BEIJING — Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications.
U.S. concerns about China’s AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business.
But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones.
The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers.
“The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China,” Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies.” He also asked them to “ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands.”
Analysts said China’s political system and its government’s eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence.
Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Carter said.
China’s capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media.
“These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on … than any other country,” Selman said.
Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming.
“China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I’m thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies,” Selman said.
Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI.
“Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States,” Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order.
Critics have said that Trump’s order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition.
Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years.
“So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China,” Allen said.
China’s AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations,” Carter said.
The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market.
Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added.
“Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative,” he said.