15, 2017 Class Day
By Dr. Kai-Fu Lee
Founder & CEO, Sinovation Ventures
President, Sinovation Ventures Artificial Intelligence Institute
Thank you, Class of 2017. Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at
this wonderful commencement ceremony. It’s an honor to be back at
Columbia to address this distinguished group of graduates, parents,
siblings and special guests. We’ve all gathered to share in the joy of
I remember sitting where you are 34 years ago, feeling that these were
the best years of my life. I found the profession of my life: artificial
intelligence. I found the hobby of my life -- bridge; I played 30 hours
a week, but to this date Columbia still wouldn’t give me a degree in it.
And I had my first date while at Columbia, and she became the love of my
life. And finally, on commencement day, I got to sit and listen to Isaac
Asimov, the famous science fiction writer. I’m sorry that you only get
I was introduced to AI at Columbia in 1980.As someone who has worked for
37 years on research, development, and investment in AI, I can speak
with some authority that – AI will be a revolution on the scale of the
Industrial Revolution, probably larger, and definitely faster.
But this is not a hand-wavy futurist AI talk. This is an
engineer-to-engineer talk. We know that AI works. We know that AI gets
better with more data and more use. We know how to extrapolate it to
measure its impact in ten years.
Today, an AI image processing company that I invested in can make
people’s selfies more beautiful, so much so that every Chinese movie
star I know doesn’t allow her photo to be published without it. Its user
base? 1.3 billion.
Today, an AI loan company that I invested in China can approve a loan in
seconds, with a default rate much lower than a human loan officer who
would takes days. This company is less than two years old, but will
underwrite almost 30 million loans this year, more than almost any bank.
Today, an AI facial recognition company that I invested in can recognize
any face from 3 million faces, with super-human accuracy. If installed
in all the airports around the world, it would essentially prevent known
terrorists or wanted criminals from entering any airplane.
In the next 10 years, all financial companies will be turned
upside-down, with AI replacing traders, bankers, accountants, research
analysts, and insurance companies. Last year, my AI investment algorithm
returned 8 times more than my private banker. That reminds me – when I
go home I am going to fire my private banker.
In the next 10 years, AI will replace most factory workers, assistants,
advisors, and middlemen. But AI is not limited to simple jobs. AI will
also replace many reporters, doctors, and teachers. Your AI assistant
will know better than you what you would like to eat tonight, where you
should go on vacation, and whom you should date.
But it doesn’t stop there. In 10 years, mechanical AI will become
reliable. AI will be safer at driving cars than people, sweeping
changes, as it were, brought by the lowly Roomba…. will grow up and
cook, wash, clean and handle all the household drudgery for us.
In 10 years, because AI will make so much money for humanity, we will
enter the Age of Plenty, making strides to eradicate poverty and hunger,
and giving all of us more spare time and freedom to do what we love.
In 10 years, because AI will replace half of human jobs, we will enter
the Age of Confusion, and many people will become depressed as they lose
the jobs and the corresponding self-actualization. And many of you will
become parents concerned with how to improve education in order to
prevent your children from being replaced by AI.
These predictions are not based on some hand-wavy comparison of the
number of neurons possessed by humans and AI simulators. Rather, they
are based on an engineer’s extrapolation based on known algorithms, and
the real marketplace and workforce.
In my company, we have raised over $1 billion to invest in these
developments. Softbank has launched a $100 billion Vision Fund. The tech
giants of the past 50 years – IBM, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, have all
declared themselves to be AI companies. So even if you doubt me, you
probably should not doubt all of them.
So, for leading edge, super smart engineers like yourselves, 2027 should
be the best of times in your lives. Unless you miss the AI revolution,
in which case it may turn into the worst times in your lives.
Now let me give you three pieces of advice – how not to miss the Age of
AI, so that you can have the time of your life.
My first is: Embrace AI, and align your career by betting on its
Like all big change, AI requires you to have an open mind. It’s OK to be
fearful of change. As Mark Twain explained, “Courage is resistance to
fear, mastery of fear. Not absence of fear.”
Your hard work has prepared you to confront, or simply accept, or warmly
embrace - change that will push you in new directions.
The three software companies I mentioned earlier, when they were first
launched: often made people uglier, lost millions in bad loans, and
thought I was some talk show celebrity. But given time and much more
data, their self-learning made them dramatically better than people. Not
only are they better, they don’t get tired nor emotional. They don’t go
on strike, and they are infinitely scalable.
With hardware, software, and networking costs coming down, all they cost
So whatever domain you choose, be the first to use AI tools. If you’re a
software engineer, use AI tools to check and optimize your code, to find
re-usable code, or even to write new code. Use AI tools to hire and
build your team. If you start your own company, use AI tools to manage
your books and maximize your profits. Use AI tools to replace your
customer support and your salespeople. Use robots to produce your goods
and autonomous vehicles to deliver them.
The symbiotic combination of humans and AI is all about 1+1=3. For
example, when a doctor can correctly diagnose cancer, and save 70 lives
out of 100, and an early AI tool can save 60 lives out of 100 --
together perhaps they can save 80 lives. And when the AI tool improves
to saving 80 lives, perhaps together they can save 90.
So do not passively accept AI, but embrace AI, seek out AI, and find
every which way that AI can help you. Learn AI, and find clever ways to
build that symbiotic relationship earlier. Just like the reporter who
first found word processing, the accountant who first used a
spreadsheet, the first photographer who applied Photoshop, you will have
an edge. In addition, AI will evolve faster and more broadly than these
tools, and your edge will grow and become sustainable.
My second piece of advice is: Uphold your responsibility as an engineer.
