Li Kai Fu: 7 things I wish I knew in my 20s

China POTION
12 min readSep 17, 2020

Original Article published by Li Kai Fu in Chinese. Below is the English translation in English by Google Translate (please bear with some grammatical limitations).

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Recently, it is the opening season of universities. It is the first time to return to campus after the epidemic. I believe everyone is full of joy and vision for the future. When I was 20 years old, I was also enjoying the fun of seeking knowledge in the university. Of course, the confusion and confusion of the young were indispensable.

Today I want to share with you my life experience, the joy of finding the love of my life, the loss of doing something wrong, and the moving that I remember to this day. If life can start all over again, I hope I know this when I am 20 years old.

1. “Wonderful dislocation”, let me find the love of life

When I was 20 years old, I was enrolled in Columbia University College of Arts and Sciences. I didn’t know the difference between the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. As an engineer, I studied in the College of Arts and Sciences.
But it was such a wonderful dislocation that allowed me to read a lot of classics and learn a lot of things that I couldn’t learn in the engineering school. These human wisdom and literary knowledge have enriched my literacy skills and helped me to achieve a lot of writing and speech achievements to a certain extent.

photograph with family before getting admitted to Columbia University

In that era, lawyers and doctors were the professions most yearning for. I thought I would become a lawyer, so I first studied law. But after a while, I found that the law was not suitable for me. I often fall asleep in class, and my grades are not good. I am not interested in the content that my classmates like very much.
So, at the age of 20, I made a decision to transfer to a computer major, study programming and artificial intelligence, and finally found what I loved all my life.
As a young engineer, I am obsessed with computers. I found that I am very good at computer science and can easily get A without much effort.

Finally found my love for life computer, after switching major.

Computers and artificial intelligence are great subjects, which laid the foundation for my career development. There is a famous saying, “When you are engaged in a job you like, you will not feel like you are working.” There is a Confucian saying that “the one who knows is not as good as the good, and the good is not as good as the one who enjoys.”

There is great wisdom in this: when you are engaged in something you like, you will unconsciously think about it when you sleep, eat, and take a bath; in the same way, you will become better at it and like it more, forming a virtuous circle.

Demonstrating Voice Recognition Paper to my father at Carnegie Mellon University

2. “I don’t agree with you, but I support you to do it”

After graduating from Columbia, I went to Carnegie Mellon University to study speech recognition and artificial intelligence.
The AI ​​research situation at that time was not good. Although my mentor, Professor Raj Reddy (Raj Reddy, Turing Award winner, and tenured professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University) wanted me to adopt an “expert system”, but I was not I agree.

In my opinion, machine learning should allow computers to play their strengths, rather than following human ideas. So I summoned up the courage and said to Professor Reddy, “Thank you for your guidance, but I don’t want to continue studying expert systems. I hope to use statistics-based machine learning.”

I thought Professor Reddy would be a little disappointed, but he was not angry at all. After listening carefully to my explanation, the professor told me:
“Kaifu, I don’t agree with your views on expert systems and statistics, but I can support you in using statistical methods, because I believe that science has no absolute right or wrong, and we are all equal. Moreover, I am more I believe that a passionate person can find a better solution.”

At that moment, I was moved beyond compare. This is not only a kind of generosity, but also a respect for newcomers in scientific research. Not only that, he also provided me with a lot of resources, including data, equipment, and funds, which helped me a lot in obtaining a PhD. Professor Reddy is not only the tutor of my AI scientific research, but also the tutor of my life path.

My tribute to Raj Reddy in my book AI Superpowers

“I don’t agree with you, but I support you” I remembered the sentence for a long time. After I entered the business world, whenever my colleagues had different opinions, I would encourage them to try their own ideas: when this idea succeeds, it will benefit him personally and the company; and when this idea fails This feeling of being trusted and supported will also make them more frustrated and courageous.

