By Sudhanshu Kumar
Technological achievements and innovative capabilities are one of the fundamental parameters on which the position of a country is decided in world politics today.
When the AI program AlphaGo beat the world champion Lee Sedol in the game of Go in 2016 it was a Sputnik moment for China. It was similar to what Americans felt for the first time when the Russian satellite Sputnik was launched. It gave a huge motivation to Americans to place the first human on the moon. Similarly, it led to a sudden realization in the Chinese thought process that AI is going to be the next big thing. Thus, the Chinese government is rallying its cry to become the global leader in AI by 2030, just like John F. Kennedy declared the US intentions to land on the moon in the next 10 years after the Sputnik launch. In the last 5 years, China has gained a significant advantage in research and development(R&D) in AI in contrast to the image China usually has in the arena of IPR(Intellectual Property Rights) and R&D. China was considered an IPR-violating country and a hub of copycats who tend to copy the design and products from American and European entrepreneurs. But this viewpoint is changing rapidly due to its performance in the development of several advanced technologies in recent years. It is not only focusing on AI based technologies but also achieving new milestones in quantum computing, missile technology, and material science. Today China is not like the China of the early 2000s when it was just focusing on copying successful Silicon Valley products, it is now creating its technological giants and behemoths. Many in the western world rejected the idea of China being an innovative competitor, but doubters failed to identify the basic traits of Chinese innovators and entrepreneurs that through the help of reverse engineering they are learning how to develop their world-class technologies. Its example can be seen in the success of Wang Xiang who made similar applications to Facebook, Twitter and Groupon sites for Chinese users. Through several experiments in product design, he not only learned how to make these applications but also the ways and means to survive in a hyper-competitive market like China. Through the whole creating and learning process when he ended up developing group discount service Meitua, he was at a stage to outgrow Groupon itself. Today it handles more than 20 million orders a day and is valued at $30 billion, making it more valuable than companies like Airbnb.
Why is China no longer a copycat?
China and the US are the two countries that are investing heavily in this race for achieving supremacy in the field of AI. There is also little debate over the fact that the US and China now recruit the highest number of talented folks to create applications and machines based on AI. The determination of China is so visible in its efforts that it is doing everything in its domain to become the next superpower in AI. From policy formulation to its implementation at the ground level, it is seemingly possible that China may topple the giants of Silicon Valley in near future. China is strategising well by promoting research and development and giving heavy rent subsidies to AI-tech startups and also giving one-stop solutions for entrepreneurs interested in launching new startups on AI based technologies. The Chinese government is also holding placements at competitive colleges for the kids of startup executives. Coding games are the new big thing in China. Coding competitions and Robo-games are telecast nationwide and their winners are celebrated like pop stars. But one big difference between the US and Chinese approaches towards AI development exists in the fact that in the US it is the private sector that is driving the force of innovation and research while in China it is the government which is at the helm of promoting AI-related developments.
China’s online world is very different in contrast to how Silicon Valley companies operate. Most startups that emerge in Silicon Valley are enablers of services. They connect different existing applications and technologies and formulate one to give a value or service in demand. For example Uber only focuses on connecting people with a ride, it does not own cars or has any car maintenance operations. While the Chinese equivalent of Uber, Didi not only provides rides to their customers but also possesses an operational system of maintenance and repair of cars providing the riding service. This approach helps China in creating monopolies which makes it harder and impossible for other startups to replicate. Having control over all major aspects of a product or a service helps in garnering huge amounts of data from its customers which eventually helps in creating robust and powerful AI products. This is quite visible in the success of Tencent, the parent company of WeChat. WeChat is a super app which is used by a large number of Chinese citizens for a variety of services from buying plane tickets to ordering food, basically for just everything. No application has such a huge amount of data about people anywhere in the world. This makes China sit on the top of a data goldmine.
The Chinese upper hand in the development of AI
The major advantage of China lies in its sheer population numbers. China has more internet users than the US and Europe combined. With applications like WeChat, where more than 70 per cent of mobile phone users are making payments through mobile phones, also give a lot of financial data under one roof which makes it easy to understand what people want to buy, where they are travelling and what companies they are investing in. The biggest difference between the US and the Chinese approach to internet data comes in the form of issues related to privacy. While US citizens are furious about big tech companies using their data for monetary benefits, Chinese citizens are ready to share their data privacy in return for some comfort and convenience. The development of AI in China is not just centred around becoming the AI superpower by 2030. It’s also focusing on AI because China sees it as a way to sustain economic growth. The Chinese government looks at AI as a tool to skip the middle-income trap and rise as an advanced high-income country. This also creates a certain level of performance legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens for the Communist party. To fulfill its objectives, the Chinese State Council has ordered all its functionaries to prioritize AI development at all corners of the republic. Thus every state in China has developed its own AI plan. Along with this, private companies are also investing a significant amount of their revenue in the research and development of AI-based products. Companies like Baidu spent more than 15 percent of their revenue only on Research and Development.
Cooperation will be beneficial, not competition
There’s no denying the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to find applications in our daily lives as it has done in the past. With driverless cars, firefighting drones, and email programmes that finish your sentences, voice and image recognition, AI has seemingly penetrated various aspects of our lives. A few years back AI was all about science fiction, in which evil robots took over the world and humanity. Now the ideas related to AI have toppled upside down as we can see how the applications of AI-based technology are reshaping our daily lives. With exponential growth in this field, people across all domains are seeing its potential and are interested in knowing how our future will be impacted by the further augmentation of these technologies in different fields. While the emergence of real-world AI seems to be a very recent thing, its development has been brewing for decades. Due to the availability of huge amounts of data because of the wide adaptability of social media platforms, it is now relatively very easy to train machine learning algorithms, which was not the case before the 2000s. It has now only started to show bigger results in the formation of a major business tool, thanks to the breakthroughs happening in deep learning. Its significant impact can also be seen in world politics in the form of strategising a balance of power among nation-states and a race for developing supremacy. China and the US are marching ahead in this race, but both countries should not make it a case for national pride and jingoistic sentiments. AI is an enabler of technology like electricity, its focus should be on dealing with global problems like poverty and climate change, and not a race for supremacy in developing war robots and killing machines. The US and China must not repeat the mistakes of the Cold War and should come together to cooperate on developing a humane and egalitarian AI in which even smaller countries could take part.
The author is a Research Scholar at the School of International Studies in JawaharLal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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