At the Last Futurist, we’ve always been bullish on China’s ability to become a technological superpower. As it becomes more dominant economically, that will extend into artificial intelligence supremacy as well.
With more consumers, more Big Data and a more varied app mobile economy, it has more E-commerce competitors and a state-backed data harvesting program in its social credit system. It also has the world’s leading facial recognition startup companies.
AI Utopia or Dystopia?
China’s dream of becoming an AI utopia has edges of dystopia. Using facial recognition in schools and AI in education isn’t all good. However China will have to substantially catch up in the Cloud and cloud computing generally speaking to compete with the U.S. in AI. It can perhaps do that in the 2020s.
It really does appear in 2020 as if The People’s Republic of China has the most ambitious AI strategy of all nations and provides the most resources worldwide for its implementation. They prioritize it because they realize it will determine commercial and business leadership and national supremacy in a two-horse race with the United States.
Today Donald Trump has just signed “phase one” of a trade deal with China. The actual ramifications of this deal are not so clear for the long-term strategic rivalry between these two countries however.
China will also need to develop AI talent at home in the next decades to truly be better positioned in the field of machine learning and AI engineers. The US is home to five of the world’s top 10 universities in the AI field, which includes computer vision and machine learning, while China has three. China’s climate means it has more difficulty attracting top talent who are often educated in the United States or the U.K.
China is Growing More Dominant in Technological Innovation
China’s sprawling and rising tech giants are also a testament to how resilient and innovative its technology sector is becoming. I’ve noticed that its venture capital structure also appears superior for AI startups to grow and scale than that of Silicon Valley.
China is a country of scale and being near population dense Asia gives it many advantages in Big Data and how its AI capabilities could give it more influence in the world. China combines a gigantic amount of data with talent, companies, research and capital to build the world’s leading AI ecosystem. It’s very realistic to assume China will be the AI leader by 2030.
China in 2020 is the wild-wild west of facial recognition and surveillance capitalism. The State there has a vested interest in data harvesting in all possible ways. Yet even China, that has its own kind of rule of law, must develop a system of ethics and policies around AI development and is in a sense best positioned to bring forth a code of law around AI that becomes the global norm.
China is like a nation reborn in the information era, young and vigorous and ambitious to be a leader in technology as its economy has surged ahead in previous decades and it’s best positioned to be the leader of the world in the 21st century, albeit it’s still too early to tell what kind of leader.
China Is More AI Focused than the United States
China has basically told itself and the world it wants to win the AI arms race. In 2017, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (also known as the Central People’s Government) published the Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (here you can find the original document in English). Three years later China is on pace to implement many of its state-backed edicts around its development of artificial intelligence.
China also likely backs technology firms that are able to scale globally, Alibaba and ByteDance among them in addition, obviously, to Huawei. This has allowed these three firms tremendous growth to be global leaders in their respective industries. There will be others.
China’s vast amount of data collected along with its massive population gives it an advantage over the U.S. and its state-backed capitalism and rigorous surveillance architecture means it is leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S already in 2020 in building the foundations of an AI state.
While the U.S. lacks adequate AI guidelines, its technology companies will begin to have trouble competing with Chinese firms over the course of the next 15 years.
The White House’s proposed AI guidance discusses some of the biggest concerns technologists, AI ethicists and some government officials have about the technology, but the guidelines are centered most on encouraging innovation in artificial intelligence and making sure regulations don’t “needlessly” get in the way. What this means is AI ethics will likely lag for at least the next ten years.
That means the 2020s will see dangerous norms of how AI will be implemented and how data sharing will occur to the detriment of individual freedoms. China likes to glorify AI champion businesses. In the U.S. five major technology companies have nearly one fifth of the entire S&P.
It’s clear that powerful corporations are part of the story of how nations compete for dominance. Yet some powerful corporations, like Google, are literally behaving like the Chinese State. This means even powerful technology companies are behaving as if they knew China will be the winner.
China Has Normalized Surveillance Capitalism
The Chinese internet of mobile payments and greater online to offline convenience is like a parallel universe. China doesn’t just have censorship and a great firewall, it has a moat where innovation is taking place faster and differently.
Chinese companies are world leaders in facial recognition technology for good reason – they have a huge domestic market to test products on and the government’s support. The Chinese state is so determined to “win” that the weaponization of technology against people is the least of its concerns. Now western companies have begun to behave in the same manner. Chinese ethics in AI are already impacting the future of humanity.
China has concepts such as the “Made in China 2025” plan which will also be linked to the new (digital) Silk Road. China aims to become the world’s largest economic power and to provide its people with adequate prosperity guaranteed by a politically stable system.
However China will become more aggressive in foreign policy and international affairs once it has AI products and a way to scale its technological influence such as if Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei could catch AWS, Azure and Google Cloud in the cloud.
China’s Big Data Architecture Favors AI Worship
The launch of China’s social credit system has meant an entire list of AI companies that merge the Internet of Things with greater emphasis on Artificial Intelligence and Big Data for China’s ecosystem. With so many citizens and a more authoritarian government, China can implement technologies that other countries have no hope of competing with. This means China isn’t only an existential threat to compete with the U.S., it is the inevitable heir apparent.
China could become the first socialist regime governed by and partly manged by AI. In the history of humanity it is pretty significant, because it is the new world being born in New China. Even as Japan and Germany stagnate, China pushes ahead, in spite of trade tensions, tariffs and political pressure – China won’t forget.
China’s emphasis on becoming and grooming itself to be an AI-leader is clear even in how it organizes its startups and VC. While cities such as Tianjin and Shanghai have already launched multi-billion-dollar AI city Venture Capital funds and had entire districts and islands built for new AI companies, other provinces are still in the process of learning and development.
Take away California and what is the United States? China does not have this issue. While it’s highly centralized it’s also organized as a more harmonious whole, each sector and specialist city benefiting the whole. The U.S. pools talent in just a few cities and locations, with unmanageable rising costs of living.
China is Years Ahead in Facial Recognition Integration
China is also years ahead in terms of facial recognition adoption and integration. This from a technological standpoint is like living in another world. However it’s not clear how much freedom exists in that dimension of AI-centric cities and state-backed rule of law. Not everyone will want to live in such societies.
China is now taking the lead in implementation and creating value by using AI in all kinds of applications and industries. It will take until 2030 to say this lead over the U.S. is complete, but it appears to a be a shift with huge momentum in the future of capitalism and currency as well as technology and AI capability.
China now has a mature and efficient start-up ecosystem on which younger AI companies are building. There is sufficient capital from both the state and the private sector for the establishment, scaling and growth of AI startups in China.
All China needs is time, to prove its economic engine in a tech arms race is the better model of the future. Artificial Intelligence superiority, whatever that means for the future, is most likely to come out of China in the 21st century.