We’ve had visionary investors onstage before, and we’ve had science fiction authors onstage — but never at the same time, let alone a pair who collaborated on a unique book of stories and essays that make an optimistic prediction of our AI-infused future. Sinovation founder Kai-Fu Lee and author of “Waste Tide” and others Chen Qiufan will join us at Disrupt (September 21-23) for a discussion of the fiction and fact of today’s hottest technology.
Lee, born in Taiwan, attended CMU and obtained a PhD in computer science, working initially on speech recognition before working for Apple, SGI and Microsoft, then establishing Google China as its president. His research and investment company, Sinovation (originally Innovation Works) has been his focus since its founding in 2009, and he has grown to become a leading mind and influential figure in AI.
When we last spoke with Lee, at Disrupt SF 2018, he emphasized that China was catching up to the U.S. on AI research, and had surpassed it in some ways. And certainly his own investments have contributed to that. Since then, as someone who thinks frequently about what the future holds, he has found a kindred spirit in Chen Qiufan.
Qiufan is a Chinese author whose 2013 novel “Waste Tide” propelled him to literary fame, though like many authors, that wasn’t enough to make him quit his day job until a few years later (Wired only just ran a profile on him). But by that time he had attracted the attention of Lee, who proposed a novel project: a collaborative book where the two would put their heads together to create a fictitious future informed by fact and realistic extrapolation.
The result is “AI 2041”: 10 stories by Qiufan set in the titular year, all over the world, with people from all walks of life encountering AI in the many ways that the authors speculate it may come to shape society over the next two decades. Each is followed by an explanatory essay by Lee that goes into the technical aspects and why they might lead to that future.
I’ll be posting a full review of the book ahead of the event, but I can certainly say that it’s unlike any collection I’ve read before. Each story is independent but takes place in something like a shared world, and each illustrates a potential application, conflict or change in thinking that AI could lead to. And, importantly, the AI is recognizable as descended directly from existing technologies.
For instance, one story concerns a talented deepfake creator working out of Lagos, one who knows the ins and outs of generative adversarial networks, image inspection, media pathways and so on. He’s tasked with creating a video of a long-dead celebrity that fools not just people watching it but the hosting service’s automated scanners, the government’s facial recognition algorithms and all the rest — but he begins to suspect there’s an unsavory motive behind it all (I won’t spoil the rest).
What follows the story is Lee’s essay on GANs, facial recognition and deepfakes that explains the concepts in an understandable but not patronizing way, then explores the risks and benefits in a non-narrative way. It helps ground the stories as real possibilities, not just imagined situations.
With both Qiufan and Lee onstage (virtually this time), the discussion of the book and the issues it brings up should be a lively one — not least because it will be moderated by yours truly. But to catch this session, you’ll need to grab a pass to attend Disrupt happening September 21-23. Get yours today for less than $100 for a limited time!