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China Throws Down the Gauntlet in Race for AI Superiority

Mon, Apr 2, 2018 - 11:01am

The following is a summary of our recent FS Insider podcast, "ROBO Global's Bill Studebaker on China's Race Into Advanced Robotics and AI," which can be accessed on our site here on iTunes here.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly assuming a pivotal role in the world economy, and some are concerned the United States—once a clear leader—may now be falling behind.

Bill Studebaker, president and CIO of ROBO Global, the first company in the world to create an index tracking the global robotics, automation, and AI sectors, explained on FS Insider last week how China has a number of unique advantages in becoming the next AI superpower.

China Breaking Out in Automation

In 2017, the International Federation of Robotics noted that China broke historic records in the use of automation, with the country now poised to see usage of industrial robotics across the economy in various sectors grow by double digits.

Last year, the Chinese government also formulated a national development plan to surpass Western nations and gain economic superiority by pushing heavily into AI and other next-generation technologies.

“The race is on,” Studebaker said. “China was the first to throw down the gauntlet. Three years ago the central government announced its made-in-China 2025 initiative aimed at remaking its industrial sector into a global leader in high technology products and advanced manufacturing.”

AI Will Be Pivotal

China is bankrolling AI development, with a stated goal of investing hundreds of billions of dollars to further automate their economy, Studebaker noted, while simultaneously aiming to make China the world's AI center of influence.

A concerning aspect of China’s research is that it involves mass surveillance, particularly in being applied to their social credit system where a rating is assigned to “every citizen based on government data regarding their economic and social status”, Wikipedia notes.

“What gives China an edge here is its sense of urgency,” he said. “You mix this genuine enthusiasm for technology among Chinese scientists and companies and world-class talent, and you've got a pretty formidable force. I would argue to say that there is an enthusiasm for AI in China that we just don't see as much in the US, at least outside of Silicon Valley.”

Chinese Advantages in AI

Data collection isn’t a large social concern for the Chinese, Studebaker noted. The biggest advantages the Chinese have are the political initiative and the ability to collect data on a population of 1.2 billion people.

With their utilization of mass surveillance and the sheer of amount of data accessible, this alone gives China a unique edge in machine learning and AI.

Also, companies such as Alibaba, TenCent, Baidu, and smaller Chinese startups are making great strides in this space, closing the gap on US tech giants.

The struggle is akin to that which occurred over natural resources in the past century, with data taking the place of oil, Studebaker noted.

“It's all about the data,” Studebaker noted. “Ultimately whoever controls [the data] controls our lives.”

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