Why China is Already Ahead of the United States in AI Implementation

There’s AI research, and then there’s AI implementation. Companies with little or no experience in core AI research capabilities can easily become leaders in a thin field. Amazon did it in cloud computing even though it was not a pioneer, and other companies are doing the same in AI.

Now take several steps backwards and look at the bigger picture. Countries that have the most suitable environments for AI implementation but very little history with AI can still make it big. China is a shining example, although perhaps not a great one from a moral or privacy perspective.

And that’s where some countries lag behind while others surge ahead. Let’s look at two key players in the AI space – the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China – to see how these countries are responding to the huge AI demand that has been generated over the last few years. Looking at the political and commercial aspects is a good starting point.

The Politics of AI

Politically speaking, AI is a double-edged sword. It can either be used as a promise for a better tomorrow or a threat of chaos to come. And there lies the core difference in the way the political leaders of these two great nations look at AI. An objective view of China reveals a landscape conducive to implementing projects at scale, whether it’s about creating an electric car charging network or enticing a company like Tesla to set up shop there.

The political coherence in China is what makes this possible. In the United States, politics as much as policies right now are a little more than white noise. Things are said but they don’t have the direction or impetus to push them forward. The executive order signed by Trump exactly two months ago is a perfect example of that.

The “American A.I. Initiative” does little to reassure us that America is ‘on top of all things AI.’ It offers neither financial nor strategic clarity. Most of all, it does nothing towards contributing to a comprehensive framework by which its mandates can be implemented.

Meanwhile, China’s AI plan is already two years and several tens of billions of dollars old. As Forbes’ Madhvi Mavadiya puts it so politely, “the U.S. has been lacking in the national policy area.”

That’s a bit of an understatement because the same thing has happened with cyber security, cloud computing, autonomous vehicle technology and a handful of other critical areas. The political case for AI in America is just not strong enough.

The Commerce of AI

That being said, the might of commercial enterprise does do a lot to make up for the weakness of political will. The capitalistic bent of the U.S. is nowhere more visibly present than in the realm of AI research. Corporate and academic giants are all in the game, and there is now a dribble of AI products coming through because of sheer competition and the need to keep up with the oriental Joneses.

America has been the hotbed of AI research for at least more than half a century now, and it continues to foster an ideal environment from an academic perspective. The lead might still be there on the research front.

China’s interest in AI research is purely for practical applications. They have little time for the ethics of AI because their commercial framework is closely tied to their executive backbone. National policy is baked into everything they do. That actually means more freedom from a development perspective. Since the industry is full of state-owned or state-backed commercial entities, their political and commercial systems won’t allow for independent misuse of AI technology.

In contrast, here’s an excerpt from a New York Times piece highlighting America’s inhibitions and internal challenges:

“Last year, these concerns increased when Google pulled out of a project to build A.I for the Pentagon after employees protested that the technology they were working on could be used for lethal purposes.”

And that’s really what’s holding America back. On the one side there is a dire need for swift and decisive action on the part of the government, which is sorely lacking; on the other is the need to turn a profit from the fruits of AI research, which is severely limited by lack of regulatory governance. Technologies can’t spread effectively when hindered in this manner.

The U.S. must first recognize that the lead they had for so many decades has all but vanished. One executive order that doesn’t talk about how it will all be funded is hardly a fitting response to China’s aggressive work in AI over the past two years. That work alone can wipe out America’s claim to still have the lead in AI. They’re running on the fumes of commercial demand rather than from a need to seep the nation’s infrastructure in a figurative AI solution.

To be clear, consumers in both countries will get access to the same technologies. But at what price? That’s the question. As AI products proliferate through China, there will soon be a distinctive commercial advantage of using Chinese expertise to implement AI systems. Companies like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba are waiting with hundreds of billions of combined investment dollars, and every one of those dollars aims to make a friend and bring it back home to China.

In turn, this will allow China to invest even more into a nationally integrated AI program, leaving the U.S. further behind.

When President Xi Jinping addressed the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2018, this is what he focused on:

“Strengthening leadership, planning well, clarifying tasks, and laying a solid foundation to promote the healthy development of China’s new generation of artificial intelligence.”

When China says this you know they have the fiscal and political will to make it happen. Trump has had little to say about AI, and even if he did, you’d know that there was neither a blueprint to help the country get somewhere, nor was there a specific goal to aim for. A shotgun fired in the dark at a swift-moving target wearing all black, for lack of a better expression.

China openly admitted its weakness in 2017 by publishing the “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” with a clear blueprint for Made in China 2025 and an objective to catch up with the U.S. in technology as well as applications by 2030.

But it looks like the battle of AI is already lost. China is squarely on its path while the U.S. is barely finding its bearings. Can the country buck the Trump trend of all talk and no walk and still get its AI agenda out front? That’s hard to tell, but it’s clear that the U.S. still doesn’t have a firm plan in place. That could give China a further advantage over the next few years.