The Autonomous AI Balance of Power

By Kai-Fu Lee

While new developments in AI may sound exciting and innovative to the Chinese landscape, the hard truth is no amount of government support can guarantee that China will lead in autonomous AI.

When it comes to the core technology needed for self-driving cars, American companies remain two to three years ahead of China. In technology timelines, that’s lightyears of distance. Part of that stems from the relative importance of elite expertise in fourth-wave AI: safety issues and sheer complexity make autonomous vehicles a much tougher engineering nut to crack. It’s a problem that requires a core team of world-class engineers rather than just a broad base of good ones. This tilts the playing field back toward the United States, where the best engineers from around the globe still cluster at companies like Google.

Silicon Valley companies also have a substantial head start on research and development, a product of Silicon Valley’s proclivity for moonshot projects. Google began testing its self-driving cars as early as 2009, and many of its engineers went on to found early self-driving startups.

China’s boom in self-driving startups really didn’t begin until around 2016. Chinese giants like Baidu and autonomous-vehicle startups like Momenta, JingChi, and, however, are rapidly catching up in technology and data. Baidu’s Apollo project—an open-source partnership and data-sharing arrangement among fifty autonomous-vehicle players, including chipmakers like Nvidia and automakers like Ford and Daimler—also presents an ambitious alternative to Waymo’s closed, in-house approach. But even with that rapid catch-up by Chinese players, there’s no question that as of this writing, the most experienced self-driving technologists still call America home.

Predicting which country takes the lead in autonomous AI largely comes down to one main question: will the primary bottleneck to full deployment be one of technology or policy? If the most intractable problems for deployment are merely technical ones, Google’s Waymo has the best shot at solving them years ahead of the nearest competitor. But if new advances in fields like computer vision quickly disseminate throughout the industry—essentially, a rising technical tide lifting all boats—then Silicon Valley’s head start on core technology may prove irrelevant. Many companies will become capable of building safe autonomous vehicles, and deployment will then become a matter of policy adaptation. In that universe, China’s Tesla-esque policymaking will give its companies the edge.

At this point, we just don’t yet know where that bottleneck will be, and fourth-wave AI remains anyone’s game. While today the United States enjoys a commanding lead (90–10), in five years’ time I give the United States and China even odds of leading the world in self-driving cars, with China having the edge in hardware-intensive applications such as autonomous drones. In the table below, I summarize my assessment of U.S. and Chinese capabilities across all four waves of AI, both in the present day and with my best estimate for how that balance will have evolved five years into the future.

The balance of capabilities between the United States and China across the four waves of AI, currently and estimated for five years in the future.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Mar 12, 2019 in All Posts In the Media

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