3. Innovation is not important, but practical innovation is important

After graduating for a while, I chose to work for Apple, and I also applied this voice recognition technology to Apple’s products. Many of the members of the Siri R&D team are my colleagues. Later I went to SGI company. This company is now not well-known, but in Silicon Valley at the time, SGI was a company with the same reputation as Google.
At SGI, the product I made is called “3D Browser”. You may not have heard of it. In fact, this is purely the idea of a group of scientists: to build a 3D world in the browser, able to navigate, move objects, and make very cool advertisements.

Cool looking 3D Browser

We had already made the product at that time and it was running pretty well. We blindly believe that as long as we make high-tech products, there will naturally be customers and markets. However, the truth is that no one wants to buy and use this product.

Later, SGI changed a new CEO. He was disappointed by the project and the company resources consumed. I told him, “This is the best VR technology in the world. If you don’t want to keep it, at least we can sell it for some money.”
The new CEO gave me a deadline to find a buyer. I thought I could sell it at a good price, but in the end I sold it at a cheaper price. I feel very guilty. I blamed myself that I shouldn’t organize such a project. It looks cool, but I didn’t consider practicality.

In fact, many young people make similar decisions when starting a business, so I highly recommend that you reconsider these innovative ideas. Innovation is not the most important thing, only practical innovation is important.
When you are designing a technology, product, or starting a company, remember that your investors are taking huge risks for it.

4. If you want it, go for it hard

After leaving SGI, I returned to China and founded Microsoft China Research Institute (later Microsoft Research Asia), which was named one of the most popular computer labs in the world by MIT Technology Review. At that time, the main members of the institute have now become CTOs or executives of well-known Chinese technology companies, such as Baidu and Alibaba.

Microsoft China R&D Colleagues

After the rise of the Internet, I became more and more interested in this mysterious world. The hottest Internet company at the time was Google. Everyone joked that if you didn’t get an interview from Google, it proved that you were not smart enough. So I wrote an email to Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt, hoping to get an interview opportunity. In 2005, I officially joined Google as the president of China.

You may ask, you are so senior and still write your own letter? Will they not contact you directly and offer a position? This is another thing I want to tell you. In fact, at that time, Google and Microsoft were trying to reach an agreement on talent competition, prohibiting proactively digging the other side’s walls. Although this agreement was not negotiated, Google would not have discovered me if it were not for my self-recommendation, and there would be no future job opportunities. So, if you want, go for it proactively.

With Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt

5. Follow your own heart and find the love in your heart

With the rapid development of the mobile Internet, a large number of startup companies have begun to emerge. I realized that the era of entrepreneurship in China has come. Just like when Apple and Microsoft were founded, Beijing is likely to become China’s Silicon Valley.

I remembered what Steve Jobs said in his speech at Stanford University, follow my heart and find the love in my heart. Our life is made up of countless nodes. When you follow your own heart and look back on the past many years later, you will find that every choice of each node is interconnected.
You cannot predict the future accurately, but you have to believe that as long as you listen to your inner voice, these choices will have a subtle impact on you.

I faced my first major career choice in 2009, staying at Google VS founding my own investment firm

Around 2000, I wrote 7 letters to Chinese college students. This is also to follow my heart and help young people grow. I have given lectures to about 500,000 students and published 10 books, 5 of which are written for students.

University of Electronic Science and Technology of China

Working at Microsoft China, SGI and Google also gave me a lot of knowledge about technology, so I hope to become a technology investor and provide help to start-up technology companies. Therefore, the establishment of the innovation workshop happened naturally.

“School Recruitment Poster” in the first year of Sinovation Ventures

This picture is the school recruitment poster for the first year of Chuangxin Workshop, which says “Join your company”. Our goal is to let young people enter the innovation workshop as engineers, get financial support through technological innovation, and become the CEO of the next successful company.

Among the eight randomly selected people in this poster, there are five CEOs of companies with a market value of more than $200 million. So I am very proud of our achievements in incubating startups.

