‘The real risk is machine + human’: Jennifer Zhu Scott on the future of AI

Jennifer Zhu Scott is the founding principal of Radian Partners, a private investment firm for family offices and UHNWIs that focuses on artificial intelligence, blockchain, and renewable energy. In 2018, she was named one of the World’s Top 50 Women in Tech by Forbes. With her extensive knowledge of new technologies, she also served as a consultant to the HBO show Silicon Valley.

Zhu will be participating in the technology and innovation panel at SupChina’s third annual Women’s Conference, which will take place on Monday, May 20, at the Harmonie Club of New York. Ahead of the event, she spoke with us about Radian, the future of AI, and her experience as a woman entrepreneur.

SupChina: How did you first get involved in the tech industry? Specifically, artificial intelligence and blockchain?

Zhu: I grew up in a strong STEM environment. As a kid, my dad used to get us to fix radios. I studied applied math and computer science in university and used to use my savings to buy computer parts to assemble my own PC. Tech savviness was an important part during my years at Thomson Reuters. We started to work on voice recognition (speech-to-text) in 2009, which was way ahead of its time. When I started to invest in fintech, I looked for companies that are not defined by certain tech but by the problem they try to solve, and use whatever most effective tools to solve these problems. AI was clearly a very powerful tool and is becoming ubiquitous. I also find the blockchain technology intellectually fascinating despite its narrower applications compared with AI.

SupChina: Tell us about Radian. What is its focus and vision? Why do you feel passionate about it?

Zhu: Direct investments in deep-tech-empowered companies and renewable energy. In terms of sectors, no doubt we are witnessing exciting growth and opportunities. In terms of the model, I value freedom and agility. The traditional fund structure doesn’t offer what principal and direct investments have. I have an insatiable appetite when it comes to learning and it’s an important part of what drives me forward. Radian allows me to dig a lot deeper on the sectors I am focusing on. I am now expanding into helping traditional businesses to access and apply those cutting-edge technologies to improve their efficiency, transparency, and sustainability. When you do something that is this stimulating and rewarding, it is hard not to feel passionate about it.

SupChina: In a recent article published by Caixin, you raised concerns about human-like AGI, writing that the combination of AI’s mighty power and self-centered human nature can be dangerous. Can you elaborate on this? Do you have other concerns related to AI?

Zhu: Human beings have been inventing tools that transform our lives, communities, environment, and the planet for many thousands of years. With artificial intelligence, it is the first time we have created a tool that knows how to improve itself, rapidly. When it comes to fear or concerns to AI, most people still have the binary thinking on machine vs. human. The real risk is, in my view, machine + human. Looking ahead a few decades from now, I’m not particularly concerned too much about human-like artificial general intelligence, but inhuman superintelligence combined with or influenced by human weaknesses. I wrote the article to debunk the myth created largely by science fiction.

SupChina: In the book AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee raised an argument that China will surpass the U.S. in AI innovation because China has advantages in multiple areas. Do you agree with him? What do you think about the future of AI in China, and why?

Zhu: I thought the first half of Kai-Fu Lee’s book was spot on. I think in many areas, China’s AI software commercialization is already ahead of the U.S.’s while catching up fast on AI hardware. I think China will continue to accelerate its AI superpower in the coming years, driven by incredibly rich data, a fiercely competitive tech startup scene, strong R&D, government support, and robust talent pipelines. However, I don’t necessarily view the U.S. and China AI duopoly as zero sum. I think there are more areas for both countries to help, leverage, and learn from each other. In fact, for the greater good of the world’s shared future, it is important for the two AI superpowers to collaborate.

SupChina: For women entrepreneurs, what specific advice would you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs? Are there specific advantages and disadvantages to being a woman business owner?

Zhu: This might be contrarian, but it’s based on my own experience. I grew up with two older brothers and don’t have the habit to overthink about my gender. This has served me well personally. I think for young women or men if they choose to focus on their substance and what they can actually bring to the table, it would be a healthier starting point for both genders. As individuals, we all have to learn to leverage our advantages and manage our disadvantages, which are often not absolute. For example, there are fewer female entrepreneurs, but it also means it’s easier for us to stand out. Having said that, I do recognize that female entrepreneurs are statistically less likely to be funded. So don’t be afraid to be aggressive, don’t ask permission to lead, don’t hesitate to stand up for yourselves.