China’s Quest to Become the Leading AI Juggernaut

Last week, a policy statement from the State Council announced China’s intention to become a leader in artificial intelligence research, products, and innovation. The statement included plans for China to become competitive with the US and other countries in AI over the next three years and by 2030, lead the world in AI theory, research, and technology, with Chinese AI industries producing 1 trillion yuan ($147.80 billion USD) per year.

The People’s Republic announcement stated that, “AI in China should be used to promote the country’s technology, economy, social welfare, maintain national security, and contribute to the world. Breakthroughs should be made in basic theories of AI, such as big data intelligence, multimedia aware computing, human-machine hybrid intelligence, swarm intelligence and automated decision-making. Advanced theories which can potentially transform AI should also be looked at, including advanced machine learning, brain-like computing, and quantum intelligent computing.”

Currently, China’s tech trinity, Alibaba, Baidu, and Lenovo, are in the midst of increasing their AI investments. Baidu has acquired the Seattle-based chatbot startup this month, Alibaba has recently announced the upcoming release of an AI-powered smart speaker, and Lenovo has plans to reveal a line of AI products including a digital assistant, health devices, and VR platforms. In addition, the number of AI patents filed by Chinese researchers has doubled in recent years, and China is now a leader in deep learning research, with more articles published on the topic than the US.

China has a great deal to gain by increasing their focus on AI. A recent PwC report stated that AI will drive the global GDP 14% higher by 2030 – the equivalent of an additional $15.7 trillion, with China receiving a 26% boost to GDP by 2030. Adding to China’s potential AI coup is a large manufacturing sector that could be transformed with robotics.

However, keeping pace with global innovations and output in AI will be no small feat for China. In the US, which is home to AI initiatives such as Google DeepMind, IBM’s Watson, and others, AI initiatives received $17.9 billion in funding from 2012-2016. In comparison, Chinese AI companies received $2.6 billion in that same period, predominantly drawing funding from domestic sources.

The reason for this may be a lack of global collaboration on China’s part. Tight censorship laws, a recent crackdown on VPNs, and cybersecurity laws designed to keep Chinese data from exiting the People’s Republic all disrupt the flow of information into and out of the country. And while China has a significant boon in the amount of data generated by its 730 million Internet users (a useful repository for training AI algorithms), this competitive advantage seems unlikely to outweigh the funding, research, and innovation that could be achieved through global collaboration.

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