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Is artificial intelligence the space race of our generation?

by Tom Pattinson
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Is artificial intelligence the space race of our generation? If so, China is currently winning, writes Tom Pattinson

On New Year’s Eve, Xi Jinping addressed the nation from behind his desk in his office. His speech outlined the plans for the country for the year ahead but eagle-eyed netizens scoured the bookshelves behind the President to see if they could gauge what the president was reading. Two new books stood out. Pedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm and Brett King’s Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane. Both books address Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential effects on society. President Xi and China are taking AI very seriously.

China is pouring billions into the new technology in a bid to boost its economy and its military prowess. A new $2.12 billion artificial intelligence development park is being built in Beijing’s Zhongguancun tech area. The park will house up to 400 enterprises and will look to partner with foreign universities and build a “national-level” AI lab in the area, Xinhua reported.

China released a paper last July encouraging private, public and military firms to invest in the Chinese AI industry, essential if it is to reach its goals of being worth 150 billion RMB by 2020 and 400 billion RMB by 2025.

International companies are also being encouraged to invest. In December, Google announced that they are opening a facility in China. The Google AI China Centre selected Beijing because “China is a hotbed of AI research,” according to Li Feifei, Google’s head of AI for its cloud computing business. “We want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is,” Li wrote in a blogpost. And much of that talent is in China.

Whichever country leads in AI will become the ruler of the world

AI has exploded into our lives over the last two years. Voice-activated systems such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home are already a part of people’s daily lives. Alibaba is taking it a step further with plans to release voice-activated ticket machines in China’s subways. Baidu is fast becoming a leader in autonomous driving, releasing free software to car manufacturers. AI is also being used in medical diagnosis and e-commerce and many other commercial ventures, as well as for facial recognition.

Many AI start-ups working in the area of facial recognition are being funded or contracted by the government as the state recognises the benefits the new technology can bring. Last year, facial recognition AI led to 25 arrests at Qingdao’s beer festival including one man who had been on the run for 10 years.

As well as the government funding and support that AI companies have in China, they also don’t have the social and cultural fears of America. Many in the West worry that the robots will take over, whilst people in China aren’t so concerned, according to Baidu’s Robin Li.

China also has size on its side. AI works from deep learning and big data. Essentially the more information that is input the faster and more accurately the system can learn. China’s 731 million internet users are constantly feeding the system, leaving a digital trail with every site they visit, video they watch or payment they make. Baidu has been able to predict viral outbreaks, football results and stampedes before they happen. “Baidu knows you better than you know yourself,” says Robin Li. Plus, China has none of the data protection laws that might restrict the use of some of the data in the West.

China has said it wants to become the world leader in AI by 2030, and, as Jessi Hempel wrote in a recent Wired magazine article it has “the perfect storm of raw material, government support, public will, and talent.”

America needs to lookout. It is likely that the current administration’s economic policies will lead to the US falling behind when it comes to the research of new technologies. Some experts have said that the competition between the US and China in AI is akin to the space race of the mid-twentieth century. And according to Russian President Vladimir Putting, whichever country leads in AI “will become the ruler of the world”.

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