Resistance to AI is futile, so let’s enjoy being useless, controversial author Feng Tang says

Author-cum-investor says the rise of the machines is inevitable, so everyone should stop worrying and get creative

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 September, 2017, 3:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 September, 2017, 10:36pm

The human race has long feared that machines will one day take over the planet, and with the recent advances in artificial intelligence that reality might be closer than people think.

Thankfully, controversial Chinese author Feng Tang thinks he might have found a way for fretting mortals to better come to terms with the inevitable android invasion.

“Learn to be useless,” he said.

“The AI era is looming and the structure of society and people’s lifestyles will probably change dramatically. It’s an inevitable thing, so let’s catch up,” he said.

Though best known for his “racier” work – his 2015 translation of Indian Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, Stray Birds was slammed (and ultimately withdrawn from sale) for its alleged vulgarity – Feng’s latest novel, So Insane, which arrived in Chinese bookstores this month, explores the looming influence of artificial intelligence and tackles the question of what people should be doing about it.

While the idea of becoming “useless” is unlikely to inspire enthusiasm anywhere outside the most indolent quarters of society, Feng said people should not see it as a negative thing.

“[Having AI] will give people more time,” the 46-year-old said.

“Although some people claim that machines can ‘create’, they will never be able to match human creativity in terms of literature, the arts or business. Machine poetry could never compare with the best human poetry,” he said.

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The subject is certainly thought-provoking, which is a term that could be applied to much of Feng’s work, and even his career path.

Born in 1971, Zhang Haipeng – Feng Tang is a pen name – grew up in Beijing and wrote his first novel, Happiness, at the age of 17. He later published a semi-autobiographical trilogy – At Age Eighteen Give Me a Girl, Everything Grows and Beijing Beijing – based on his childhood and adolescence in the Chinese capital.

For most of the 1990s, Feng studied at the prestigious Peking Union Medical College, where he majored in gynecologic oncology and completed his PhD. In 1998 he moved to the US to do an MBA at Emory University in Atlanta.

Despite his academic success, Feng’s career as a cancer doctor was short-lived. He said he quickly became frustrated at his inability to save people’s lives and also with the medical profession in China.

So from medicine he moved into business, spending nine years at consulting firm McKinsey and several more at Chinese state-owned giants like China Resource Group and Citic. He now lives in Hong Kong, where he divides his time being writing and investing.

“Time is always limited for me,” he said. “I write novels during the holidays, locked in a room, writing as quickly as possible,” he said.

“For short essays, I write them in airport departure lounges.”

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As a writer, Feng said he hopes readers can feel the beauty of the Chinese language through his work.

“It’s an author’s responsibility to explore and create language,” he said. “But many writers forget this, or were never aware of it.”

He said he also hoped his books helped people to deal with the problems they have in their lives.

“Even if they can’t solve a problem, it’s good if they help readers to realise that other people have the same kinds of concerns. And that can give them a degree of comfort.”

Comfort is not a word that could be used to describe what many people took from Feng’s translation of Stray Birds.

“I hadn’t expected it would cause such a big controversy,” he said.

“It’s been more than 30 years since the [China’s] reform and opening up, and about 100 years since the May 4th Movement [an anti-imperialism protest launched by young intellectuals in Beijing in 1919], but many people’s perceptions of literature have never moved forward.”

Feng was specifically criticised for the raunchiness of his phrasing. In one verse, he translated the English line: “The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover” into the Chinese for, “The world unzipped its pants in front of its lover”.

In his 2011 novel Oneness – which has seldom strayed outside the bestseller lists at Hong Kong airport – Feng wrote about Buddhist monks and nuns “achieving enlightenment through unorthodox means”, according to one critic’s review.

The novel was, and remains, banned on the Chinese mainland because of its erotic content, though more than 100,000 copies of the Chinese-language edition have been sold in Hong Kong.

The allegations of prurience resulted in critics giving him the nickname “Pornographic Book Feng”.

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“Food and sex are basic human desires,” he said.

“Every religion has to face the issue of sexuality. There have been no exceptions in literature and the arts since ancient times.”

His passion to get to the essence of the subject is unquestionable.

“It’s an issue from our roots. And since we can’t avoid it, it’s better to face it directly. Pick up a knife and cut at the most fundamental place,” he said.

“In a literary sense,” he quickly added, seeing the possible confusion. “It’s nothing to do with my background in gynaecology!”

Feng is clearly not the sort of writer to shy away from controversial or “big” issues. Though with So Insane he seems more keen to provide succour than serve up another scandal.

Before he started writing he said he had been thinking for a long time about the impact artificial intelligence would have on society and how people would adapt to it.

“It’s like AlphaGo [the AI computer program that earlier this year defeated the world champion at the board game Go],” he said. “You have to realise that many things are just games and you don’t need to take them seriously.

“If [after reading So Insane] people start to think more like that and get something from it, then I think I have achieved my goal.”