From imitators to gladiators, in order to survive the most ruthless competitive environment on the planet. That's how China has evolved in the development of Artificial Intelligence according to Kai-Fu-Lee, author of AI Super-powers. China, Silicon Valley and the new world order.
China's AI race is proceeding at a surprisingly rapid and unexpected pace, to the point that the US risk being lapped. Academic quotations have already evened out, and we’re not far from the time when the scientific publications of Chinese researchers will outnumber those of the American counterparts.
In the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan published in 2017, China made known the goal of becoming the world leader in AI, and the first step of this plan is to reach the US on AI technology and applications by 2020. The second step, by 2025, is to achieve certain breakthroughs, or new discoveries in areas related to AI, and as the final step, China plans to affirm itself as center of world innovation on AI by 2030.
Artificial Intelligence, a definition
In AI for everyone, Andrew Ng divides AI into Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which indicates the ability of the machine to replicate the human, and Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), which indicates those machines that perform and automate specific tasks (smart speaker, web search, online recommendations etc.).
Although we have been talking about Artificial Intelligence since 1956, the technological "Spring" only came in the last ten years, with Machine Learning and Deep Learning. Today, the computational capabilities of software allow it to form its own learning systems from large amounts of data and to recognize models.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute it’s an area worth investing in: by 2030, the value generated by AI will be 13 trillion, with Retail coming in first place (0.8 trillion), followed by Travel industry (480 billion), Transport and Logistics (475 billion).
How will investments be distributed?
It is not easy to quantify the investments in AI, but at the Festival del Giornalismo event Carola Frediani presented some very interesting metrics as a reference, collected from various sources.
According to the Pentagon, China’s total expenditure in AI in 2017 was of 12 billion, which is going to rise to 70 billion in 2020. And for NYT it is going to be 150 billion by 2030, a remarkable leap. This confirms the strong will to invest in AI.
In the public sector, however, the US are lagging behind: in 2018, DARPA announced spending 2 billion in next generation AI. Private sector investments are much more substantial. Think of high-tech companies such as Facebook, Apple, Microsoft. In 2018 Amazon invested 23 billion in R&D and Alphabet spent 21 billion: most of them devoted to AI applications.
What about Europe?
What will the role of Europe be, as third wheel between these two superpowers? In Tackling Europe's gap in digital and AI, McKinsey compares European countries with the US on some AI issues. The gap is considerable, and Northern Europe countries are the ones doing best (Ireland, Sweden, UK etc.).
Unlike China and the US, whose AI applications are raising issues of no small importance on privacy and cyber-sovereignty, Europe has defined from the beginning a regulatory framework based on ethical principles. AI, in fact, should not only be read in terms of profit or geopolitical victory. This will is already clear in two documents, the Commission's communication "Artificial Intelligence for Europe" and the coordinated plan of the Commission and the Member States.
According to researcher Charlotte Stix, author of a report analyzing Europe’s AI situation, the emphasis on ethics could actually become a competitive advantage, but there are several obstacles including the lack of funds and the so-called brain drain.
The European funds are 1.8 billion, but the forecast speak of 24 billion for 2020. It is not clear how. Of course, with Europe still lagging in the field of AI, it is difficult to have a say. Kai-Fu-Lee himself, in his book, urges the USA and China to take on the great responsibilities that derive from great technological powers.