ORHS graduate returns after 40 years to offer insights on AI’s future impact on society

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Nearly 40 years to the day since he graduated from Oak Ridge High School (ORHS), renowned artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Kai-Fu Lee returned to the city to share his insights with residents of his former hometown.

The event, hosted Monday night by the Oak Ridge Public Schools Foundation, nearly filled the Pollard Auditorium at Oak Ridge Associated Universities. During a roughly 40-minute presentation, the very articulate Lee used a mix of great insights, knowledge and humor to captivate the crowd in terms of the impact that AI will have on their lives.

Many of his thoughts were captured in a book titled AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, published in 2018 but, like AI itself, Lee is constantly gaining new thoughts on the emerging field that he shared with the attendees.

He was introduced by Benita Albert, a now retired 44-year teacher in Oak Ridge who observed that “we saw greatness in Kai-Fu’s early life.” Her former student offered reciprocal praise, saying, “Mrs. Albert is the inspiration of my life. I’m not your former student; I’m your student forever.”

Today, Lee is the Chair and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sinovation Ventures, a firm that has more than 300 portfolio companies across the technology spectrum in both China and the U.S. AI is not something that is a new interest for Lee as he demonstrated by showing a 27-year old video clip from ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” show.

In the clip, Joan Lunden, then one of the Co-Anchors, interviewed Lee and John Sculley, then Apple CEO, where the ORHS graduate demonstrated a tool named Casper. You may not recognize that name because it was quickly renamed Siri, the ubiquitous AI tool imbedded in your iPhone.

Now, 27 years later, Lee noted, “AI has become the most important technology revolution for humankind.” To underscore the point, he showed examples of companies in which Sinovation Ventures has invested that ranged from mobile payment apps to robotic pickers, autonomous taxis, a “hip hop” music maker, and a homework grading tool.

“There are so many places we can use AI for good,” Lee said, emphasizing the last word on numerous occasions during his talk.

Describing AI as the new electricity, he also observed that “it reminds us of the Internet. AI is moving from rocket science to mainstream.”

Lee identified four ways that AI will impact society, starting with privacy and security of information. “It’s not a ‘yes or no,’ but a matter of degrees” in terms of how much individuals protect their information. He noted the ability to spoof individuals through facial recognition or fool autonomous vehicles by putting something over a stop sign are negative implications.

Job displacement was another impact topic where there are both benefits and negatives. On the positive side, Lee noted that AI cannot provide the compassion that individuals expect from a nurse or caregiver, but the technology could be helpful for scientists in drug discovery.

The final area that he emphasized was the challenge of inequality or what I might term the “haves and have nots.” China and the U.S. show the greatest levels of AI opportunity, while the rest of the countries are lagging, portending significant downsides for their economies.

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