How China Hopes to Shape the Future of AI

October 24, 2016

3:30 pm

This past May, China announced its AI roadmap for the next three years: The National Development and Reform Commission expects their artificial intelligence sector will give them a market worth topping 100 billion yuan (that’s $15.26 billion) within that time period.

Where is China’s AI sector at now, and what steps could plausibly deliver that strong a return by 2019? Tech.Co had a chat with Luke Tang, Head of TechCode Global AI Accelerator Program, who drew on his experience working with AI companies worldwide to detail China’s unique opportunities. Here are the biggest takeaways on AI in China.

China Matches the U.S. in AI Research

When asked about the current AI landscape, Tang discussed the strong potential many traditional businesses in China have: They might be best positioned to leverage the AI already developed in their country:

“China has already got a great start in both research and business applications in AI — right behind the U.S. […] On the research side, the White House recently published a report showing that China has now surpassed the U.S. in total papers and citations published in Deep Learning or Neural Network, a crucial area in AI, but overall both the U.S. and China are way ahead of other countries.

In fact, author’s names with Chinese-origin represent about 50 percent of the articles published yearly in Deep Learning. Of course, there are other keywords one can use to search, e.g. computer vision, autonomous cars, natural language processing, etc. but it’s very clear that the two leading countries in AI research are U.S. and China. This is actually very surprising to me, since China is not usually very strong in other fundamental sciences or computer science areas.”

…But Not in AI Startups

“On the startup scene,” Tang explained, “the U.S. has a clear lead over everyone else, with China as a distant second, but with a clear lead over the third. California alone represents about 20 percent of AI startups worldwide. Among the top 10 metro cities with the most AI startups, China has three cities in the top 10: Beijing at number three, Shanghai at number six and Shenzhen at number seven.”

They may be behind the U.S. right now, but they’re still the only ones coming close.

Their Resources and Capital Will Go Way Up

Thanks to that 15 billion dollar commitment from the government, AI in China is getting pushed as a “strategic industry focus area” for the immediate future. Here’s how:

“The Chinese Academy of Sciences has formed the first AI-focused M&A Fund together with a famous investment firm. Also, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and LeEco, the four giant tech companies, have been competing for talents in AI fiercely featuring very high compensation packages.”

The different areas of AI being explored can be categorized in four groups, Tang says: Infrastructure, Enterprise application, Industry application and Consumer applications. The U.S. “has a clear lead” in the first two, Tang believes. China’s successes in the latter two areas provide a template for what to expect from Chinese AI innovations:

“In the mobile internet era, China has produced many innovations in consumer applications and industry applications, with some of them even ahead of the U.S. and copied by the U.S. afterwards. These success, coupled with China’s historical strength in supply chain and manufacturing, signals that many world-changing AI applications in industry and consumer can find success in China first and later ‘export’ to other countries.”

Expect to See Chinese AI in the Auto Industry

What’s one of the biggest industries likely to be disrupted first? The auto industry. Not only is AI in auto one of its biggest applications, but the China auto market is the largest in the world.

“The government will not allow millions of foreign ‘robots’ running on the street. More likely, they will encourage and foster a domestic industry, probably allowing minority joint venture with foreign technology leaders. We are seeing very active players in both tech with companies such as Baidu and traditional auto OEM in China. For example, the venture arm of Shanghai Automotive, SAIC has been very active in investing in the Silicon Valley.”

Overall, these signals point to a bright future for AI in China: Plenty of players are all trying to outdo their foreign competitors, and China’s rapidly developing industries are the best bet for the breakout AI successes of the next year or three.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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