Is China dominating the West in the artificial intelligence arms race?

The US has warned that it is behind its historical foe in the East, and the European bloc is also concerned, but there are ways in which the UK, for example, could catch up, according to experts

If you ask technology experts in the West which country is winning the artificial intelligence arms race, a significant majority will point to China. But is that right? Indeed, Nicolas Chaillan, the Pentagon’s first Chief Software Officer, effectively waved the white flag when, in September, his resignation letter lamented his country’s “laggard” approach to skilling up for AI and a lack of funding. 

A month later, he was more explicit when telling the Financial Times: “We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years. Right now, it’s already a done deal; it is already over, in my opinion.”

The 37-year old spent three years steering a Pentagon-wide effort to increase the United States’ AI, machine learning, and cybersecurity capabilities. After stepping down, he said there was “good reason to be angry.” He argued that his country’s supposed slow technological transformation was allowing China to achieve global dominance and effectively take control of critical areas, from geopolitics to media narratives and everywhere in between.

 Chaillan suggested that some US government departments had a “kindergarten level” of cybersecurity and stated he was worried about his children’s future. He made his outspoken comments mere months after a congressionally mandated national security commission predicted in March that China could speed ahead as the world’s AI superpower within the next decade.

 Following a two-year study, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence concluded that the US needed to develop a “resilient domestic base” for creating semiconductors required to manufacture a range of electronic devices, including diodes, transistors, and integrated circuits. Chair Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, warned: “We are very close to losing the cutting edge of microelectronics, which power our companies and our military because of our reliance on Taiwan.”

Countering the rise of China

Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary-General since 2014, echoed the US concerns about how China is galloping away from competitors due to its investment in innovative technology, which other countries have embraced. The implicit – yet hard-to-prove – worry is that the ubiquitous tech is a strategic asset for the Chinese government. But is this a case of deep-rooted, centuries-old mistrust of the East by the West?

 The former Norwegian Prime Minister, ever the diplomat, was at pains to stress that China was not considered an “adversary.” However, he did make the point that its cyber capabilities, new technologies, and long-distance missiles were on the radar of European security services. 

 In late October, Stoltenberg admitted that Nato would expand its focus to counter the “rise of China” in an interview with the Financial Times. “Nato is an alliance of North America and Europe,” he said, “but this region faces global challenges: terrorism, cyber but also the rise of China.”

 Ominously, Stoltenberg continued: “China is coming closer to us. We see them in the Arctic. We see them in cyberspace. We see them investing heavily in critical infrastructure in our countries. They have more and more high-range weapons that can reach all Nato-allied countries.”

 But is China truly so far in front of others? According to the venerated Global AI Index, calculated by Tortoise Media, the US leads the race, with China second. In late September, the UK – currently third in the rankings, slightly ahead of Canada and South Korea – unveiled its National AI Strategy, which sets out a 10-year plan to make it a “global AI superpower”.

 UK plans to become global AI superpower

Some £2.3 billion has already been poured into AI initiatives by the UK government since 2014, though this document – the country’s first package solely focused on AI and machine learning – will accelerate progress, enthuses the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s digital minister, Chris Philp. 

“The UK already punches above its weight internationally, and we are ranked third in the world behind the US and China in the list of top countries for AI,” he said. “AI technologies generate billions [of pounds] for the economy and improve our lives. They power the technology we use daily and help save lives through better disease diagnosis and drug discovery.”

A self-styled AI champion and World Economic Forum AI Council member, Simon Greenman, states that the UK is home to the most significant number of AI companies and start-ups (8%) aside from the US (40%). Additionally, venture capital investment in UK AI projects was £2.4bn in 2019. 

“Money isn’t the issue,” says the Checkit Non-Executive Director, when discussing the perceived lack of progress being made by the UK. “The problem is we don’t have enough good commercial AI skills, such as product management and enterprise sales, to put the theory, research, and vision into practice.

“For instance, the ‘Office of AI’ doesn’t have an AI implementation budget. If we’re going to realise the potential that AI can bring to the UK, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is and appoint somebody who has a central budget to implement large-scale AI deployments when it comes to public policy.”

Greater collaboration needed

Fakhar Khalid, Chief Scientist of London-headquartered SenSat, a cloud-based 3D interactive virtual engineering platform, is more optimistic about the UK’s chances of becoming an AI superpower and calls for patience. While he agrees that “the US and China are the leading nations in terms of AI innovation and commercialisation,” he notes that China published its first AI strategy in 2017. The US followed with equivalent plans two years later. 

 “Although these strategies have recently started to emerge in the public and policy domain, these countries have been investing healthily in their ecosystems since the early 1990s,” he says. “In the 90s, the US was not only the leading country for AI education, but its academic innovation also had strong ties with the industry, ensuring a direct impact on the growth of their economy.”

Hinting at the different types of government that enable more collaboration in China compared to the US, the UK, and even Europe as a bloc, he continues: “China, on the other hand, has been radical and ambitious in building its technology capabilities by strongly linking government, academia, and industry to show the beneficial impact of AI on their economy. The government centrally controls China’s AI strategy with hyperlocal implementation.

“The UK’s long overdue AI strategy is a clear indication that we are here to declare ourselves as the key leader in this field, yet we have much to learn from these nations about commercialising our research and creating a strong and impactful link between academia and industry.”

For Dr Mahlet Zimeta, Head of Public Policy at the Open Data Institute in the UK, while China and the US are ahead in the AI race, there are ways in which her country can catch up. “The territories that are lined up to be global AI superpowers are China, US, and the European Union,” she says, “because the great access to and availability of data means the analysis is better. They have massive advantages of scale, but the UK could show international leadership around AI ethics.”

With a greater focus on data skills, standards, and sharing, and encouraging an international collaborative ecosystem driving AI innovation, the West can leap ahead of China. And perhaps, in time, all AI superpowers will work together, in harmony, to the benefit of humanity.  

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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