Illustration by TIME; reference image: Anthony Kwan—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Kai-fu Lee wasn’t sure he would see this moment. The Taipei native has been at the vanguard of computer engineering for over four decades, having created what he claims was the world’s first large-vocabulary speech-recognition model for his doctoral dissertation back in 1988, and later serving as a top executive for Apple and Microsoft, as well as head of Google in China.

Still, as recently as 2018, Lee, who is chairman and CEO of Beijing-based Sinovation Ventures, a venture-capital firm that manages $3 billion in Chinese high-tech assets, wrote that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—a hypothetical future technology that can perform most cognitive tasks better than a human—was still decades away. Yet in 2023 the rapid advances of large language model (LLM) applications like ChatGPT means that “by some measures, we’ve already achieved it,” Lee tells TIME. “By other measures, it’s within grasp.”

It’s this astonishing progress that spurred Lee, 61, in July to launch a new language startup, 01.AI, writing that LLM technology “is a historic opportunity that China cannot miss.”

Lee is more than an entrepreneur. He’s an avowed futurist and cancer survivor who has written prolifically about job displacement and the various social upheavals that the AI revolution is already bringing. And as AI capabilities advance faster than anyone thought possible, the timeline for that disruption has also been dramatically shortened, putting the onus on governments to make necessary preparations. The clock is ticking to enact regulation that protects people without stymieing the enormous benefits AI can bring. “A lot more needs to be done,” says Lee. “When AI is this powerful, able to come up with things that we didn’t know before, it might be used to come up with new ways of harming others, of creating weapons, [or] using misinformation to manipulate people for profit or evil intent.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlie Campbell at

Sougwen Chung
Yann LeCun
Abeba Birhane
Audrey Tang