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21 July 2017

China wants to create a $150 billion AI industry

Chinese students work on the Ares, a humanoid bipedal robot, displayed during the World Robot Conference in Beijing.
Chinese students work on the Ares, a humanoid bipedal robot, displayed during the World Robot Conference in Beijing.

Image: AP/REX/ShutterstocK

China sees artificial intelligence dominating our future, and it’s willing to bet $150 billion to make sure it doesn’t get left behind.

The Chinese government on Friday announced a major push into the field of artificial intelligence, declaring it would create a $150 billion domestic AI industry by 2030.

It also laid out an aggressive timeline in the newly announced national policy: China’s efforts would match other countries’ by 2020, it would have a major “breakthrough” by 2025, and China would become the global “innovation center” for AI by 2030, multiple outlets reported.

It’s not like China is starting from scratch, either. It’s been pouring money into AI for years, and some AI startups are finding a welcoming environment in places like Hong Kong. Chinese tech leaders like Baidu and Tencent have already opened AI research centers in the U.S., according to CNN. China is also home to the world’s fastest supercomputers.

It’s all well and good to have ambitious goals, though this one is a tacit admission that China’s efforts so far haven’t come close to challenging the broader AI efforts in other countries, namely those taking place in the U.S.

Every major U.S. tech company is investing heavily in AI and machine learning right now. If you look at the biggest names — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook — it’s the same list you get when you ask for the five most valuable companies in the world, period. 

On top of that, investment in AI startups is rapidly increasing, with venture capitalists tossing more than $5 billion of disclosed funding in 2016.

Still, $150 billion is a big number, and China’s statement cites some intriguing areas of application, specifically: cultivating a “smart society” and establishing “smart infrastructure.”

It’s all super vague at this point, but the control China can assert domestically over things like transportation and new construction might give the U.S. some reason to worry. 

Stateside, the Trump administration has made no progress on an infrastructure bill, which likely wouldn’t prioritize “smarts” or AI anyway. At the same time, Trump’s budget has deep cuts to government-backed research programs in the U.S. Those programs have been responsible for creating many fundamental technologies that private companies then use to create innovative products (like the iPhone).

But does the U.S. even need a government push for AI? It’s already a top priority for the world’s biggest companies, and they fiercely compete for the extremely limited talent pool of programmers and engineers globally who specialize in the field. It’s hard to picture that talent moving en masse to the likes of Beijing or Hong Kong instead of Mountain View or Redmond, where the perks and brand recognition are second to none.

Given the scale of the effort, China’s big AI move will certainly help stay in the AI club, but becoming chairman? Not likely.

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