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Are we overestimating China’s AI capabilities?

Are we overestimating China’s AI capabilities?

Mike Halsall, May 7th 2019

In February 2018, the FT published an article outlining ‘Why we are in danger of overestimating AI’, arguing that ‘considerably more work is needed before we can reach the long-dreamt-of moment when machine intelligence matches the human variety’. By 2030, just 11 years from now, China has vehemently expressed its ambition to ‘lead the world in AI’. Is this a realistic ambition, or has China become entirely conceited in the midst of its new-found wealth and growing economic muscle?

It seems, as with any emerging technology in the fast-paced era of today, challenging if not impossible, to predict how AI might evolve in the coming years. In China’s case, this uncertainty is heightened by the nature of its own government and politics. We mostly rely on data verified by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) where China stands in the global race for AI supremacy; our first assumption is to assume what they say is accurate.

China’s AI presence in Western media is generating both alarm and acquiescence. The danger is that this can lead us to over and/or underestimate what is happening on the ground across China. Sticking to the facts, it was only in May 2017 when China’s Ministry of Science and Technology announced its decision to add AI 2.0 to the line-up of the planned Science and Technology Innovation 2030 Megaprojects. The overall initiative was launched as part of the 13th Five-Year National Science and Technology Innovation Plan, including (amongst others) robotics, big data and intelligent manufacturing.

How is this transpiring into daily life in China? Rather well. AI is everywhere; it is used in classrooms, hospitals, offices, on the streets and in homes. Thanks to the ubiquity of WeChat, China’s own hybrid version of Facebook, that includes a wallet, home page, public services, utilities features and more; urban Chinese society was almost instantly digitalized, giving rise to an explosion of data to help them develop AI. Whether or not China’s AI capabilities are really as advanced as they allude to, Chinese society is standing arms wide open, ready to embrace AI in all forms without having much idea as to the consequences.

Alongside China’s national efforts to promote AI, decentralised efforts have also begun; cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, and Tianjin now have their own plans for AI. Beijing, home to Haidian Science Park, alternatively known as China’s Silicon Valley, which sits within a stone’s throw of both Tsinghua and Peking University, plans to build a 13.8 billion RMB AI development park, potentially hosting up to 400 uniquely AI enterprises. 42 is looking forward to assessing these companies to ensure they really are ‘AI’.

Many budding entrepreneurs aspire to repeat the success of incumbent Chinese AI giants, including Ubtech Robotics, a Shenzhen based robotics company, SenseTime a Chinese government supplier of face-recognition technology, and DJI, which has a 70% share in the global drone market and alleges AI inside. With financial backing from Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, China’s AI ambitions will be well funded.

China’s AI could benefit its citizens through improve quality of life, particularly in terms of healthcare and education. However, the transformative nature of AI could likewise bring adverse effects should unsuitable practices be applied. Whilst China’s AI agenda becomes increasingly more pronounced, competing against all other nations for market-share and ultimately supremacy, 42 and its partners will establish the facts to ensure the global AI debate remains open and transparent.