China is now embarking on an unprecedented effort to master artificial intelligence. Its government is planning to pour hundreds of billions of yuan (tens of billions of dollars) into the technology in coming years, and companies are investing heavily in nurturing and developing AI talent.
If this country-wide effort succeeds — and there are many signs it will — China could emerge as a leading force in AI, improving the productivity of its industries and helping it become leader in creating new businesses that leverage the technology. And if, as many believe, AI is the key to future growth, China’s prowess in the field will help fortify its position as the dominant economic power in the world.
While many in the West fret about AI eliminating jobs and worsening wealth and income inequality, China seems to believe it can bring about precisely the opposite outcomes.
The government’s call to action will accelerate what has already begun to happen. The country’s tech companies, led by the Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, are hiring scores of AI experts, building new research centers, and investing in data centers that rival anything operated by Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. Money is also pouring into countless startups as Chinese entrepreneurs and investors spy a huge opportunity to harness AI in different industries.
Baidu anticipated the potential of artificial intelligence and sought to leverage it to reinvent its whole business. In 2014, the company created a lab dedicated to applying deep learning across its business, and in recent years, its researchers have made some significant advances. When Microsoft developed a system capable of better-than-human performance in speech recognition last year, for instance, few Western reporters realized that Baidu had done that a year earlier.
Although Tencent created an AI lab only last year, it has hired scores of researchers and opened an outpost in Seattle. The company’s researchers have already copied AI innovations from the West, including DeepMind’s AlphaGo. Tencent’s AI lab is led by Tong Zhang, who previously worked at Baidu’s AI lab and before that was a professor at Rutgers University. He explains that AI will be crucial to Tencent’s plans to grow, especially outside China. “AI is important for the next phase,” he says. “At a certain stage, you just cannot copy things. You need your own capabilities.”
It might be unnerving for Western nations to see a newcomer mastering an important technology, especially when the full potential of that technology remains uncertain. But it is wrong to view this story simply in terms of competition with the West.
A big problem facing both the US and China is slowing economic growth. While AI may eliminate certain jobs, it also has the potential to greatly expand the economy and create wealth by making many industries far more efficient and productive. China has embraced that simple fact more eagerly and more completely than many Western nations. But there’s no reason why China’s AI-fueled economic progress should come at the expense of other countries, if those countries embrace the same technology just as keenly.
China might have unparalleled resources and enormous untapped potential, but the West has world-leading expertise and a strong research culture. Rather than worry about China’s progress, it would be wise for Western nations to focus on their existing strengths, investing heavily in research and education. The risk is missing out on an incredibly important technological shift.
Yes, companies like Google and Facebook are making important strides in AI today, but this isn’t enough to reboot a whole economy. Despite the fanfare around AI, there are few economic signs — such as increased productivity — that most of the economy is taking advantage of the technology yet. Large segments of the economy beyond Silicon Valley, like medicine, service industries, and manufacturing, also need to sign on.