Artificial intelligence

Japan, Israel also seen as potential contenders in AI race dominated by US, China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2018, 8:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 11:36am

Artificial intelligence is not a two horse race between the US and China, with countries like Japan, Israel and Britain also in the running, according to a survey of AI professionals.

Around 40 per cent of the professionals believe the US is leading the race in AI adoption, while 32 per cent consider China the leader, according to an EY poll of 126 senior AI professionals from 2,000 public companies.

“In general the US is still leading because of the amount of research the country has put into in AI,” said Chwee Kan Chua, global research director for big data and analytics and cognitive/artificial intelligence at IDC. “Industry-wise, the US is doing a lot in the medical field, a sector where they are definitely leading, and in financial services.”

Yet China is showing absolute advantages in areas such as intelligent video analytics and facial recognition, Chua added. The country has also been leading in the number of AI research papers, with twice as many published than the US, but the quality of the papers lags the US when measured by citation impact, Elsevier’s Scopus database shows.

The Chinese government has made AI a top priority, pledging to build a US$150 billion industry by 2030. The country has also recruited the country’s biggest tech companies including Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to join a so-called national team to jointly push the AI industry forward.

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However, ramped-up efforts by other countries in AI will heat up the competition with easier access to data and growing government investment in innovation and technology, analysts said.

“With high-growth start-up scenes in Israel and Japan and a recognised academic community in the UK, the true factor for success will lie in access to quality data and governments prioritising innovation,” Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer of EY, said in a statement.

“The countries that will ultimately break out of the pack will be those that focus on finding ways to unlock data and take full advantage of the access and forward-thinking insight it provides.” he said.

In its fiscal 2018 budget Japan, a long-standing leader in robotics, is planning to spend 39.3 billion yen (US$370 million) on the development of robotics and AI chips for next-generation computers, with an additional 19.6 billion yen for the adoption of AI in medical data management and pharmaceutical research. Official data show that the private sector in Japan invests around 600 billion yen in AI technology each year.

The AI scene in Israel, dubbed the “start-up nation” and ranked third in the world for innovation by the Global Competitive Index, is burgeoning as the country’s AI start-ups raised US$1.1 billion in 2017, which accounts for 20 per cent of total investments raised by all Israeli start-ups last year.

These contenders are still playing catch-up but will soon narrow the gap, IDC’s Chua said. “For the rest of the countries, it will take some time but it won’t take too long to catch up, because for the research that has been published, the other countries can also utilise, enhance and apply it and come up with enhanced models. Just like many technologies, it can get quickly commoditised. It’s a matter of who owns the patents and who owns the capabilities,” he said.

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AI professionals surveyed by EY ranked the lack of talent as the greatest barrier to AI adoption.

According to a 2017 report by the Tencent Research Institute, the AI industry has created demand for millions of AI professional in various roles, but there are only 300,000 such AI researchers and practitioners worldwide. Of these, 200,000 are already employed in various industries not limited to technology, while the remaining 100,000 are researchers and academics in higher education institutions around the world.

The US leads the world in terms of the talent pool with 168 universities doing AI-related research, 45.7 per cent of the world’s total, the report said.

Chua said a clear understanding of what AI could actually deliver was another barrier for the players trying to catch up with the US and China. “AI is very difficult in the sense that the countries haven’t set their expectations and business outcomes for … where [AI technology] is actually going,” he said.