2018 has marked a new law in US-China relations. The escalating trade war could just be the tip of the iceberg. The US undoubtedly has the edge over China on pretty much all fronts: influence, culture, economy, and of course, military. But there is one area where the Chinese are one step ahead, and that one single thing could make the difference in near future. We are, of course, talking about AI, the biggest thing that is about to hit mankind since fire and electricity.
Are the Chinese Really Ahead in AI Research?
The short answer is “not at the moment”. The US still has the lead on the rest of the world when it comes to AI research, due to the following factors:
- The Silicon Valley and its diverse & talented workforce
- US companies own advanced microchip and computing hardware technologies
- Top research institutions like MIT, CalTech, and Stanford
The Chinese are well behind the US at present, but they have the following key advantages:
An Actual Plan
While the US government still does not have a clear-cut goal on AI research, the Chinese have been very busy creating a clear roadmap for the future of AI. Their leaders have singled out AI as a top goal, and heavy investment is flowing into the field.
A More Balanced Approach
In the US, AI research is driven almost entirely by private companies and institutions. In Russia, the Kremlin controls everything. In contrast, the Chinese government is collaborating heavily with homegrown tech giants like Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba in AI R&D.
Implementation at Local Level
Since it is a one-party state, there is a high degree of coordination between the national and local levels of government. The Chinese authorities have been investing heavily in smart cities and upgrading roads and other infrastructures for future AI use with the help of tech companies.
All these factors can be replicated in other countries with some effort and political will. However, the Chinese have an ace in the hole that other nations, especially liberal democracies simply cannot compete with.
The Perks of Being an Authoritarian State (With 1.4 Billion Citizens!)
How could the Chinese possibly outpace the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and Intel, not to mention the countless AI-based companies and startups in the US and Europe? The answer is simple: big data, and lots of it.
AI thrives on massive loads of data. The more data you have to throw at it, the better you can train your AI.
Companies in the US and especially Europe have restrictions when it comes to using Big Data and collaborating with governments. Some of it is ethical and moral, the others entirely regulatory and legal.
The Chinese government, on the other hand, has complete control over the internet behind the Great Firewall. Despite the relative lack of privacy and freedom, 800 million Chinese use the internet in their regular daily lives, just like the rest of us in the Western world. That is more folks that the entire US and EU put together.
That is a motherlode of Big Data, the new oil of the 21st century. No other government in the world has access to anything remotely comparable to that in size. Along with that, the state can also call upon the data collected by Chinese tech giants like Baidu and Alibaba. As a totalitarian regime, the Chinese state can use this data any way it wants.
AI – The Great Leveler on the Future Battlefield
The US can own the Chinese on the battlefield, on land, air, and especially on the seas. And the Chinese know it all too well. Their counter to this is a strategic philosophy called “Assassin’s Mace.” It is named after the weapon wielded by the hero in an Ancient Chinese folklore version of David vs Goliath.
And it is quite clear that the Chinese are betting big on AI being the game changer in any future conflict with the US. They have plans to incorporate AI into their tanks, aircrafts, UAVs, and submarines.
Today vs Tomorrow
Chinese are still far behind the US in AI research. However, there is no room for complacency, especially if the US wants to continue maintaining a belligerent and antagonistic posture towards the Chinese.
Japan has taught the world what a nation can achieve in a short time period with the right kind of planning and execution. The Chinese could replicate that in the 21st century in AI research. It is up to the US and its allies to mount a credible deterrence in time.