The Stuff of an AI Superpower

Creating an AI superpower for the twenty-first century requires four main building blocks: abundant data, tenacious entrepreneurs, well-trained AI scientists, and a supportive policy environment. We’ve already seen how China’s gladiatorial startup ecosystem trained a generation of the world’s most street-smart entrepreneurs, and how China’s alternate internet universe created the world’s richest data ecosystem.

I believe that in the age of AI implementation, Silicon Valley’s edge in elite expertise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And in the crucial realm of government support, China’s techno-utilitarian political culture will pave the way for faster deployment of game-changing technologies.

As artificial intelligence filters into the broader economy, this era will reward the quantity of solid AI engineers over the quality of elite researchers. Real economic strength in the age of AI implementation won’t come just from a handful of elite scientists who push the boundaries of research. It will come from an army of well-trained engineers who team up with entrepreneurs to turn those discoveries into game-changing companies.

China is training just such an army. In the two decades since I gave a lecture in Hefei, and eager students were hard-pressed to find the textbooks they need to learn and to innovate, China’s artificial intelligence community has largely closed the gap with the United States. While America still dominates when it comes to superstar researchers, Chinese companies and research institutions have filled their ranks with the kind of well-trained engineers that can power this era of AI deployment. It has done that by marrying the extraordinary hunger for knowledge that I witnessed in Hefei with an explosion in access to cutting-edge global research. Chinese students of AI are no longer straining in the dark to read outdated textbooks. They’re taking advantage of AI’s open research culture to absorb knowledge straight from the source and in real time. That means dissecting the latest online academic publications, debating the approaches of top AI scientists in WeChat groups, and streaming their lectures on smartphones.

This rich connectivity allows China’s AI community to play intellectual catch-up at the elite level, training a generation of hungry Chinese researchers who now contribute to the field at a high level. It also empowers Chinese startups to apply cutting-edge, open source algorithms to practical AI products: autonomous drones, pay-with-your-face systems, and intelligent home appliances.

Those startups are now scrapping for a slice of an AI landscape increasingly dominated by a handful of major players: the so-called Seven Giants of the AI age, which include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. These corporate juggernauts are almost evenly split between the United States and China, and they’re making bold plays to dominate the AI economy. They’re using billions of dollars in cash and dizzying stockpiles of data to gobble up available AI talent. They’re also working to construct the “power grids” for the AI age: privately controlled computing networks that distribute machine learning across the economy, with the corporate giants acting as “utilities.” It’s a worrisome phenomenon for those who value an open AI ecosystem and also poses a potential stumbling block to China’s rise as an AI superpower.

But bringing AI’s power to bear on the broader economy can’t be done by private companies alone—it requires an accommodating policy environment and can be accelerated by direct government support. As you recall, soon after Ke Jie’s loss to AlphaGo, the Chinese central government released a sweeping blueprint for Chinese leadership in AI. Like the “mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship” campaign, China’s AI plan is turbocharging growth through a flood of new funding, including subsidies for AI startups and generous government contracts to accelerate adoption.

The plan has also shifted incentives for policy innovation around AI. Ambitious mayors across China are scrambling to turn their cities into showcases for new AI applications. They’re plotting driverless trucking routes, installing facial recognition systems on public transportation, and hooking traffic grids into “city brains” that optimize flows.

Behind these efforts lies a core difference in American and Chinese political culture: while America’s combative political system aggressively punishes missteps or waste in funding technological upgrades, China’s techno-utilitarian approach rewards proactive investment and adoption. Neither system can claim objective moral superiority, and the United States’ long track record of both personal freedom and technological achievement is unparalleled in the modern era. But I believe that in the age of AI implementation the Chinese approach will have the impact of accelerating deployment, generating more data, and planting the seeds of further growth. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, one that runs on a peculiar alchemy of digital data, entrepreneurial grit, hard-earned expertise, and political will.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Dec 06, 2018 in All Posts AI & China

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