The West shouldn’t fear China’s artificial-intelligence revolution. It should copy it.
Will Knight reports: On a tropical island that marks the southern tip of China, a computer program called Lengpudashi is playing one-on-one poker against a dozen people at once, and it’s absolutely crushing them. Lengpudashi, which means “cold poker master” in Mandarin, is using a new artificial-intelligence technique to outbet and outbluff its opponents in a two-player version of Texas hold ’em.
The venue for the tournament is a modern-looking technology park in Haikou, capital of the island of Hainan. Outside, modern high-rises loom over aging neighborhoods. Those gathered to play the machine include several poker champs, some well-known Chinese investors, entrepreneurs, and CEOs, and even the odd television celebrity. The games are being broadcast online, and millions are watching. The event symbolizes a growing sense of excitement and enthusiasm for artificial intelligence in China, but there’s also a problem. Lengpudashi wasn’t made in Hainan, Beijing, or Shanghai; it was built in Pittsburgh, U.S.A.
For many in China, this simply won’t do. The country is now embarking on an unprecedented effort to master artificial intelligence. Its government is planning to pour hundreds of billions of yuan (tens of billions of dollars) into the technology in coming years, and companies are investing heavily in nurturing and developing AI talent. If this country-wide effort succeeds—and there are many signs it will—China could emerge as a leading force in AI, improving the productivity of its industries and helping it become leader in creating new businesses that leverage the technology. And if, as many believe, AI is the key to future growth, China’s prowess in the field will help fortify its position as the dominant economic power in the world.
Indeed, the country’s political and business leaders are betting that AI can jump-start its economy. In recent decades, a booming manufacturing sector—and market reforms encouraging foreign trade and investment—have helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, creating business empires and transforming Chinese society. But manufacturing growth is slowing, and the country is looking toward a future built around advanced technology (see “China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers”). Applying artificial intelligence may be the next step in this technology-fueled economic miracle. While many in the West fret about AI eliminating jobs and worsening wealth and income inequality, China seems to believe it can bring about precisely the opposite outcomes.
China’s AI push includes an extraordinary commitment from the government, which recently announced a sweeping vision for AI ascendancy. The plan calls for homegrown AI to match that developed in the West within three years, for China’s researchers to be making “major breakthroughs” by 2025, and for Chinese AI to be the envy of the world by 2030.
There are good reasons to believe the country can make this vision real. In the early 2000s, the government said it wanted to build a high-speed rail network that would spur technological development and improve the country’s transportation system. This train network is now the most advanced in the world. “When the Chinese government announces a plan like this, it has significant implications for the country and the economy,” says Andrew Ng, a prominent AI expert who previously oversaw AI technology and strategy at China’s biggest online search company, Baidu. “It’s a very strong signal to everyone that things will happen.”
The government’s call to action will accelerate what has already begun to happen. The country’s tech companies, led by the Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, are hiring scores of AI experts, building new research centers, and investing in data centers that rival anything operated by Amazon, Google, or Microsoft. Money is also pouring into countless startups as Chinese entrepreneurs and investors spy a huge opportunity to harness AI in different industries.
China has some big advantages in AI. It has a wealth of talented engineers and scientists, for one. It also is rich in the data necessary to train AI systems. With fewer obstacles to data collection and use, China is amassing huge databases that don’t exist in other countries. The results can be … (read more)