Chasing the Leaders

Everyone wants to cheer for the underdog. Whether in sports, academics, or conflict, the world loves to see a come-from-behind victory. It’s the stuff of movie plots and stage plays. But when it comes to the race for greater levels of artificial intelligence (AI), the United States may be heading for an upset that most won’t like to see.

The New York Times recently reported a lengthy analysis of the current race to create, perfect, and hone the AI technology that most believe will be the wave of the future, both in tech and in warfare. While the past fifty years of technology innovation have happened largely in the US and in Europe, the next wave may happen in China, and there are some clear reasons why.

First, the Chinese are awash in cash. The economy has been explosive over the past 30 years, and has resulted in a glut of cash which has been used to invest in everything from high-end California real estate to AI technology. And the Chinese, private and public sector, are not afraid to spend that cash to accomplish their purposes. It’s been a wild ride, but they’ve started to come out on top of the wave.

Second, the Chinese have something that the US and Europe don’t. Authoritarianism. In a world where innovation can often be diffuse and amorphous, the authoritarian regime in China is able to focus and direct the innovation in specific categories and channels that best serve its purposes. With the rise of potential uses in the field of warfare, the Chinese are putting everything they have into AI development, and it’s starting to pay off. While many of the best developers are still drawn to large enterprise companies like Google and Facebook, the research and development aspects of AI creation have begun to shift into the hands of the Chinese.

However, while these strengths are beginning to change the direction of R&D, the truth of the matter is that some of these same strengths are also weaknesses. For example, the willingness to splash cash doesn’t always translate into success (look at Manchester United this season for an example). In fact, the nature of Chinese investment may lead to overspending for little result, whereas the free market system in the US tends to drive efficiency in design and development.

Further, the very nature of authoritarianism demands closed systems of research. Opening the doors and sharing what you’ve learned is thoroughly counter cultural, whereas in Western nations the sharing of information and analysis improves chances for new development and innovation. In the Chinese system, the focus of the authoritarian regime may also create a self-defeating structure of unhelpful secrecy.

Whether the world sees China as an underdog or not, the race for AI tech is on. The battlefield is drawn and the weaknesses and strengths are laid out. The next five years will determine who is winning the race. For the business-minded, however, opportunities for investment and growth may well lie outside of traditional borders.

Jon Buck
Jon Buck
Jon Buck is based in Delhi, India. He enjoys researching, analyzing, and commenting on the cutting edge of the technology world, as well as palak paneer with veg fried rice.

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