China’s Growing AI Phenomenon

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Kai-Fu Lee is one of the best-known Chinese AI experts, with an impressive list of accomplishments already behind him: founder of Microsoft’s Beijing based research lab, founding president of Google China, and current CEO of the venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures. His next big project: leading China to artificial intelligence (AI) dominance on a global scale.

In a recent recruitment speech given at MIT, he argues that China is in the perfect position to take advantage of all the recent trends in the rise of machine intelligence, such as increasingly powerful computers, new algorithms, and massive quantities of data.

“The U.S. and Canada have the best AI researchers in the world, but China has hundreds of people who are good, and way more data,” he tells the audience, an auditorium of enraptured students. Kai-Fu Lee speaks the truth: the growth of artificial intelligence depends on the combined development of algorithms and data, and with the amount of data that China possesses. These factors make a dramatic difference. The sheer number of people, data, talent, and the superior number of lines of code being written, all position China as the growing superpower in AI development.

Artificial intelligence may have been invented in the West, but China seems determined to own its future. In his most recent opening address to the Congress, Chinese Leader Xi Jinping outlined the nation’s technological ambitions and economic future:

“We need to speed up building China into a strong country with advanced manufacturing, pushing for deep integration between the real economy and advanced technologies including internet, big data, and artificial intelligence.” – President Xi Jinping, October 2017

As described in Xi Jinping’s speech, the country’s plan involves a multibillion-dollar national investment initiative to support “moonshot” projects, start-ups, and academic research in the field of AI. His hope is to surpass rivals in technology and build a domestic industry worth almost $150 billion.

China has an edge over most developed countries in its ability to combine strong, top-down government directive with brilliant grassroots-level innovation. Western countries, such as the United States, no longer have the strategic monopoly on technology. For example, the Trump administration has recently suggested slashing resources for areas like high-performance computing – such as a 10% cut to the National Science Foundation’s spending on “intelligent systems” – which would greatly affect the development of the tools that make AI work.

China, however, is investing ample funds and political capital into its relentless drive to dominate AI; they have begun to invest a significant amount in the field of artificial intelligence, particularly at the local level. Many local-levels of governments in China are offering financial incentives to encourage AI-related innovations. For example, with the government’s assistance, many major Internet companies such as Apple, Alibaba and Qualcomm have set up big data centers in Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in the country, which is evolving into China’s “big data hub.” In 2016, government data reported a 10.5% growth in Guizhou’s gross domestic product, one of the highest GDP increases among China’s provinces and municipalities. As of June 2017, the municipal government of Tianjin, an eastern city near Beijing, said it planned to set up a $5 billion fund to support the AI industry. The city has also set up an “intelligence industry zone” that will occupy more than 20 square kilometers of land.

Furthermore, the government’s plan also states that AI should be applied across countless industries, including manufacturing, agriculture, logistics, and finance, laying the foundation for the country’s future economic dominance. While the growth of artificial intelligence may eliminate certain jobs, it also has the potential to greatly expand the economy and create wealth by making these industries far more efficient and productive.

If all goes as planned, the nation hopes to be the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030 – a highly plausible accomplishment due to several factors. In China, more so than in anywhere else, there appears to be a great sense of urgency about adapting to the changing technology and expanding in AI. Though the country still has a lot to complete before it can reach its goal, there is no doubt that it has the resources and talent to reach it – and now it has the political resources to make it a national priority.

By: Angel Miao



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