China is catching up to the US on artificial intelligence research

Researchers, companies and countries around the world are racing to explore – and exploit – the possibilities of artificial intelligence technology. China is working on an extremely aggressive multi-billion-dollar plan for government investment into AI research and applications. The U.S. government has been slower to act.

The Obama administration issued a report on AI near the end of its term. Since then, little has happened – until a Feb. 11 executive order from President Donald Trump encouraging the country to do more with AI.

The executive order has several parts, including directing federal agencies to invest in AI and train workers “in AI-relevant skills,” making federal data and computing resources available to AI researchers and telling the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create standards for AI systems that are reliable and work well together. These are all good ideas, but they lack funding and bureaucratic structure. So after researching how large organizations use AI for the past five years, in my view the executive order alone is not likely to transform the American approach to AI.

Government spending

China is doing far more than talking about AI. In 2017, the country’s national government announced it wanted to make the country and its industries world leaders in AI technologies by 2030. The government’s latest venture capital fund is expected to invest more than US$30 billion in AI and related technologies within state-owned firms, and that fund joins even larger state-funded VC funds.

One Chinese state alone has said it will devote $5 billion to developing AI technologies and businesses. The city of Beijing has committed $2 billion to developing an AI-focused industrial park. A major port, Tianjin, plans to invest $16 billion in its local AI industry.

The Chinese military is developing ways to control robots with brain signals. Reuters/China Stringer Network
These government programs will support ambitious major projects, startups and academic research in AI. The national effort also includes using AI in China’s defense and intelligence industries; the country’s leaders are not reluctant to use AI for social and political control. For example, both AI-driven facial recognition, even to catch jaywalkers, and “social credit” – an AI-driven credit score that factors in social behaviors – are already in use.

U.S. investment plans, mostly in the defense industry, are dwarfed by the Chinese effort. DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, has sponsored AI research and competitions for many years, and has a $2 billion fund called “AI Next” to help develop the next wave of AI technologies in universities and companies. It’s not yet clear how much real progress its efforts have made.

Private sector contributions

The U.S. has a strong private sector effort in this technology. There are, for instance, many more AI firms in the U.S. than in China.

American investment appears strong, too. In 2015, for example, the combined research and development spending at the U.S.-headquartered companies Google, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Amazon was $54 billion. Much of that spending went toward AI research, but some of the work actually happened in China and elsewhere outside the U.S. That work has been used to personalize ads, improve search results, recognize and label faces and generally make products smarter.