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Kai-Fu Lee
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Born December 3, 1961 (1961-12-03) (age 59)
Alma mater Columbia University (B.S.)
Carnegie Mellon University (Ph.D.)
Known for Artificial intelligence expert, Technology executive
Scientific career
Thesis Large-vocabulary speaker-independent continuous speech recognition: The SPHINX system (1988)
Doctoral advisor Raj Reddy

Kai-Fu Lee (traditional Chinese: 李開復; simplified Chinese: 李开复; pinyin: Lǐ Kāifù; born December 3, 1961) is a Taiwanese-born American computer scientist, businessman, and writer. He is currently based in Beijing, China.

Lee developed a speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system as his Ph.D. thesis at Carnegie Mellon University. He later worked as an executive, first at Apple, then SGI, Microsoft, and Google.

He became the focus of a 2005 legal dispute between Google and Microsoft, his former employer, due to a one-year non-compete agreement that he signed with Microsoft in 2000 when he became its corporate vice president of interactive services.

One of the most prominent figures in the Chinese internet sector, he was the founding director of Microsoft Research Asia, serving from 1998 to 2000; and president of Google China, serving from July 2005 through September 4, 2009. He created a website, Wǒxuéwǎng (Chinese: 我学网; literally "I learn Internet") dedicated to helping young Chinese people achieve in their studies and careers, and his "10 Letters to Chinese College Students" have spread widely on the web. He is one of the most followed micro-bloggers in China, in particular on Sina Weibo, where he has over 50 million followers.

In his 2018 book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, Lee describes how China is rapidly moving forward to become the global leader in AI, and may well surpass the United States, because of China's demographics and its amassing of huge data sets. In a 28 September 2018 interview on the PBS Amanpour program, he stated that artificial intelligence, with all its capabilities, will never be capable of creativity or empathy.


Lee was born in Taipei, Taiwan. He is the son of Li Tianmin, a legislator and historian from Sichuan, China. Lee has detailed his personal life and career history in his autobiography in both Chinese and English, Making a World of Difference, published in October 2011.



In 1973, Lee emigrated to the United States and attended high school in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University, earning a B.S. degree in computer science in 1983. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in 1988.

Academic research

At Carnegie Mellon, Lee worked on topics in machine learning and pattern recognition. In 1986, he and Sanjoy Mahajan developed Bill, a Bayesian learning-based system for playing the board game Othello that won the US national tournament of computer players in 1989. In 1988, he completed his doctoral dissertation on Sphinx, which he claims is the first large-vocabulary, speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system.

Lee has written two books on speech recognition and more than 60 papers in computer science. His doctoral dissertation was published in 1988 as a Kluwer monograph, Automatic Speech Recognition: The Development of the Sphinx Recognition System (ISBN: 0898382963). Together with Alex Waibel, another Carnegie Mellon researcher, Lee edited Readings in Speech Recognition (1990, ISBN: 1-55860-124-4).

Apple, Silicon Graphics, and Microsoft

After two years as a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, Lee joined Apple Computer in 1990 as a principal research scientist. While at Apple (1990–1996), he headed R&D groups responsible for Apple Bandai Pippin, PlainTalk, Casper (speech interface), GalaTea (text to speech system) for Mac Computers.

Lee moved to Silicon Graphics in 1996 and spent a year as the Vice President of its Web Products division, and another year as president of its multimedia software division, Cosmo Software.

In 1998, Lee moved to Microsoft and went to Beijing, China where he played a key role in establishing the Microsoft Research (MSR) division there. MSR China later became known as Microsoft Research Asia, regarded as one of the best computer science research labs in the world. Lee returned to the United States in 2000 and was promoted to corporate vice president of interactive services division at Microsoft from 2000 to 2005.

Move from Microsoft to Google

In July 2005, Lee left Microsoft to take a position at Google. The search company agreed to compensation worth in excess of $10 million, including a $2.5 million cash 'signing bonus' and another $1.5 million cash payment after one year, a package referred to internally at Google as 'unprecedented'.

On July 19, 2005, Microsoft sued Google and Lee in a Washington state court over Google's hiring of its former Vice President of Interactive Services, claiming that Lee was violating his non-compete agreement by working for Google within one year of leaving the Redmond-based software corporation. Microsoft argued that Lee would inevitably disclose proprietary information to Google if he was allowed to work there.