When the AI era came, Innovation Works invested in dozens of AI companies, including five unicorns. We also created the AI Engineering Institute, and from it we nurtured AI empowerment and technology solutions company Innovation Qizhi. These nodes string together my experience, and also string together China’s entrepreneurial journey in the past 10 years.

6. The richest person in the world is not the one who has the most, but the one who wants the least

Looking back on the past, I really put my heart and soul into my work. To a certain extent, I am a workaholic. I have made some achievements and won the support of the team and praise from the outside world. I think that I am very lucky.

My workstation for me to work in my bed

The above picture was taken in 2000. At that time, I had just had an operation and couldn’t get out of bed. So I asked the team to make a stand for me so that I could lie on the bed and continue to watch the computer and work.

This enthusiasm continued until six years ago, until I was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. The spread of cancer cells replaced my ambitions, and I had to accept the reality that there may only be a few months left in my life. My friend saw me in pain, so he took me to visit Master Xingyun.
Once, the master suddenly asked me: “Kaifu, have you ever thought about your goal in life?”

I answered without thinking: “‘Maximize influence’,’The world is different for me’!” This is my long life belief: the extent to which a person can change the world depends on how much influence one has; The greater the power, the more effective the things done…

Talk to Master Hsing Yun

The master pondered for a moment and said: “The idea of ​​changing the world is too arrogant, maybe just an excuse for greed. What is “maximizing influence”? If a person always wants to expand his influence, think about it, it is actually In pursuit of fame and fortune! Life is not easy once in a while, you don’t have to want to change the world, it’s not easy to be able to do yourself well.

I can’t refute him. My goals that sound ambitious are actually just excuses for greed and desire. He sent me a sentence, “The richest person in the world is not the person who has the most, but the person who wants the least.”
This sentence made me alert. Later, whenever I felt that I was occupied by desire, I would think of this sentence. Whenever I had the idea of ​​changing the world, I would let myself think about whether I did this to pursue fame and wealth. …

I learned this lesson too late. My previous hard work made me miss a lot of opportunities to get along with my family: my father passed away and I didn’t even have time to tell him that I love him; my mother got dementia, Can’t recognize me; my children have grown up, and I don’t know them well…

Lymphoma is like two dozen red fireballs burning in my abdomen

I read a book during my chemotherapy, “Five Things I regret most before I die” by Bronnie Ware. As written in the book, at the end of the day, no one will regret not working hard. The thing that most people regret most is not spending more time with their loved ones.

I learned a lot from Master Hsing Yun and Bronnie Ware. I started to change my work style and spend more time with my family. Before my mother died, I moved home to spend the last time with her; when the children needed me, I would put them first and work second; I would spend more time with my family, such as Say out to travel…

With my mother

7. unreservedly love the one you love

This life experience changed my mind. The meaning of life should be to give others unconditional love. In the AI era, this kind of love is even more precious.

AI has an advantage over us in doing repetitive tasks, but what distinguishes humans from AI is love and creation. No matter how science fiction describes it, AI has no emotions after all. AlphaGo doesn’t like playing chess. It won’t be happy if it wins the game, and it won’t be sad if it loses. In fact, it may not know why we play chess.

AI taking on repetitive tasks does not mean that humans have no work to do. The tasks that require human touch and love are still only humans, such as tour guides, concierges, nurses, teachers, etc.

Blueprint for Human and AI to coexist

In the long run, I prefer to believe that after 30 years, we will feel that the emergence of AI is a blessing: it does not take away our work, but frees human beings from tedious and repetitive tasks, so that we have time to do it. What I like and what I am good at creates a beautiful blueprint for the coexistence of humans and AI.

These are the seven things I have learned in the past life years. When my project at SGI failed, I learned that innovation cannot ignore practicality; when I was facing death, I learned to love your loved ones without reservation.

One more thing — You may find that my most important life lesson is not from success, but from my failure. So, please remember that failure in your life is not a punishment for your wrongdoing, but a valuable opportunity to learn life lessons.

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