Could China Dominate AI by 2030?
AI is on a march, no doubt. Its unstoppable penetration of voice and face recognition, search and data aggregation points to a viable application base for a software that can be ascribed the term artificial intelligence. And the vast amount of money invested is the best indication that AI is the next wave of high-tech evolution. But there is a second meaning to march: the march from its original breeding ground, the Silicon Valley, across the Pacific Ocean towards Mainland China. Obviously, this will be long march. It will take a decade or more for AI to arrive at its new territory. But it’s rolling. Not in the sense, that there would be no commercial activities being left at California’s shores. To the contrary. In both the new, and the old AI territories there are incredible mounts of capital invested in startups and the expansion of existing enterprises is going full blast.
But – here is the rub: In 2017 China has surpassed the U.S. in the volume of investments in AI companies. As Andy Chun, a professor at City University of Hong Kong stated last April in the South China Morning Post newspaper, of the $15.2 bn invested globally in AI startups 48 percent was spent in China – and just 38 percent in the U.S., the remain going to the rest of the world. In total, Chun estimates, last year the investment in AI startups rose by 141 percent.
So, was 2017 an important waymark on the long march towards ubiquitous AI implementation? Is it indicating a new wave of intelligent industrial controls, fail-safe transportation, non-hackable communication and tamper-proof commercial transaction networks?
It seems so. Especially if you take a look at China’s grandiose industrial policy involving a heavy dose of AI implementation. The signal for the great leap forward to the glorious AI future was sounded in July 2017. Then, China’s State Council issued its strategic vision of developing a domestic AI industry worth $147.8 bn as soon as 2020. By 2030, China should be the world-leading power in AI.
Is this realistic? Kai-Fu Lee, a leading technologist with a solid pedigree of high-level positions at Apple, Microsoft and Google China says: Yes, it can happen. Through his Sinovation Ventures fund, Lee oversees 300 Chinese and U.S. companies, many in the AI realm. “State Council papers have the tradition of rapidly mobilizing the whole country,” he is quoted in an article for ‘Wired’. “We have seen that in the speed in which China has built its high-speed rail.” It seems, the Chinese economic planners are giving facial recognition the highest priority in order to build out the consumer and public service sectors. An indication of how much prowess is behind this specific AI segment becomes apparent in the commercial success of startup companies like SenseTime and Face++. SenseTime now commands a validation of $4.5 bn – the highest amount for any AI enterprise worldwide.
There is little hesitation on the side of authorities and even less concern on the side of citizens to embrace facial recognition in healthcare, traffic management and networking. “Unlike other economies,” says Chun, “China’s citizens are more willing to adopt technology first, rather than wait for privacy regulations.” With all these intelligent systems around there is a sense of having achieved a pioneer rather than a follower status. Kai-Fu Lee argues that the West should revise its view of the Chinese being mere copycats. “If you compare WeChat with Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, or Weibo with Twitter, or Alipay with Apple Pay, China is leaps and bounds ahead.”
Now, that sounds like another historic “Long March” is getting underway.