Why China is at the forefront of the AI race

China is expected to become the world leader in AI by 2030.


In July of last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping set a laudable goal. He said that China would be the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. That wasn’t just lip service. His announcement included a detailed plan for making that statement bear fruit.

The revealed plan includes nurturing the development of AI-centered enterprises. Xi Jinping’s words also contained some bold predictions. For instance, the growth of AI-focused industries are expected to exceed 1 trillion yuan by 2025 and complementary industries are predicted to exceed 10 trillion yuan.

Normally, these statements might seem alarmingly speculative. In truth, it’s looking like China just might accomplish their goal of AI domination.

China is publishing patents at a rate that eclipses the US

According to CB insights the number of AI patents that China has applied for has far exceeded those from the US. This is for the period between 2013 and 2017. This based on the following keyword searches:

  • Deep learning
  • Machine learning
  • Artificial intelligence

Many of the technologies that China is pursuing involves AI chips and facial recognition software. There are different motivations behind both. In China, facial recognition software has been used successfully in law enforcement scenarios. Advancing this technology also works towards the countries ongoing surveillance goals.

By developing tech related to AI chips, China puts itself in direct competition with the US. These chips go into smartphones and other devices. They take on artificial intelligence tasks such as facial recognition. This removes that processing load from the device’s CPU.

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Chinese tech giants are heavily investing in AI

Chinese-based search engine and tech giant Baidu is currently expanding into Silicon Valley. One of their primary goals is to attract talent in the region that has AI experience. Similarly, Alibaba is developing research labs to be opened in Israel, Singapore, America, and Russia. Their plan is to partner with local brands to develop AI technologies.

Another tech company, Tencent, has opened a research lab outside of Seattle, Washington. The lab will focus entirely on AI, and is run by Dr. Dong Yu. The former microsoft researcher has deep experience in working with AI technologies like voice recognition. The company is also planning an outreach effort to get local graduate students onboard in developing AI projects.

By comparison, the United States is investing significantly less in overseas partnerships for AI development. This could leave them at a disadvantage in the future. The good news is that tech companies don’t need to be limited by this trend. There is plenty of room for companies that are interested in AI to expand into China and partner with firms in that region.

The US government may be too focused on tariffs and a potential trade war to worry about advancing AI initiatives, but there’s no reason that US based companies cannot benefit from China’s long term commitment to artificial intelligence.

China has an extraordinary amount of data to work with

AI technology thrives on data. The more information an AI application has, the better it can function. This data can come from a variety of sources. For example, a retailer might employ an AI based chatbot to engage with customers and gather data from those interactions.

AI technology can also learn and become more functional by accessing large sets of data. A healthcare tool might access hundreds of thousands of aggregate patient records to find certain patterns among patients that have the same demographic criteria.

According to an Oxford study, China currently trails the US when it comes to the ability to produce AI technology. The US was assigned a score of 33 while China earned 17. There was just one area where China pulled ahead in a big way. This was big data.

In large part, this is simply due to numbers. There are more internet users in China than anywhere else. There’s also not much in place to prevent the collection of data as it travels through cyberspace. This has left the country with huge sets of data covering a wide array of subject matter. That, combined with the fact that the privacy laws in the country are virtually non existent leaves AI tech companies and government agencies a wealth of information to work with.

The Chinese are more accepting of AI technology in their daily lives

In addition to there being very little expectation of privacy in terms of internet usage, especially online shopping, Chinese citizens are accustomed to AI in their daily lives. The government of the People’s Republic is heavily invested in facial and voice recognition technology. It is everyone. It’s at gas stations, KFC restaurants, crosswalks, and more. Police have used the technology to identify criminals in large crowds. The technology is even used in classrooms to measure student attentiveness.

Because AI thrives on information, it also thrives on usage. Each time AI technology is applied, that’s an opportunity to input more information. The technology benefits from the new data. It also means these technologies are being constantly put to the test.

Conversely, in the US, people are much less accepting of this technology. It is seen as intrusive, and potentially a violation of rights. There are multiple laws protecting data privacy. Even the ACLU has taken action to limit the extent to which facial recognition can be used. This lack of adoption may be a relief to privacy rights advocates, but it could have long term impacts on the development of AI within the United States.

At this point, there is little evidence to dispute that China is on the right track to become the world leader in AI technology. If they accomplish this goal it will have deep impacts on global trade, government relationships, security, even the military. To maintain their position, the US will need to invest more in AI, and consider policies that help them remain competitive in this area.

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