Could China Win the Global Artificial Intelligence Race?

Since the earliest days of computing, most innovation has come from the West, with the United States and European countries developing technologies that became cornerstones of  modern computing

But more and more innovation is now coming from other regions, and there are reasons to believe the AI revolution might first take off elsewhere. Due to its size, capital, and cultural landscape, China, in particular, seems poised to lead AI evolution.

China’s economic growth since the 1980s has been staggering, and government investment has been key toward creating new technologies in the country. In July of 2017, the Chinese government resolved to make the nation the world’s leader in AI by 2030. Although any government can make similarly bold claims, China’s track record in recent years has been remarkable, with the nation now home to some of the world’s most extensive and modern infrastructure. The wealth and centralized nature of China’s government means it’s worth listening when the nation sets a new goal.

The challenge of AI lies primarily in software. However, software is only usable when it has the hardware to run it, and China is uniquely suited to creating the hardware needed to run AI systems. With the ability to scale its capabilities to meet demand, China will be able to roll out the sheer number of devices needed to run a modern AI system. Furthermore, China has developed expertise for creating the ARM-based systems many believe will power many of the AI devices expected to come online, and investment from some of the nation’s leading smartphone manufacturers gives the country robust infrastructure. China won’t need to import technology to success, and this integration gives it an edge over countries relying on devices manufactured elsewhere.

Cultural Differences

Although people in China value privacy, the debate over tech and privacy is not nearly as strong as it is in the Europe and North America. The Chinese have long favored harmony over privacy concerns, and the convenience new AI technology can offer will prove to be compelling. Furthermore, the nation has an intense hunger for modernization, and new technologies, including mobile payments, are succeeding. The cultural landscape is China will prove to be one of its most valuable assets.

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Chinese companies have been at the forefront of new development in recent years. However, companies and the government are more closely tied together when compared to Western nations. As a result, the government can ensure companies work toward meeting that nation’s overall goals. Instead of companies pressing for their own proprietary solutions to problems, the nation will be able to enforce standards from the top, which avoids much of the repeated effort done in Western companies. China’s unique fusion of government and business provides a degree of power and flexibility difficult to attain in Western nations.

AI is an exciting field, and students in China are buying into it. AI requires skilled workers, and experts around the world predict a shortage of people able to enter the field. China’s investment in education will prepare it to scale up over the coming years, and government incentives can provide further motivation to students considering working with AI. One of the cornerstones of AI, deep learning, is a major focus of businesses and the government, and this clarity can make working with AI an even more compelling option for students.

Some experts argue that core AI technologies already exist. What’s needed, they argue, is for existing technology to be implementing at an appropriate scale to take off. Although there will be problems to solve along the way, investment in infrastructure, sensors, and consumer devices will create the framework that will allow AI to truly thrive. Massive investment from the Chinese government should give the nation the background to scale up these technologies, and revenue and investment attained will create a self-sustaining and constantly growing AI ecosystem.

Homegrown Powerhouses

Alibaba has become somewhat well known outside of China in recent years, and many internet users understand that Baidu is China’s equivalent to Google. Fewer have heard of Shenzhen company, Tencent. Although their impact outside of China is still somewhat limited, these companies have invested heavily in a broad range of technologies that will prove to be invaluable for developing AI systems. Similar to their Western counterparts, these companies have honed their ability to craft and roll-out new technology, and their growing budgets and capabilities are serving as valuable tools as China seeks to meet its ambitious AI goals.

One of these goals is to introduce AI into its governmental and trade policy making, via a system created by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. James Spencer, Analyst at GlobalData, believes the move is driven by “China’s desire and strategy to be the world leader in AI technology”.

This marks the first time in modern history that China will not be playing technological catch up to the Western world, but instead will be innovating AI development and utilization for the future.

One of the surest signs of China’s recent economic growth is its ability to recruit talented people from around the world. Although the US is still a popular destination for people looking to work on the latest technology, Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have become compelling destinations. Many of China’s startups are being co-founded by people from outside of China, and the innovative landscape the nation is building can make it the top destination for people interested in making an impact with AI technology. Talented individuals might turn away from Silicon Valley and instead move to China.

AI thrives on data, and deep learning, in particular, improves dramatically the more data is receives. The sheer population of China, and its growing middle class, will create datasets unimaginable elsewhere. Furthermore, the government is focusing on collaboration, meaning companies are more likely to share data with each other than their counterparts in the West. If successful AI is about attaining critical mass in terms of data, China will be uniquely poised to achieve breakthroughs.

Despite the nation’s advantages, China’s AI goals still seem ambitious. After all, creating a $1 trillion industry, China’s goal, isn’t easy to accomplish. However, there’s good reason to believe China will become one of the world’s leaders in AI, and much of their technology won’t be imported from tech giants in the West. Predicting what AI will look like in 2030 is difficult, but it’s fairly safe to bet that China will play a significant role.