One Man’s Wake-up Call

A friend, who has worked at different levels of government in Washington D.C. and has held significant jobs in major American tech companies including Microsoft, gave me a book about artificial intelligence. He recently accepted a job to help coordinate Google’s artificial intelligence program.

Kai-Fu Lee, the author of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, is recognized as a leader throughout the tech world. Here are a few of his accomplishments: Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures—a leading technology savvy investment firm focusing on the development of the next generation of Chinese high-tech companies. He was also president of Google China and has held executive positions at Microsoft, SGI and Apple. He has been featured on Good Morning America and in the Wall street Journal.

Lee writes with extreme intelligence about the field of artificial intelligence.

To be honest, as I read the book I found myself in very unfamiliar territory. It felt almost like culture shock or being immersed in a foreign language. Little by little, however, I began to learn the language of artificial intelligence. I soon found myself enamored with, but also concerned about, the stunning advances being made in the world of AI.

Imagine being driven to the supermarket in a self-driven car and greeted by a shopping cart that recognizes your face or thumb print. The cart, very familiar with your shopping habits, slowly drives itself around the store stopping to remind you that you are low on milk and out of eggs in your fridge. Science fiction? Perhaps not; it is already being envisioned by some Chinese inventors.

Imagine a machine evaluating your medical history and your present symptoms and correctly diagnosing the problem and prescribing the best treatment in just a few minutes. The AI machine is more accurate than any human physician.

Today, in some Chinese cities, the government can identify drivers and pedestrians by facial recognition though thousands of cameras strategically placed around the city. Pastors of underground house churches can now be identified wherever they go, so there are few opportunities to secretly meet with their congregations.

Kai-Fu Lee estimates that within 10 to 20 years we will be technically capable of automating 40 to 50 percent of jobs in the United States. Frightening? Yes! He states that while new jobs will also be created by AI, the resulting unemployment numbers could easily hit 30 percent.

While studying in America, Lee claims he practiced Christianity. However, there is nothing in his book suggesting Lee is a practicing follower of Christ. That is why, after 174 pages, I was surprised by Lee’s personal confession in chapter seven. A man who admits to being driven by his desire for power and prestige in the world of high tech reveals a dent in his armor. He admits that he even treated his wife and family as “another algorithm.” He struggled to give them just enough attention to keep them from complaining, and admits being obsessed with his work.

Then, in his own words, “… things came to a grinding halt.” He was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma in 2013. “In an instant, my world of mental algorithms and personal achievement came crashing down…. I was filled with fear for my future and with a deep, soul-aching regret over the way I had lived my life.”

He continues, “In effect, mesmerized by my quest to create machines that thought like people, I had turned into a person that thought like a machine.”

From this point on, Lee writes as a man filled with compassion. He realized that all his great accomplishments and all the wealth he had accumulated no longer mattered.

Contemplate these words on page 190: “… I had stood on the absolute frontier of human knowledge about artificial intelligence, but I had never been further from a genuine understanding of other human beings or myself. That kind of understanding couldn’t be coaxed out of a cleverly constructed algorithm. Rather, it required an unflinching look into the mirror of death and an embrace of that which separated me from the machines that I had built: the possibility of love.”

Lee’s cancer is apparently in remission, and His life has made a 180. People, not prestige or machines with unbelievable intelligence, are what is important to him now.

After his diagnosis with stage IV Lymphoma, Lee made a change on what he had envisioned to be engraved on his tombstone. No longer would it read about his great accomplishments in artificial intelligence. Rather it would be about being a person who was loved and loving.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the book, Living Life Backwards, a book based on Ecclesiastes and challenging the reader to live in the present while focusing on their death.

So today on the Front Porch, let us learn the lesson that Kai-Fu Lee learned. As Solomon warned in Ecclesiastes 12, we don’t want to face our exit into the next world with deep regrets about how we have lived our lives in this one. Let us choose to live life fully, but prepare for the inevitable appointment with death and the encounter with our Creator.

In other words, let’s live more like Jesus.

I believe Jesus lived every moment of His life with the end game—the cross—in view. He often responded to threats and praise by stating His hour had not come. Then, on the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus replied to Gentile seekers, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:23-26 esv).

Kai-Fu Lee had a wakeup call he will never forget. It wasn’t pleasant, but it gave him the the precious opportunity to carve out new life priorities, before it was too late.

We have that opportunity, too. Beginning right now.


What I am reading: Letters to The Church by Francis Chan

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