TIME 100 Talks
June 17, 2020 5:28 AM EDT

The U.S. has started to catch up to China on the adoption of Artificial Intelligence technology, says AI expert Kai-Fu Lee.

When Lee—the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures—wrote his book AI Superpowers in 2018, he argued that China was faster in implementing and monetizing AI technology. But the U.S. has started to close the gap on adopting and using AI day-to-day Lee said at Wednesday’s TIME100 Talks event.

“China was way ahead in things like mobile payments, food delivery, robotics for delivery, things like that, but we also saw recently, in the U.S., very quickly peoples’ habits were forming about ordering food from home, about use of robotics in various places, in using more mobile technologies, mobile payments,” said Lee, who has been at the forefront of AI innovation for over three decades at Apple, Microsoft, Google and today as an investor in Chinese tech startups.

The Chinese Communist Party has placed a huge focus in recent years on technological advancement to drive its economic growth. President Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 plan aims to ensure that China dominates AI as well and several other high-tech industries, and in 2018 China’s State Council issued the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan to establish China as the “premier global AI innovation center” by 2030.

Lee said Chinese AI research also advanced, with China now producing almost the same percentage of top papers as the U.S.

“I think both the U.S. and China have made up for their weaknesses and are now charging forward,” Lee says, “I think that’s a tremendous benefit to both Chinese and American consumers.”

In response to a question by TIME International Editor Dan Stewart on how the AI community is dealing with racial biases that might be embedded in the data that drives AI, Lee said it’s important for engineers to be trained to ensure their products don’t have bias, and for tools to be built to alert developers if data sets are biased or imbalanced.

Wednesday’s event also featured Bollywood star Ayushmann Khurrana, tennis star Naomi Osaka, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a performance by K-pop group Monsta X.

Lee also said that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to speed up the adoption of AI because the data that’s feeding AI is increasing.

We are working from home. We are online. We are contributing to the process of digitization. So a lot of the people who used to go to work and still not fully digitized—that is meetings, taking notes on paper—now it is becoming all digitized and all that content becomes training data for AI,” he says.

Lee said he expects the “next big frontier” for AI to be healthcare. “A lot of money is being pumped into AI healthcare.”

He says that as a result of the virus, many jobs that require contact with lots of people—like healthcare workers and restaurant servers—are likely to be replaced.

“We’re seeing a very rapid replacement of those jobs by robots, currently for our safety,” Lee says. “When I was quarantined in Beijing when I returned to Beijing, all my food and e-commerce and packages were delivered by robot to my doorstep.”

That, says Lee, is not something that will go away.

“After the pandemic, we won’t go back to the way it was,” he says.

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.

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