No, China is not winning the AI race
The global competition between the United States and China continues apace. Technology is rightly seen as providing unique leverage to win this geopolitical race. The U.S. long has been the global technology powerhouse, but not surprisingly, we have heard much about the Chinese government’s ambition to dominate high-tech industries such as 5G telecommunications, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, and semiconductor chips.
In this light, as a horizontal technology that can be applied across all sectors, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a strategic priority and the Chinese focus on superiority in this field is touted as something about which the U.S. should be concerned. Some have gone so far as to conclude that the West has already lost the AI race.
Don’t believe the hype. To be sure, the availability of large amounts of data is at the heart of AI success. It is tempting to think that less-democratic regimes that amass huge amounts of data about their citizens and have scant regard for privacy can develop better AI systems using that data. However, all other things being equal, better and higher quality AI systems emerge from countries with strong data privacy and data protection regulations because AI systems must undergo greater scrutiny during their development and deployment. An example of this can be seen in the United States regarding fair lending practices and consumer protection from credit bureaus. Further, the market for AI is global, and such high-quality AI systems find buyers in other countries as well.
Around the globe, Big Tech’s rising power has resulted in calls for more oversight. In a drastic move that stunned the industry and analysts alike, the Chinese government recently rewrote the rulebook for the country’s technology industry. In effect, China is vacating entire swaths of digital and creative industries, arenas that serve as training grounds and talent factories for other industries. This more restrictive approach may not bode well for China’s AI industry in the long term. China may find itself constrained on the extent of automation and AI in its manufacturing sector — labor-intensive manufacturing remains China’s main strength, and a high degree of automation can result in job losses, labor unrest, and instability.
Meanwhile, there is bipartisan support for AI in the United States. Former President Trump proposed increasing funding for AI development through the National Science Foundation. The National AI Initiative Act of 2020 signaled a sense of urgency and suggested that several federal agencies create a national strategy on artificial intelligence. The Biden administration has formed the Artificial Intelligence Research Resource Task Force to develop a roadmap to foment AI research and spark innovation nationwide. There is draft legislation, at both the state and federal level, to promote responsible use of AI and prevent its misuse.
Strong objections to the use of facial recognition and other AI systems by law enforcement in the U.S., raised by civil liberties advocates, have led some local authorities, such as the City of San Francisco, to ban such systems. To use a Silicon Valley phrase, these debates are “not a bug, but a feature.” They shine a light on the limitations of AI systems and help to set the “rules of the road” for proper use of AI. This will establish the U.S. as a global leader in AI regulation, once lawmakers and regulators do their work. China, meanwhile, has faced strong global criticism for using facial recognition software to monitor and surveil Uyghurs in its Xinjiang region. China has outlined a set of AI ethics principles, but the jury is still out on enforcement and how they function in practice.
The increasing number of AI research papers and patents by Chinese researchers is often cited as proof that China has caught up with the United States in this field. The increased focus is good for the Chinese AI ecosystem, and it will help them solve China-specific problems. But dominance in this emerging strategic industry is not guaranteed. The U.S. has several strategic advantages, including: the strengths of its higher education and research institutes, which attract the best STEM talent from across the world; the largest venture capital ecosystem; and the largest number of technology unicorns (start-ups with private valuations greater than $1 billion).
China is not overtaking the U.S. in artificial intelligence. The current evidence and trajectory paint a clear picture: The conditions for AI to flourish, such as incentives to experiment, freedom to pursue opportunities without restrictions, and the coming guardrails to prevent misuse, favor U.S. leadership. This is still the United States’s game to lose — though maybe both countries could win through collaboration. To solve planet-scale problems such as climate change, we are going to need AI solutions from both competitors.