Opinion | China is catching up to the US on artificial intelligence research

A lifelike robot powered by artificial intelligence, speaks with visitors at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona on Tuesday

Researchers, companies and countries around the world are racing to explore – and exploit – the possibilities of artificial intelligence technology. China is working on an extremely aggressive multi-billion-dollar plan for government investment into AI research and applications.

The U.S. government has been slower to act.

The Obama administration issued a report on AI near the end of its term. Since then, little has happened – until a Feb. 11 executive order from President Donald Trump encouraging the country to do more with AI.

The executive order has several parts, including directing federal agencies to invest in AI and train workers “in AI-relevant skills,” making federal data and computing resources available to AI researchers and telling the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create standards for AI systems that are reliable and work well together.

Government spending

China is doing far more than talking about AI. In 2017, the country’s national government announced it wanted to make the country and its industries world leaders in AI technologies by 2030. The government’s latest venture capital fund is expected to invest more than USD30 billion in AI and related technologies within state-owned firms, and that fund joins even larger state-funded VC funds.

One Chinese state alone has said it will devote $5 billion to developing AI technologies and businesses. The city of Beijing has committed $2 billion to developing an AI-focused industrial park. A major port, Tianjin, plans to invest $16 billion in its local AI industry.

These government programs will support ambitious major projects, startups and academic research in AI. The national effort also includes using AI in China’s defense and intelligence industries; the country’s leaders are not reluctant to use AI for social and political control.

U.S. investment plans, mostly in the defense industry, are dwarfed by the Chinese effort. DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, has sponsored AI research and competitions for many years, and has a $2 billion fund called “AI Next” to help develop the next wave of AI technologies in universities and companies. It’s not yet clear how much real progress its efforts have made.

Private sector contributions

In China, the private sector is much more closely tied to government plans than in the U.S. The Chinese government has asked four large AI-oriented firms in China – Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba and iFlytek – to develop AI hardware and software systems to handle autonomous driving and language processing, so other companies could build on those skills.

China may have also surpassed the American historic advantage in venture capital investments. In 2018, U.S. AI startups received $9.3 billion in venture funding – a record amount, but the number of deals was down from 2017.

Beyond investment money

A recent analysis of LinkedIn data suggests that the U.S. has far more AI engineers than China does. But China is closing the gap rapidly, with a variety of education and training programs beginning as early as elementary school. The Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration are encouraging some of the world’s best AI researchers to stay home, rather than come to the U.S.

Another element in long-term AI success is how particular regions build mutually reinforcing communities of companies, university ecosystems and government agencies. Silicon Valley is the world leader in this regard, and China doesn’t have anything to match it yet

A final key element in AI progress is data: The more data a country’s companies have, the better able they are to develop capable AI systems. Chinese online firms have massive amounts of consumer data on which to train machine learning algorithms. Because of its very large number of inhabitants, the population’s heavy use of digital services and its lax regulatory environment, China clearly beats the U.S. on data.Thomas H. Davenport, Babson College, The Conversation via AP

Categories China