AI Talk: Book review: AI 2041: Ten Visions For Our Future

Oct. 8, 2021 / By V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD

In this week’s blog, I review the fascinating work titled AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan—a combination of fiction and non-fiction about a future brought about by artificial intelligence (AI) 20 years from now.

In the fall of 2018, Dr. Kai-Fu Lee’s book AI Superpowers brought broad awareness to the AI advances being made in China. I blogged about his book back then. He has now teamed up with science fiction writer Chen Qiufan to bring a combination of science fiction and non-fiction in AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future. The book asks the question “what will the world look like 20 years from now?” There are 10 short stories and an analysis section explaining the role of AI in each story and why that scenario is plausible 20 years from now.

The stories are quite interesting, and the production of the book itself is fascinating. The science fiction part is written in Chinese and translated to English by different people, Dr. Lee’s analysis and commentary are in English and each story has an audio version handled by a cast of experienced narrators who attempt to get the accent right.  In my opinion it is worth getting the audio version of the book just for that alone. I got both versions— typically listening to the audio version for the story and reading the electronic version for the analysis. The backdrops chosen for each story are literally all over the world. Here I will summarize the AI predictions based on each story line, but you will have to get the book to read the full stories!

  1. The golden elephant. A story set in Mumbai, India, which I can actually relate to. It revolves around the use of AI that controls every aspect of one’s life driven by relentless optimization of one’s life choices to drive down cost and improve health outcomes. While it showcases the capacity of AI to improve one’s health, it also shows that AI can imbue biases, which in this case, perpetuates caste inequality.
  2. The gods behind the mask. The setting for this story is Lagos, Nigeria. The story line here dives into deep fake technology and what it can do to shape the opinions and behavior of the populace by manipulating multi-media content. It is a turbo-charged version of what we witness today.
  3. Twin sparrows. This story line tracks an orphaned twin in China. The technology arc projects the remarkable advances in natural language understanding, particularly as represented by Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3)’s ability to generate text and answer questions. Twenty years from now these technologies can manifest as our virtual pals that tutor us in all manner of ways customized to our personality.
  4. Contactless love. This story explores long distance relationships in a game world between China and Brazil. The technology depicted is one in a post-pandemic world where every aspect of one’s health is digitized and readily available. A wearable skin implant keeps records of one’s information and doubles as a vaccine passport. All types of wearable tech and robots roam the world providing all manner of assistance to people. Drug discovery happens at hyper speed reacting to every mutation of COVID-19, producing vaccine variants ad infinitum.
  5. My haunting idol. Set in Tokyo, this story examines the immersive world of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR)—collectively known as XR. XR is “like dreaming with your eyes open”—a quote attributed to Dr. Brennan Spiegel. The technology is projected as being ubiquitous. Microsoft HoloLens already provides immersive capabilities and despite the failure of solutions such as Google Glass, the technology is improving and becoming more affordable. In 20 years, we can expect advanced mixed reality environments in which simulated environments are seamlessly grafted on top of the real world. Interacting with such environments will require sight, speech and brain-computer interfaces.
  6. The holy driver. Set in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this story explores autonomous driving. Automobile assistive technology has been graded from L0 (no automation) to L5 (steering wheel optional). We are already seeing a fair amount of automation in this sector. One interesting premise explored in the story line is when an expert driver in Colombo virtually drives a car caught in a natural disaster in another part of the world. Sort of like how drone operators in Las Vegas can control drones in Syria. Communication and sensor technologies evolution plays a major part.
  7. Quantum genocide. With Europe as its backdrop and a mad scientist in the mix, a Kazak hacker saves the world from genocide. This is a cautionary tale of how AI-enabled weapons (drones and the like) can be an existential threat to the whole world in the hands of bad actors. Quantum computing is projected to get to a state where it can break current day encryption schemes—making blockchain currency vulnerable.
  8. The job savior. The scene is Silicon Valley. The story line revolves around job placement agencies. The authors explore the dark side of AI—loss of jobs and opportunities for the masses. AI takes away jobs, AI retrains displaced workers. Dr. Lee talks about the 3Rs: relearn, recalibrate and renaissance. Relearn refers to relearning job fields in the context of AI, recalibrate refers to how to navigate the world of AI, and renaissance is being able to focus on what humans are best at: creativity, compassion and humanity.
  9. Isle of happiness. An artificial island in the Arabian Sea serves as a backdrop where AI is configured to assist in making people (actually billionaires) happy. It uses all data about a person and tailors experiences to fit the personality profile. What data? IoT data, wearable sensor data, camera data, personal health data, audio data, social media data—in short everything. How any system can get all data related to a person is a tricky question—explicitly banned by regulation such as General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in Europe. But the unanswered question is even if such a system can get all the data, how can it figure out what makes someone happy? This question is not really question for AI. It is a question which we have to figure out ourselves—and the ancient sages in India have proclaimed it has nothing to do with your external environment and material goods and everything to do with our own mental state.
  10. Dreaming of plenitude. This story occurs in Australia. The premise explored here is what if there is no dearth of resources brought about by an economy supercharged with AI? Everyone is supplied with a Basic Life Card, which allows one to pay for essentials of living and entertainment. A mega social net. And, related to the theme above, a mechanism to keep the populace motivated. Dr. Lee postulates in such an environment, current economic theory will no longer apply. He suggests we need to reinvent our thinking on this front. And we better start now.

This book offers fascinating stories and inciteful analysis. Twenty years is not that far away. It is difficult to imagine such radical transformation in so short a time frame. But we have indeed seen unbelievable progress in the past four to five years. One thing, however, looks entirely believable. We are going to see massive displacement in the workforce. How we deal with the social and economic cost of AI will be a driving issue of our times. Our current political battles may be just the start. But on the positive side, if we get our thinking straight, we may have a shot at moving away from dystopia and in the direction of utopia.

I am always looking for feedback and if you would like me to cover a story, please let me know! Leave me a comment below or ask a question on my blogger profile page.

V. “Juggy” Jagannathan, PhD, is Director of Research for 3M M*Modal and is an AI Evangelist with four decades of experience in AI and Computer Science research.