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Ex-Google Exec Kai-Fu Lee Says China Is Winning the Race to Implement AI

Once again, the sheer size of China’s population is set to propel the nation into a new phase of economic growth. That’s according to Kai-fu Lee, the computer scientist turned venture capitalist, who believes that China is primed to surpass the U.S. as an AI superpower.

Beaming into the Fortune Global Tech Forum via Skype, Lee declared that the world is no longer in the age of discovery when it comes to AI, but has entered the age of implementation.

“We’re in a global race to see who can implement faster and better not who can invent better, and in that case China has a number of advantages,” Lee said. First and foremost: China’s population.

Lee points out that among China’s 1.4 billion people are thousands of capable scientists and entrepreneurs pushing to find applications for AI. More so, AI needs data to learn and grow, and here China’s mobile-centric society is leading the pack in data generation.

It’s a point Lee mentioned in his latest book, AI Superpowers, which predicts that China will soon surpass the U.S. in terms of AI capability, creating a world in which the two nations are the first to reap the benefits of the advanced tech, leaving other nations to fall in line behind them.

But the AI superpowers will be first to reap the whirlwinds too, namely having to navigate the job disruption caused by increased automation. While automation has traditionally been the scourge of blue-collar workers Lee believes that in the AI era white-collar jobs will be first to go.

“Data entry, telemarketing or telesales: these are back office jobs that can so easily be replaced because they’re just data in/data out,” Lee says, arguing that it’s easier to program algorithms to perform routine tasks like these than it is to manufacture robots that can assemble intricate electronics.

But this means that developing economies which have eyes on outsourced labour will need to rethink their growth strategies because, Lee says, “If it can be outsourced, it can also be done by AI.” But there will be some jobs left for humans, particularly in industries like healthcare, which require empathy and compassion: traits not compatible with robots.

China’s health care industry faces strain as the nation struggles with a graying population, and the U.S. will need an additional 2.3 million elderly care professionals in the near future, Lee claims. Employing AI to perform repetitive white-collar jobs will free up labour to fill the growing demand in the care industries.

But that’s just one example of job creation. Just like how no one would have predicted Uber or WeChat when the internet began, AI will create jobs we can’t even envision.