China has vowed to become the global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. A State Council document issued in 2017, positions China as the pre-imminent practitioner of AI in both research and application within the next 13 years. This is significant because no other government has published as coherent a plan to support innovation in AI. Further, China has demonstrated the ability to get things done as the Chinese government can implement policy in ways that are impossible in western democracies.
The U.S. may be winning the race in AI race for now, but it won’t last for long. This is according to Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and chief executive of Sinovation Ventures, a Beijing-based venture-capital firm. He believes the U.S.’’s current technological edge over China could disappear within five years, thanks to government support, a growing force of entrepreneurs and their speed of execution.
Mr. Lee says the AI race will be about which country has more data, faster entrepreneurs, AI engineers, and government support. Currently, China and the U.S. lead in different areas of AI technologies. In internet AI, or algorithms making profitable recommendations for people based on their Web browsing history, China and the U.S. are about equal. China will probably move ahead because it has more user data. In business AI, where companies mine their customer data for new product ideas and improved service and efficiency, the U.S. is ahead, and will probably maintain the lead because its enterprise data is properly archived and more usable for AI. In areas like facial recognition and other biometric interfaces, China is ahead because it’s deploying more sensors inexpensively and for broader uses, and it will probably increase its lead.
The U.S. is struggling to respond to this game-changing challenge. Unlike China, the U.S. has no national strategy and there is no current agency or White House office empowered to coordinate an effort comparable to the Manhattan Project that developed a nuclear weapon, or the space race that put a man on the moon. Organizing resources in this way requires leadership and political vison, qualities lacking in both parties in congress.
“There is no quarterback” for AI, says Amy Webb, author of The Big Nine, a forthcoming book about the top U.S. and Chinese AI companies. The U.S. efforts are dispersed and decentralized. Companies cannot easily share the structured data required for machine learning. “China is the OPEC of data,” says Webb. In a totalitarian society, all human and social interactions feed a vast pool of structured data for machines to consume.
The U.S. does maintain some advantages in the development of AI. This is the country’s tradition of openness and the fact that the U.S. is still considered an attractive place to a lot of people. Developing world-class AI requires the best talent for innovation and creativity. Winning the talent wars means the U.S., it’s university systems, and companies must continue as destinations where the best and brightest want to live. The race for AI could potentially come down to politics, specifically President Trump’s stance on immigration. AI innovation for the time being is still coming from the U.S. due to a large network of universities fed by the world’s greatest talent– engineers and computer scientists from China, India and the rest of the globe.
- China is already dominating in deep learning, a subset of machine learning where artificial neural networks, algorithms inspired by the human brain, learn from large amounts of data. Access to large of amounts of data is key in this critical research area giving China an inherent advantage.
- In the AI debate, the U.S. has a dynamic private sector, but weak leadership, military services that are tied to legacy systems such as manned fighter jets and huge aircraft carriers; a public education system that doesn’t prepare students for the tech jobs that matter; and a broken immigration policy that’s doesn’t serve the country’s economic needs.
- President Trump recently signed an executive order intended to spur the development and regulation of AI, but the order lacks funding or details on how the administration plans to put the policies into effect.
Quests and Actions (Q&A):
- No candidates in the recent U.S. mid-term elections discussed AI, the AI war with China, or the implications of the U.S. losing the war. Should potential candidates for the 2020 elections be assessed by how they would meet the AI challenge of reshaping our economic and strategic foundations?
- How can business leaders bring about a quick, major strategic pivot on AI? Could this include recommendations that a national AI Czar be appointed with broad funding and programmatic authority serving as the principal advisor to the president on strategic and policy aspects of AI technology?
- Similar to AI investments by cities and provinces in China, should individual U.S. states develop their own AI investment strategies? States could aggressively fund AI research and development and partner with the federal government on common problems such as infrastructure, healthcare, and education.