Global AI: China emerging as an AI superpower

US lacks the vision and drive needed to compete with China in AI

Kai-Fu Lee, investor, former head of Google China and author of the book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order,” has warned the US it would do well to double its spending on AI research if it wants to keep pace with China, which has announced it plans on becoming the world leader in AI innovation by the year 2030.  While China is doubling down on efforts to stimulate AI research and development, the US currently lacks a comprehensive AI strategy and budget.

While qualms about privacy and the ethics of AI are holding Western countries back, China is well-positioned to make leaps and bounds in AI research and development thanks to the masses of data its citizens generate.  Since AI learns from data, this has helped immensely with fine-tuning AI learning and efficiency.

Chinese citizens embrace AI in daily life

A recent study by Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) states that Chinese citizens are the most optimistic in the world about the advent of artificial intelligence.  This may have something to do with the fact that the government has actively sought to include AI training in primary and secondary schools in an attempt to prepare students for the future.  And 73% of the population believes that digital technology will have a positive effect on the job market and societal challenges.

In contrast to Western countries, Chinese citizens have been quick to adopt AI into their everyday lives, willing to sacrifice their privacy for the sake of convenience.  Technologies such as facial recognition are increasingly pervasive and can be found everywhere from churches to railway stations.  The blind faith that people seem to put in AI has facilitated the collection of gigabytes of user data, which only helps speed AI development.  The country is truly set up to be an AI powerhouse.

Compete with China or work together?

Lee points to underfunding and immigration policies as other factors in America’s increasing lag behind China, and warns that mega corporations like Facebook and Google represent another brain drain danger.  A 2017 report from the McKinsey Institute found that China processed 11 times more mobile payments than the US and represented 42% of global e-commerce.  The country also enjoys a rich pool of investors who are backing all sorts of AI projects.  If AI quality in China is currently inferior to the US, we can assume it will only improve as time goes on.

But it need not be such a heated competition.  At the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai in September, President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Liu He urged cross-border cooperation for AI research and development, stressing among other things the importance of banding together to tackle the “double-edged sword effect of new technologies.”  Indeed, if AI has been able to progress so quickly, it is undoubtedly because researchers and investors around the world have been able to work together.  Other major competitors in AI R&D include Europe, of course, and also Israel, which is seeing increased AI funding and a proliferation of AI startups.

Looking to the future: Sharing AI technology across borders

So, how will this rivalry between the US and China play out in the coming years?  Kai-Fu Lee points out that while the Chinese are known for being excellent copycats, we have reached the point where much of their technology surpasses that of the West.


China is redefining the boundary between the physical and the online worlds and we would do well to look to them for inspiration.  After all, AI technology is inherently cross-border, so the best method would be to work together.