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Artificial intelligence

China must prepare for the impact of artificial intelligence

The Chinese government can clearly see the benefits of AI, but must start dealing with possible adverse social consequences. And given the sheer size of its market and its ambition to become a leading technological nation, the impact will perhaps be greater on China than most other countries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 12:38am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 July, 2017, 12:38am

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has added one more competing field to the intense technological rivalry between China and the United States. Here, it’s not just a contest between governments, but among private companies whose business models and practices are expected to be profoundly affected. The technology is already having a big impact on our lives. That will only grow in coming years, and we better be prepared for the changes.

It is no exaggeration to say that AI is likely to define the future of business. Companies and governments know this. As a result, there is now a big push for research and development in AI, and to lure top talent in both countries. The US is leading the field, not only by producing some of the most creative minds, but also investing the most in it. The mainland think tank Wuzhen Institute estimates that total investment in the US amounted to US$17.9 billion last year. It is followed by China, which injected US$2.6 billion into the sector.

Unsurprisingly, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent Holdings – the Chinese internet triumvirate collectively known under the acronym BAT – are leading the way, just as their American counterparts – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon (FAMGA) – are dominating the field overseas. Already, we are seeing its effects on automated call centres, driverless cars and self-ordering and checkouts at restaurants and supermarkets.

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China has already surpassed the US as the world’s largest automotive market, with the number of cars, buses and trucks increasing at a rate of 23.7 million additional units every year to an estimated 200 million vehicles by 2020. That volume of vehicles generates an amount of data that will dwarf other markets around the world. But beyond data collection, China would need to put in place new transport and legal infrastructure to enhance safety and the efficiency of driverless vehicles on the road.

But automated driving and road control is just one of many rapidly developing fields. Hospitals will be dispensing medicine through AI while doctors will use advanced programming to help with diagnosis. Financial trading and investment have already been using smart robots while some international news services have developed computer programmes to write simple news reports.

The possibilities are endless and will affect jobs in many fields. The Chinese government can clearly see the benefits of the technology, but must start dealing with possible adverse social consequences such as job losses. Education models need to change along with mindsets. Given the sheer size of its market and population as well as its ambition to become a leading technological nation, the impact of AI will perhaps be greater on China than most other countries.