In Folding Beijing, economist and science fiction author Hao Jingfang imagines a future in which Beijing is split into three distinct social classes: First, Second, and Third Space. The three Spaces are physically divided, with each occupying part of the city. As if to divide the society even further, citizens from different Spaces never have to see each other. To achieve this strange feature, the cycle of day and night has been altered. The forty-eight hour day is split so that each Space gets a certain amount of time on the surface: twenty-four for First Space, sixteen for Second Space, and eight for Third Space. When a Space is not on the surface, it lies beneath the ground.
When a Space’s allotted time on the surface comes to a close, its citizens are put into a deep sleep. The city then folds like a Transformer — not into a vehicle, but into giant, compact blocks. Then, like Korah in the Bible, everything in that part of the city is swallowed by the ground beneath.
Meanwhile, the opposite is happening in another part of the city. Extricating itself from beneath the ground, another Space comes to life. Its compactly stored structures blossom into their usual shapes and sizes. When one Space folds into the ground and the other unfolds onto the earth, time on the surface comes to a close for one and begins for another.
The majority of citizens — fifty million out of the seventy-five million — live in Third Space. Among them is the main character, Lao Dao, who is a waste worker. With the First Spacers enjoying luxuries such as self-driving cars and police-helping robots, there is no doubt that automating many of the Third Space jobs would be technically feasible. And yet these jobs remain fulfilled by those like Lao Dao — workers who would be jobless otherwise. Keeping the jobs unautomated allows the Third Spacers to eke out a living and spares those in authority from dealing with the underlying problems. To the elite living in First Space, Third Spacers are useless to the economy; they exist only to exist. In a way, this metamorphosis of Beijing seems to be an eerie reflection of an observation made by Karl Marx: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”
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The future described in Folding Beijing might seem to be but a fanciful imagination, but through his book AI Superpowers, Lee Kai-Fu reveals that it is not as far-fetched as one might think. In fact, the AI revolution is already taking place, right under our noses. Literally.
As we swim through our digital environment, AI greets us at every corner: it knows what kind of videos you like to watch, it finds what you’re trying to search for on Google, and it even tells me that this “wird” is spelled incorrectly. AI surrounds us, often without our being aware of it.
Yet the technologies on your phone just scratch the surface of the AI revolution; the ones mentioned comprise only the first of what Lee calls “the four waves of AI.” The subsequent waves will have algorithms assisting doctors, shopping carts telling you that you’ve run out of bread, and cars driving themselves. The AI revolution will touch almost every area of our lives.
Although the AI revolution will certainly make our lives more convenient, it may come at a cost.
Unemployment, for one, could spread like the plague. Based on his own expertise, Lee predicts that 40 to 50 percent of jobs could be automated by 2033. Lee stresses that this does not mean workers will be immediately jobless once AI becomes capable of automating what they do. Society will do what it can to slow down the automation of jobs. Add in the fact that new jobs will be created (say, people who repair your personal robot) and you begin to see that actual job losses will probably be less than that 40 to 50 percent; not so many but still a lot.
Not all occupations will be automated equally. While AI will easily replace the bank teller, it will have a harder time replacing the caretaker or the CEO. Other jobs, such as one of a doctor, will not be as clear-cut. They will become a fusion of human and AI cooperation. Lee says that jobs requiring some form of social interaction, complex creativity, or dexterity will make it less likely to be automated — at least in the foreseeable future. Using this rule of thumb, we can get an idea of what jobs will be automated, unautomated, or somewhere in between.
Society may also come out of this AI revolution even more divided than before. It could create a small number of monopolies that dominate the economy. Lee says that American antitrust laws would prove useless here; they can only be used when the monopoly is harming the consumer. These AI-powered monopolies would be doing the exact opposite; they would be able to drive prices lower and lower.
As we can see, the AI revolution may create a world where select people flounder in wealth while masses of unemployed are left to ponder the meaning of their own existence.
The future Lee paints seems to be stark, but towards the end of the book, he explores the flip side of the coin: how AI could become a boon to improving society.
First, we will need to take the traditional way of measuring our worth as human beings, throw it away, and start anew. In modern times, we are used to associating our worth as humans with our economic value. We see our economic value as evidence that we are not worthless. But in the future, our economic value will take a hit when robots begin to replace many in the workplace. Those who cling to the traditional notion of worth will sink along with it; it will need to be dropped. To find our place in this new world, we must put away economic value and identify the unique traits that make us human.
Lee believes the answer to all this is what he calls the social investment stipend. It would be a government salary given to those who engage in socially productive activities — particularly in the areas of care work, community service, and education. This stipend would allow us to put economic value behind us and instead strive to be more socially productive.
Lee does admit that this stipend would require complicated logistics. He proposes that funding for the policy would ultimately come from exploiting the massive profits AI brings; in other words, we would tax those who accrue astronomical sums during the AI revolution. Before that could be done, Lee says that we could start by passing smaller policies that eventually lead up to the full stipend. Whether the social investment stipend will come to pass is still uncertain. What is certain is that Lee’s plan would be almost impossible without the rise of AI; just imagine what would happen to the economy today if everybody suddenly decided that it wasn’t important to be economically productive anymore. AI will free us to pursue a more compassionate society.
Lee’s position as an AI researcher, venture capitalist, and former president of Google China gives his ideas about the future of AI a certain amount of authority and credibility. It would be a pity if they were blanketed in layers of dull and abstruse prose. Fortunately, his writing is as delightful as it is economical. In a Hemingwayesque burst of style, Lee keeps his writing simple, and thus illuminating. His clever use of business stories, interesting facts, and personal snippets make this compelling manifesto highly enjoyable and fascinating.