Essay

Beyond the AI Arms Race

America, China, and the Dangers of Zero-Sum Thinking

In This Review

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
By Kai-Fu Lee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 272 pp. Purchase

The idea of an artificial intelligence (AI) arms race between China and the United States is ubiquitous. Before 2016, there were fewer than 300 Google results for “AI arms race” and only a handful of articles that mentioned the phrase. Today, an article on the subject gets added to LexisNexis virtually every week, and Googling the term yields more than 50,000 hits. Some even warn of an AI Cold War.

One question that looms large in these discussions is if China has, or will soon have, an edge over the United States in AI technology. Dean Garfield, the president of a U.S. trade group called the Information Technology Industry Council, recently told Politico that such fears are “grounded in hysteria.” But many prominent figures disagree. Former Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt, for instance, warned in 2017 that “By 2020, [the Chinese] will have caught up [to the United States]. By 2025, they will be better than us. And by 2030, they will dominate the industries of AI.” And former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, among others, has argued that China’s advances in AI should spark a “Sputnik moment” for the United States, inspiring a national effort comparable to the one that followed the Soviet Union’s early victories in the space race.

One of the most in-depth discussions of U.S.–Chinese AI competition can be found in AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, a recent book by the Taiwanese-American venture capitalist and AI expert Kai-Fu Lee. Drawing on his in-depth knowledge of—and personal experience with—the Chinese and U.S. tech sectors, Lee, like Schmidt and Work, concludes that “China will soon match or even overtake the United States in developing and deploying artificial intelligence.”

There is much to like about AI Superpowers. Lee persuasively counters many common misperceptions about China and AI, and he offers thoughtful personal reflections. Unfortunately, the parts of the book that inform his core thesis about China’s relative advantages over the United States are the

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