We’ve seen visionary investors and science fiction authors onstage before, but never at the same time, let alone a duo that cooperated on a one-of-a-kind collection of stories and essays has that offered a hopeful outlook on our AI-infused future. Kai-Fu Lee, founder of Sinovation, and Chen Qiufan, author of “Waste Tide” and other works, will join us at Disrupt (September 21-23) for a discussion on the fiction and reality of today’s hottest technology.
Lee, who was born in Taiwan and graduated from CMU with a in computer science, began his career focusing on speech recognition before going on to work for Apple, SGI, and Microsoft before becoming the president of Google China. Sinovation (formerly Innovation Works), his research and investment firm, has been his emphasis since its founding in 2009, and he has evolved to become a prominent mind and influential figure in AI. When we last met with Lee, at Disrupt SF 2018, he stressed that China was catching up to, and in some ways surpassing, the United States in AI development. And it’s safe to say that his personal investments have aided in this.
Since then, he has discovered a kindred spirit in Chen Qiufan, as someone who frequently considers the future.
Qiufan is a Chinese novelist whose 2013 work “Waste Tide” catapulted him to literary prominence, however, like many authors, he didn’t quit his day job until several years later (Wired only just ran a profile on him). But by that time, he’d caught Lee’s interest and proposed a novel project: a joint book in which the two would put their heads together to construct a fantasy future inspired by facts and realistic extrapolation.
The result is “AI 2041,” a collection of ten short stories by Qiufan set in the eponymous year and set all over the world, with individuals from different walks of life experiencing AI in the various ways that the authors believe technology will impact society over the next two decades. Each is followed by an essay by Lee that delves into the technical details and why they might lead to that future.
I’ll write a complete review of the book before the event, but I can say that it’s unlike any other collection I’ve ever read. Each narrative is standalone but takes place in a connected setting, and each depicts a possible application, conflict, or shift in thought that AI could bring about.
Importantly, the AI may be identified as a direct descendant of existing technologies.
One narrative, for example, is about a skilled deepfake developer based in Lagos who understands all there is to know about generative adversarial networks, image inspection, and media routes, and so on. He’s been tasked with creating a video of a long-dead celebrity that fools not only viewers, but also the hosting service’s automated scanners, the government’s facial recognition algorithms, and everyone else — but he starts to suspect there’s a nefarious motive behind it all (I won’t give anything away).