Is China catching up with America’s AI advancements?

The US is leading the AI game but it needs to step on the gas and make sure that it continues to invest in the right kind of AI projects to keep its edge.
25 June 2018

Booz Allen Hamilton CEO Horacio Rozanski. Source: Twitter / BoozAllen

America got to the artificial intelligence (AI) game before anyone else in the world, and it has established itself as the world’s number one player in the field.

However, developments in China supported by its government are making it hard for America to hold on to the top position in the AI race.

According to Bloomberg, Horacio Rozanski, CEO of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton warned that the U.S. has only a small advantage over China in the rising field of AI and is at risk of falling behind without a “national strategy.”

“It’s not the 50-year edge that we have in building aircraft carriers. It’s now a much closer race, without a doubt,” explained Rozanski.

This, however, is not the first time that the threat to America’s dominance of AI has been pointed out.

“Through decades of public and private investment, the U.S. currently leads in AI basic research. Ill-advised policies, however, can quickly squander this lead.” Andrew Ng, a leading figure in the field who held an academic post at Stanford before leading research efforts at Google in the U.S. and Baidu in China told the MIT Technology Review.

Olga Russakovsky, an expert in machine vision and learning who recently moved to Princeton University as an assistant professor, worries that the allure of industrial jobs could skew the focus of AI research. Especially with America’s tech giants gobbling up talent even before they graduate from university.

“Right now companies are already putting way more money into AI R&D than the government, which is already a cause for concern. If the disparity grows even further, that’ll affect the type of research we can do, and our objectives and values,” added Olga.

However, it seems that the White House is aware of the problem and is taking (small) measures to counter the problem.

Just last month, the US Government unveiled a hands-off regulatory approach to foster the development of AI at a gathering of more than 40 companies in Washington.

“We didn’t cut the lines before Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call. We didn’t regulate flight before the Wright Brothers took off at Kitty Hawk,” White House technology adviser, Michael Kratsios told Bloomberg.

However, experts suggest that while the country is taking steps to make it easier for companies to develop AI solutions, unlike it’s biggest competitors, the lack of government investments in such endeavors itself is a red flag.

What’s China doing to win at AI

China, on the other hand, is looking to make Shanghai a world leader in AI and wants to expand the scale of the industry in the city to more than CNY 100 billion (US$15.36 billion) by 2020, according to a new municipal plan.

“Shanghai’s rich big-data resources, wide application of smart technologies and sufficient industries, as well as its affluent research talents, have laid a solid foundation for the development of the AI industry,” said Chen Mingbo, director of the Shanghai Commission of Economy and Information Technology.

There are also plans to build AI industrial clusters across the city focusing on intelligent driving, intelligent robots, intelligent software and hardware, and the likes.

“We will work on attracting global AI enterprises to locate their regional headquarters and innovation centers in Shanghai”, said Cheng.

Although it may seem like China is a latecomer to the field compared to the US, Chinese companies are armed with the data generated by a customer base of 1.4 billion people and also enjoy strong government support for their projects.

At this juncture, it’s difficult to determine who will win the race to AI, but as Razanski suggested, it’s about time the US Government puts their money where their mouth is, and invest in more AI projects.