Emerging Technologies

China or America: who's winning the race to be the AI superpower?

A robot is displayed at the Robotics Innovation Center booth during preparations at the CeBit computer fair, which will open its doors to the public on March 20, at the fairground in Hanover, Germany, March 18, 2017.  REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer - LR1ED3I14CE13

There are 1.82 times more American AI companies than Chinese. Image: REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

Masha Borak
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China and the US are becoming the world’s biggest rivals in artificial intelligence: it’s Luke vs Darth Vader, Alien vs Predator, Rocky vs Ivan Drago.

The Chinese government’s pivot to become the leader in this technology has created plenty of hype, but how are China’s ambitious AI aspirations playing out on the ground? Research by startup database IT Juzi and Tencent News offers a new view of China’s AI industry’s strengths and weaknesses.

The US is currently the definite champion in AI development, according to the data. There are 1.82 times more American AI companies than Chinese. Investments in the US are 1.54 higher than in China and the talent pool is 2.01 times larger. Out of the total number of AI companies in the world (2542 according to data from June 2017), the US hosts 42% of them, while China ranks second with 23%. The two countries beat Britain, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Singapore and other developed countries.

These strong AI foundations were built with the help of companies such as Google, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft which started their ascendance early. But that gap could close soon: China’s tech trinity BAT is also building its AI ecosystems. There is Baidu’s AI assistant/platform DuerOS, self-driving platform Apollo and deep learning platform Paddle Paddle. Alibaba has its Platform of Artificial Intelligence (PAI 2.0), the Tmall Genie voice assistant, and customer service chatbot Dian Xiaomi. Tencent has developed a cloud service, an open-source computing platform called Angel, Wechat AI, and robot reporter Dreamwriter.

Giants aren’t the only ones wrestling in the ring: AI companies in China are springing up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain.

“China’s artificial intelligence can basically rival the world’s, but the dividends brought by industrial revolutions over the past 10 years will eventually be gone,” said Yao Qizhi, the first Asian winner of the Turing award, adding that supercomputers and theory are China’s biggest shortcomings.

China's investment in Research & Development is on the rise

These are not the only areas lagging behind the US, according to the report. A major impediment is the lack of AI talent. The numbers show that the US AI talent pool is 78,000-strong, while in China, that number is more than half lower—it has 39,200 AI experts. The reason behind this is the lack of quality training: out of the top 20 universities in the world in AI, 16 are affiliated to the US. Current academic capacities in China simply do not meet the demand.

The divide is also visible within the industry: China’s AI development will have to bridge the technology gap while paying attention to product differentiation and market demand. These are the three thresholds for AI startup development, the report states.

“For investors, the artificial intelligence technology industry is a promising tech industry, both large and small companies have begun to rise,” according to IT Juzi analyst and study co-author Li Jingwang. “But like the Internet bubble of 2000, they should be more cautious in choosing the right company.”

Chinese and American AI experts will have plenty of opportunities for a rematch. The most important areas in AI in the near future will be network security and fraud prevention, unmanned convenience stores, machine translation, the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and intellectual right protection. The two countries are currently building their strengths in different fields while AI startups are growing with their local financing trends.

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