Artificial intelligence

Here’s what China is doing to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities

The development of AI, seen as one of the key drivers of economic growth in the new economy, has been one of China’s national priorities since July 2017

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 2:50pm

While corporate chieftains and leading scientists will converge on the White House on Thursday morning US time to attend a meeting convened by President Donald Trump to discuss the state of artificial intelligence (AI) in the US, “top-down” government-driven commitment to one of the key drivers of the new technology economy is never short in China.

Trump’s AI conference, which will draw on the insights from around 40 US tech companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google as well as a selection of leading academics, is expected to “inform federal government efforts to maintain US leadership in AI development and deployment”, according to a draft White House schedule.

The development of AI, or technologies which perform tasks that are characteristic of human intelligence such as understanding language and recognising objects and sounds, has been one of the priorities of China’s national strategies since July 2017. For the Trump Administration, the question is has it done enough to help domestic players stave off intensified competition from China as the global economic powerhouses battle for technological supremacy.

“As Trump gets into a trade fight with China, he wants to make sure he is not simply penalising Chinese companies but also working to actively support US companies facing increased competition from the country,” said Peter Harrell, a former senior official of the US State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs and now adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington DC-based think tank.

Harrell added that the White House’s conference on AI, practical applications of which include the technologies behind self-driving cars and smartphone assistants than can talk like humans to book an appointment for a haircut, reflects the fact that the Trump Administration views the US as being in direct competition with China on AI and a number of other major technology areas.

In drawing senior technology leaders together for a national discussion, Trump may be taking a leaf out of China’s book. “In the long run, money and a plan will beat no money and no plan (in terms of the competitiveness of one country). China has money and a plan, but the US has time to change course,” said James Lewis, senior fellow at the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

As the White House conference gets under way and we wait for any potential policy announcements, here is a closer look at the “money and plan” behind China’s AI push.

1. Funding

Public records show that China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has funded at least eight AI-related research projects over the past six months to the tune of 2.73 billion yuan (US$430 million) from the central government budget. With a typical span of three years, apart from those involving “revolutionary technologies”, the projects cover broad topics ranging from big data and high performance computing to more avant-garde areas, such as human organs on chips.

Meanwhile, the China Academy of Sciences, which has over 300 labs and four national research centres, received over 2.7 billion yuan for its 11 fundamental science projects last year, although it’s unclear how many of these are directly-AI related due to lack of public information.

2. Development and adoption of AI

The Chinese government has set ambitious goals to leapfrog the US as the global leader in AI by 2030. According to a detailed road map released last July, the government expects the area defined as core AI to be worth 150 billion yuan by 2020, while related industries will reach 1 trillion yuan. By 2025, those values are expected to exceed 400 billion yuan and 5 trillion yuan respectively, with widespread adoption of AI in smart manufacturing, smart health care, smart cities, smart agriculture and national defence infrastructure.

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By 2030, China will lead the world in innovation and building a smart economy as well as a “smart society”, according to the road map. The area defined as core AI will be valued at 1 trillion yuan, supported by related industries worth over 10 trillion yuan.

3. Policies in support of AI

In July 2017, China’s State Council issued the New Generation AI Development Plan, a three-step road map to become a world leader in AI by 2030. AI has also been identified as one of China’s major tasks, ranking sixth among the 69 tasks in the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan for Developing National Strategic and Emerging Industries, which will guide government policy between 2016 and 2020.

The government included AI in its Internet Plus initiative, which was established in 2015 as a national strategy to spur economic growth driven by innovative, internet-related technologies. AI development has also been supported as part of efforts to bolster China’s robotics industry. The country’s Robotics Industry Development Plan (2016-2020), released in April 2016, has set a goal of China being a world leader capable of manufacturing 100,000 industrial robots annually by 2020.

4. Collaboration with the private sector on AI

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China’s Ministry of Science and Technology in November 2017 appointed four of its biggest technology companies – Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings and iFlytek – as so-called national champions to lead the development of AI innovation for self-driving cars, smart cities, computer optics for medical diagnosis and voice intelligence, respectively.

Moreover, government influence over the country’s large companies is expected to encourage them to open their doors to smaller players in the AI field. The Chinese government has also started to take a more active role in funding AI ventures, via “government guidance funds” set up by local governments and state-owned companies.

The Chinese government has invested more than US$1 billion in domestic start-ups over the past two years, with much of the investment shifting towards health care and AI as priority areas, according to a March 2018 report from Oxford University.