We all know that for centuries physicians took the Hippocratic Oath, as
a responsibility to treat human life as sacred. In the age of AI, I
think engineers’ responsibilities are equally sacred, or even greater.
Why? Because as top engineering graduates from a top school, during the
Age of AI, you are the ones with the power. But please remember what the
world’s greatest philosopher, Spiderman, said: "with great power comes
In the Age of AI, autonomous and semi-autonomous algorithms will invest
money, take care of children, drive cars, and conduct surgery. You will
be the ones who build these products, which will impact people’s
possessions, health, and even lives.
As engineers, we cannot abandon our conscience and sense of
responsibility. We need to be thorough, diligent, and ethical, not just
in the architecture and coding, but also in the design, in the testing,
in running the machine learning training, and in downloading the updated
So your first responsibilities are to your users, to making your product
safe, thoughtful, and usable. And more than “product safety.” You also
have a responsibility to foresee and prevent the potential risks of
technology to users from getting out of hand. So please speak up
strongly against “autonomous weapons” or “bartering or sales of privacy
Your second responsibility is to yourself. In the Age of AI, you are not
just competing with other people, but also with AI. You have a
responsibility to work on the hard problems, and avoid wasting your time
doing what machines will be able to do. Don’t waste your talent
repeating what you learned at school. Don’t accept a job that doesn’t
challenge you. Take risks and learn vigorously and rigorously so that
you can become the best in something specific and useful, whatever your
field. Be creative and inventive. AI is great at optimizing, but AI
cannot invent something new.
Your final responsibility is to make the world a better place with your
choices as an engineer. Choose jobs that save lives, not destroy them.
Choose jobs that empower people, not demoralize them. Work for
organizations with more compassion than greed, and for people who care
more about world peace than world domination.
I came to realize that by chasing these technologies, products,
investments, and my career, my priorities were out-of-order. I neglected
my family. My father had passed away. My mother barely remembered me. My
kids had grown up.
One of the books I read during my illness was Bronnie Ware’s book about
the regrets of people on their deathbeds. She found that no one wished
they’d worked harder or spent more time at the office or accumulated
more possessions. People’s top wish was that they had spent more time,
sharing their love of their loved ones.
Fortunately, I am now in remission so I am here with you today. I am
spending much more time with my family. I moved closer to my mother. I
travel with my wife, whether on business or for pleasure. When my kids
come home, I would take not two or three days off from work, but two or
I also spent more time meaningfully connecting with more people. I spent
weekends traveling with my best friends. I took my company on a one-week
vacation to Silicon Valley -- their Mecca. I met with young people who
sent me questions on Facebook. I reached out to people I offended years
ago and asked for their forgiveness and friendship. I wrote a book and
shot a documentary to share what I had learned from my near-death
With my near-death experience, I would like to offer an alternate ending
to their prediction of the AI future. Surely AI has, or will beat us on
many analytical tasks with definitive decisions and outcomes. But these
tasks are not what make us human. What makes us human is that we are
able to love.
The moment when we see our new-born babies; the feeling of
love-at-first-sight; the warm feeling from friends who listen to us
empathetically; the feeling of self-actualization when we help someone
in need. Or if you want empirical proof, the fact that the placebo
effect works. These all demonstrate that we are far from understanding
the human “heart”, let alone replicating it. But we do know that humans
uniquely are able to love and be loved. Humans want to love and be
loved. That loving and being loved are what makes our lives worthwhile.
With this belief, we now know what we must do. At a minimum, recognize
and be thankful that we are loved. If we can do better, return the love,
and maybe a little bit more. Finally, the highest level of love: Pay it
forward. Give love unconditionally.
Coming back to our AI theme, love differentiates us from AI. Despite
what science fiction movies may portray, I can tell you responsibly that
AI programs cannot love. They don’t even have feelings or
self-consciousness. AlphaGo may beat the world champion, but it has no
fun playing the game, feels no happiness from winning, has no desire to
hug a loved one after it wins.
And in the future, even if an AI diagnostic tool is 10 times more
accurate than doctors, patients will not want a cold pronouncement from
the tool: “you have 4th stage lymphoma and a 70% likelihood of dying
within 5 years.” Patients will want a “doctor of love” who listens to
our complaints, gives us encouragement, like “Kai-Fu had the same
lymphoma, and he survived, so you can too”, and perhaps visits us at
home, and is always available to talk to us. This kind of “doctor of
love” will not only make us feel better, and have greater confidence,
but a placebo effect will kick in and increase our likelihood of
This will solve the AI employment problem we mentioned earlier. The
number of “doctors of love” will outnumber today’s doctors. The
displaced workers can take up careers spreading love and experiences –
whether a passionate tour guide, an attentive concierge, a funny
bartender, an infectious sushi chef. With the new “experts of love”
titles many new kind of service jobs will be created. And they don’t
have to be “jobs”, they can be volunteers, at an orphanage or a
retirement home. This will give people jobs that AI cannot take away.
They will do the job with pride and a strong sense of
self-actualization. Most importantly, this will fill our planet with
love and joy.
We’ve built many task-oriented AI that is much better than our brains.
That was my dream 37 years ago. As a hard-core computer scientist, I’m
proud that we’ve come so far. But now I realize that I went after the
wrong organ. The most important part of the human body is not the brain,
but the heart.
That’s a lesson that took me, I confess, too long to learn. My hope for
all of you, as your careers blossom and your lives take shape, is that
you will approach your lives with all the brains you certainly have, but
also, above all, with all the heart you can muster.
It will be up to you to carry this forward, but I have confidence: if
you let your heart be your guide, you’ll find your way through all of
the massive changes that lie ahead, and make the next 10 years the best
years of your lives.