Nick Chaillan, the U.S. Department of State’s first-ever software chief, resigned in September 2021. He claimed that the United States had “no competing fighting chance against China in the next 15 to 20 years.”
China is currently winning the race toward global dominance in artificial intelligence. But how did China get so far ahead?
AI technology will play a major role in driving economic growth and national security in the foreseeable future. China’s AI investment is a new development that only started to gain traction in the past several years. In 2015, China was still behind the United States, along with French and German AI firms as well. However, one event in 2016 pushed China on its upward slope toward AI supremacy. DeepMind, a leading AI application company, created a machine that beat the world champion in Go, the world’s most complex board game.
By this time, many American companies had already constructed machines capable of beating chess world champions. However, Go is thousands of times more complex than chess, so many were confident that it would be impossible to create such a machine. Yet, China did it.
Skepticism about the potential of China’s AI technology triggered a reaction from President Xi Jinping; contrary to what was being said, he declared that China would become a leader in AI. In the years that followed, Beijing prioritized artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities over traditional military spending, leading to an aggressive approach in dominating the AI industry with a specific focus on surveillance and data collection. Xi wanted major tech companies, instead of government agencies, to lead this innovation. He appointed five national champions — Alibaba for smart cities; Baidu for autonomous driving; iFlytek for voice recognition; SenseTime for facial recognition; and Tencent for computer vision for medical imaging. Xi also set targets that would ensure China’s dominance in AI technology and other related sectors by 2030.
And just one year after Xi set his targets and appointed AI leaders, China saw major advancements in its race against the United States. Investments in Chinese AI startups overtook investments in American AI startups; China filed 2.5 times more patents than the United States for AI technologies by 2018. And in 2020 China had three times the number of college graduates in the computer sciences than the United States did.
WeChat, which was developed by Tencent, became the world’s largest mobile app in 2018 with over 1 billion monthly users. The app can collect major quantities of data thanks to government support and Newark privacy policies.
Today, China dominates the various sectors of AI technology. In financial technology, Apple Pay in the United States has 22 million users. On the other hand, Tencent’s WeChat Pay has 900 million users in China and greater technological capabilities than Apple Pay, which allows the app to generate vast amounts of data about consumer behaviors that Chinese systems can then use to develop more advanced technology. Moreover, in 2018 Chinese consumers spent $19 trillion through mobile payments, while the United States is still struggling to hit $1 trillion.
In facial recognition, Washington essentially dropped out of the race due to privacy concerns and the ethics of how this technology could be deployed. Beijing, however, claimed the top 5 spots in the 2018 international competition for facial recognition. Chinese firms individually control a third of the world’s security cameras, can capture high-definition color images with minimal light, and specialize in thermal imaging. Together, they work with Beijing to perfect this technology for both profit and security purposes.
China is also beating the United States in speech technology. iFlytek, the world’s top voice recognition company, has a user base of almost double the number of Siri users, with 700 million people using iFlytek. And once again, Chinese teams claimed three of the top five spots, including first place, at Stanford University’s international competition for machine reading comprehension.
Of the world’s top five commercial drone brands, three of them are Chinese brands, while just one is American, with Shenzhen drone company DJI controlling 70% of the global market of drone technology.
Additionally, 5G infrastructure is essential for a future that runs on AI technology. China has two firms within the top four global leaders for providing this technology, while the United States. has none. Huawei, a Chinese firm, is the world’s leading supplier of 5G infrastructure and technology, occupying 28% of the global market share — equalling the combined shares of its two biggest competitors.
However, many consider China far behind the United States when it comes to AI ethics and governance. American social culture and political culture values privacy over security and fosters distrust in authority and the government. American values have led to early debates and conversations on how to regulate AI and its algorithms. These discussions have made it difficult for the United States to significantly advance its AI technology.
On the other hand, AI ethics have not been as large of an issue in China. Public opinions in China about privacy have allowed AI to quickly develop. In fact, it wasn’t until October 2021 that China issued its first guidelines on AI ethics, prioritizing user rights and data control.
China is not just trying to gain global dominance in AI technology but is currently succeeding and dominating all aspects of the field. AI will have the potential to greatly affect commerce, national security and general society in the next couple of decades.
If it wants to keep up, the United States needs to make a decision about whether it will invest in AI technology and begin to seriously compete with China, or continue to waiver on AI and prove Nick Chaillan right.