September 2017 – Russian President, Vladimir Putin, states something exceedingly valuable to technology-aficionados, something that everyone was thinking, but wouldn’t dare put into words; the nation that leads in artificial intelligence will be the ruler of the world. He outlined the vast opportunities and colossal advantages in the ability to harness the reins of this rising form of technology, but he also mentioned the threats that could ensue if it was not grappled in such a way that would keep it from becoming a tool for destruction. Whatever sword or shield is wielded by the nation in control of it – it is in the interests of that nation to lead the world in this area… and for the moment it looks to be China.
China has positioned itself firmly in its advance to become a world leader in AI over the next few years; with more than 730 million Internet users, China’s technology companies have access to incredible amounts of personal data. Their goal? To use this resource to create everything from self-propelled cars to face recognition payment systems. But China’s AI offensive can also change the country’s police and security policy.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was unusually worried when, in a speech last winter, he explained that China is moving past the United States in terms of artificial intelligence.
“Trust me, these people know what they are doing. They will use this technology for commercial as well as military purposes”, Schmidt said at a speech in Washington DC in late November.
The Chinese government had just launched an ambitious strategic plan to become a world leader in artificial intelligence with expectations stretching over a 10-year period. It was predictably accompanied by large-scale investments in research, training and direct support to the technology companies that lead domestic development within the field of AI.
In Silicon Valley, a growing number of people complain that the ‘’great technology giants’’ have gained so much power over their respective sectors that they blow out new competitors and start-ups, which ultimately damages innovation. In China, the problem is vastly different – given that the state is so close to the leading technology companies and pumps in capital whenever it is needed. However, China seems to be advancing in the right direction to catch up with the US in terms of new technology companies. 40 percent of the world’s so-called ‘’unicorns’’, start-ups worth $1 billion, are now located in China. A completely different picture than what it was just a decade ago. In many areas, these ‘’unicorns’’ have, furthermore, seemingly excelled and have become world leaders. This applies especially to artificial intelligence.
According to McKinsey, China’s huge AI offensive will alone increase the country’s GDP by an additional 1 percent per year in the 2020s. A very optimistic outlook, even from a party in this debate that would perhaps not wish for such growth. Similarly, the country’s patents for AI products have tripled between 2010 and 2014. Now, the major technology giants in China, such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Toutiao, are aiming at creating the world’s most sophisticated AI for face recognition and voice assistants.
It should surprise no one that China has solidified its position in this field; it is already a world leader in voice-controlled assistants. As it generally takes longer to write Chinese characters on our mobile phone than our alphabet, Chinese mobile users have been faster to start using voice services. This means that technology companies have already had access to large numbers of voice data, which accelerated the development of enhanced voice services. Voice assistance, however, is not the only field of success in this question as even in terms of image recognition, China seems to dominate. In recent years, they have won the global competition, ImageNet, where companies and research institutes from all over the world compete for image recognition technology. In the latest competition, more than half of the participants were from China.
What about search engines? The search engine Baidu, China’s equivalent to Google, was long known as a painfully, ‘’substandard’’ version of the American counterpart. But nowadays, Baidu is keeping pace with Google and other American technology giants. China currently has more than 730 million Internet users and Baidus’s access to personal data from these users’ search history and consumption patterns is an invaluable asset when investing in new AI projects. According to several venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, Baidu is expected to soon become world-leading in terms of AI for self-propelled cars.
At Baidu’s headquarters in Beijing, face recognition is used to enter the various departments of the building and the person who orders a coffee or a cup of tea from the vending machines in the meeting rooms pays by looking into a camera. Foreign visitors to Chinese technology companies today easily get the feeling of being in some sort of trans-futuristic society on the verge of taking the next step.
In the global struggle to develop ground-breaking AI, China’s technology companies have an advantage as the government does not regulate or limit how they use the user’s personal data. This means that many technology companies have the freedom to use the personal data itself from the more than 730 million Internet users in the entirety of the country.
In an industry where personal data is the most important raw material, China has a clear head start and we should not underestimate Putin’s words about AI’s global importance; as it stands, China is the ruler.