On July 28, 2005, Washington state Superior Court Judge Steven González granted Microsoft a temporary restraining order, which prohibited Lee from working on Google projects that compete with Microsoft pending a trial scheduled for January 9, 2006. On September 13, following a hearing, Judge González issued a ruling permitting Lee to work for Google, but barring him from starting work on some technical projects until the case went to trial in January 2006. Lee was still allowed to recruit employees for Google in China and to talk to government officials about licensing, but was prohibited from working on technologies such as search or speech recognition. Lee was also prohibited from setting budgets, salaries, and research directions for Google in China until the case was to go to trial in January 2006.

Before the case could go to trial, on December 22, 2005 Google and Microsoft announced that they had reached a settlement whose terms are confidential, ending a five-month dispute between the two companies.

At Google China, Lee helped establish the company in the market and oversaw its growth in the country. Under his tenure, the regional website was launched. He also strengthened the company's teams of engineers and scientists in the country.

On September 4, 2009, Lee announced his resignation from Google. He said "With a very strong leadership team in place, it seemed a very good moment for me to move to the next chapter in my career." Alan Eustace, senior Google vice-president for engineering, credited him with "helping dramatically to improve the quality and range of services that we offer in China, and ensuring that we continue to innovate on the Web for the benefit of users and advertisers". Several months after Lee's departure, Google announced that it would stop censorship and move its mainland China servers to Hong Kong.

Sinovation Ventures

On September 7, 2009 he announced details of a $115m venture capital (early-stage incubation and seed money business model) fund called "Innovation Works" (later changed to "Sinovation Ventures") that aims to create five successful Chinese start-ups a year in internet and mobile internet businesses or in vast hosting services known as cloud computing. The Innovation Works fund has attracted several investors, including Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube; Foxconn, the electronics contract manufacturer; Legend Holdings, the parent of PC maker Lenovo; and WI Harper Group.

In September 2010, Lee described two Google Android projects for Chinese users: Tapas, a smart-phone operating system tailored for Chinese users and Wandoujia (SnapPea), a desktop phone manager for Android.

In December 2012, Innovation Works announced that it had closed a second US$275 million fund.

In September 2016, the company announced its corporate name change from Innovation Works to "Sinovation Ventures," closing US$674 million (4.5 billion Chinese yuan) capital injection. Total fund size of Sinovation Ventures exceed US$1 billion. In April 2018, Sinovation Ventures announced its US dollar Fund IV of $500 million. To date, Sinovation Ventures' total asset under management with its dual currency reaches US$2 billion and has invested over 300 portfolios primarily in China.

Previous jobs

  • Vice President, Google; President, Google Greater China, July 2005 - September 4, 2009
  • Corporate Vice President, Natural Interactive Services Division (NISD), Microsoft Corp. 2000 - July 2005
  • Founder & Managing Director, Microsoft Research Asia, China, 1998–2000
  • President, Cosmo Software, Multimedia software business unit of Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), 1999-2000
  • Vice President & General Manager, Web Products, Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), 1998-1999
  • Vice President, Interactive Media Group, Apple Computer, 1997-1998
  • Director, Interactive Media, Advanced Technology Group, Apple Computer, 1994-1997
  • Manager, Speech & Language Technologies Group, Apple Computer, 1991-1994
  • Principal Speech Scientist, Apple Computer, 1990 - 1991
  • Assistant Professor, Carnegie Mellon University, July 1990
  • Research Computer Scientist, Carnegie Mellon University, 1988–1990



  • Chairman World Economic Forum's Global AI Council
  • Asia House Asian Business Leader 2018
  • Fellow, IEEE (inducted 2002)
  • Member, Committee of 100
  • Time 100, 2013
  • Honorary Doctorate Degree, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Honorary Doctorate Degree, City University of Hong Kong

Personal life

Lee posted on Weibo on 5 September 2013 that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma. In December 2018, Lee spoke at the End Well Symposium on end of life in San Francisco stating, “I was a maniacal workaholic. That workaholism ended abruptly about five years ago, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma.” This sudden onset of cancer led him to realise "that all the money and things cannot buy back my health or the love of my family."


  • BBC Interview Of The Week: Kai-Fu Lee (2018) [1]
  • The TED Interviews - Kai-Fu Lee on the future of AI (2019) [2]
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) Podcast - Kai-Fu Lee: AI Superpowers - China and Silicon Valley (2019) [3]
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