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Kai-Fu Lee Gives AI a B-Minus Grade in the Covid-19 Fight

In your book, AI Superpowers—and let me just pause to say it’s superb—you talk about the future of work, and you have two charts. One is about job and workforce, and you have a y-axis which is human interaction and an x-axis which is creativity. So a job that requires a lot of creativity and a lot of human interaction is not likely to be replaced by machines, like a CEO job. And a job that has not a lot of creativity and not a lot of human interaction, like a telemarketer, will be replaced by machines. How does your chart change in the post-coronavirus era?

I think the chart basically remains the same. The replacement curve, if you will, taking over the jobs, that’s going to go faster. I also think the pandemic will potentially cause certain types of jobs to be more accelerated in their replacement. Because we would think health care, hospital jobs, we would want the human touch, empathy, etc. But human touch in the period of the pandemic increases the likelihood of spreading the virus. So if there were a smart robot that could move medical supplies and help the patients with testing their blood pressure, etc., we as humanity would be more willing to embrace that. Similarly, waiters and waitresses in restaurants. We would think there’s value in the human interaction. However, those are dangerous jobs. And certainly at the fast food and lower-cost restaurants, more will be replaced by automation and AI. And actually in China, in many of the lower-cost restaurants, you see people taking orders on mobile phones. And the waiters or waitresses are just delivering the food and you’ll also pay on your phones. So that already reduces the cost. And there are also many restaurants that have AI robots delivering the food because the restaurant, like the apartment building and the hospital, are structured environments. Robots’ work moving around in a structured environment is much easier. These are not robots that have feet and hands. Think of them as just carts that basically move to your table, make some sound to let you know to take your own order. So those kinds of jobs that we would think require some human interaction are potentially going to turn into automated jobs faster because of the pandemic.

Do you think using similar logic that we’re soon going to have self-driving taxis or that the move toward self-driving vehicles will be accelerated because we don’t want to be near human drivers?

Not as much, because in order to get to L5, which is the highest of the five levels of autonomous vehicles, there are still a lot of technical challenges to be overcome. So I think the taxis and Uber will continue to be needed. We will see AI taking over, automating human jobs in the warehouse, some of the manufacturing, driving on highways and buses, probably in that order. Taxis and Uber will be the last to be fully automated.

I just want to make sure I fully understand your argument, which is, we’ve all known that AI and robotics would be replacing human jobs. But there are two factors here that are accelerating it. One, we don’t want as much human interaction, we don’t want to be near the waiter. And two, so much more of our life is digitized and AI runs off data. Is that correct? Is there a third factor, or just those two?

No, I think those are the two main factors from the pandemic.

Let me ask you about something you mentioned a few minutes before. You were talking about health care and data and HIPAA, and you mentioned that countries that have strong health care regulations, like the United States, won’t have as much data and therefore may not have as many advances in artificial intelligence. My view is that we’re going to care a lot less about privacy in the future than we do now. So perhaps countries like the United States will start loosening up access to data, for better or for worse. Is that fair?

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I think that would be a plausible outcome because I think people are starting to realize privacy is not a binary issue. It’s also not an issue that trumps everything else. It needs to be considered in the context of public health, greater social good, and personal security. So while we want everyone to have their privacy safe from companies, as much as possible, when it provides a solution to the public health or greater security for each individual and perhaps some incredible convenience for people, then we should really consider it in the context of how much benefit it is providing and provide each person with some degree of choice. Because there will always be people who feel privacy is the most important. So to the extent that each country develops a [balanced] set of regulations, then the appropriate amount of data collection, anonymized data, can be aggregated and AI can be trained.

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