China Aims To Lead The World In Artificial Intelligence

Outside of the United States, only China is pushing ahead at a faster pace in the field of AI. But can the world's second most powerful country take the lead?


2017 is the year of Artificial Intelligence. AI has become a hot topic in government, boardrooms, and the media thanks to a recent acceleration of innovation in the field. Beyond creating tools and embedded functions, AI is redefining how systems and software are built and how users interact with it. AI today refers to machines simulating human cognitive processes in order to perform a specific application like Apple's Siri or self-driving cars or chess-playing computers.

Connected devices, cheaper computing, data as the fuel of the digitial revolution, and machine learning as the new engine of the digital revolution are all enabling the speeding up of AI innovation. Sensors now enable buildings, machinery, transport systems, homes, and even clothing to be connected to the cloud, send data, and receive instructions.

The US is unquestionably still the leader in the field of artificial intelligence, with AI spending at $17.9 billion according to the WuZhen Institute. China's investment has topped $2.6 billion, well ahead of the third-place UK at only $800 million. However, China is intent on pouring massive resources into AI research and development.

China's Rise in Artificial Intelligence

In 2014, at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, President Xi Jinping had called for breakthroughs and innovation in science and technology, including AI. A series of national economic initiatives to boost AI R&D rapidly followed: the 13th Five Year Plan in 2015, Made in China in 2016, the Robotics Industry Development Plan, and the Three-year Guidance for Internet Plus Artificial Intelligence Plan in 2016.

China's National Development and Research Commission (NDRC) announced in 2016 that it would create an AI market worth $15.26 billion by 2018. At the opening meeting of the 2017 National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang announced that research and development in new and emerging industries like AI will be accelerated. In addition, the NDRC launched a national engineering lab for the research and development of deep learning, to be lead by China's tech giant Baidu.

Today's AI frontier lies in having computer programs process massive amounts of data with pattern recognition and data analysis. The January 2017 China Internet Network Center reported that there are 731 million Chinese internet users, 95.1% of whom use smartphones, 496 million users making digital payments, and 168 million users hailing taxis through smartphones. These existing internet users also constitute a massive market for future AI adoption. Since much of China's internet sector is off-limits to foreign companies, access to Chinese internet users' data is available exclusively to giant Chinese companies such as Baidu, mobile messaging WeChat, third-party payment app Alipay, and pinyin input system Sougo Input to test algorithms and consolidate their custom clusters.

Outside of the United States, only China is pushing ahead faster in the field of AI. In 2015, Google spent $12.3 billion on R&D, whereas Baidu spent $1.5 billion. But China's blistering pace to overtake the leaderse in AI is clear. In October 2016, a White House AI report stated that academic research papers published in China in the field of deep learning exceeded the number published by US researchers. A recent Nikkei Asian Review found that Chinese patent applications in AI in 2010-2014 increased by 186% over those in the period 2005-2009.

Chinese breakthroughs are often not reported in the Western mainsteam press; sometimes AI inventions reported by US sources were invented in China and later developed overseas. Moreover, in 2000, China had no representative among the world's fastest supercomputers but today, they are at the top, partly through chips sourced solely from China.

Andew Ng who founded Google Brain in 2011 and joined Baidu as their chief scientist in 2014 is known world-wide in the field of AI. Under Ng, Baidu developed perhaps the world's top voice-to-text technology and looks to mass-produce driverless cars within 5 years. In addition, Tencent established its own laboratory, and Didi has established an AI lab to investigate autonomous vehicles. Venture company Sinovation Ventures has invested $100 million in 25 different AI startups. The momentum of investment indicates a strong position for China in the future AI market estimated by iResearch Consulting Group to be 9.1 billion yuan by 2020. 


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