The United States had a “modest” lead over China in artificial intelligence as of early this year, mainly because of its edge in the advanced semiconductor sector, according to a US policy think tank.
But Beijing’s continued focus on developing AI combined with the country’s vast population had substantially narrowed the gap, the Rand Corporation said in a report.
“A strong semiconductor industry is an essential foundation for good, solid AI research,” it said, adding that China was also catching up in the semiconductor industry with massive government investment. “This lead leaves no room for complacency,” the report said.
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The study – commissioned by the US Air Force after Beijing unveiled an ambitious plan three years ago to become a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030 – compared the two countries’ AI strategies and strengths for both general and military purposes.
It was presented to the US military in early 2019 but only publicly released last month.
While China lagged behind the US in the general environment for innovation – such as its legal system and freedom of the press – the study noted that it had a clear advantage when it came to big data sets, which are crucial for developing AI applications.
China’s population is about four times that of the US, meaning technology firms could potentially draw on a much bigger database than those in America.
The Rand report also identified the continuity of political leadership and its whole-of-regime approach as giving China an edge over the US in AI since it allowed for “an impressive concentration of resources and focus of effort” – though it said that advantage could be eroded by bureaucracy and corruption.
On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping told academics in Beijing that new growth driven by technological innovation would be a key part of the country’s next long-term economic plan.
“We should leverage our socialist system’s advantage in concentrating resources to get major undertakings done, and achieve breakthroughs in key and core technologies,” Xi said during the meeting, according to state media.
Although Beijing has toned down its “military-civilian fusion” programme – in which AI plays a key role – the government has been sponsoring AI applications in other areas, such as infrastructure development, health care, and domestic security.
“Ultimately, the long-term prospects for maintaining a lead over the Chinese military … depend on the ability of the United States to keep its edge over China in AI at the national level,” the Rand report said.
It added that if China’s AI plan succeeded, it would “achieve a substantial military advantage over the US and its allies, with significant negative strategic implications for the US”.
The report also said China had fostered collaboration between Chinese and foreign academics, resulting in a significant increase in joint publications of AI research results that were accessible to US researchers.
“Many prominent scientists in the field appear to have close ties with both the United States and China,” it said, adding that US and Chinese investments were entangled in growing cross-border start-ups until 2017.
“The decoupling of the US and Chinese tech sectors will provide a good test of how well the United States and China can compete separated,” the report said.
“The [People’s Republic of China] is certainly able to funnel considerable funds into AI research, but can AI in the PRC thrive in a vacuum, isolated from the US tech sector?” the report said.
Washington has sanctioned dozens of Chinese firms and institutions, including companies involved in AI and facial recognition systems, because of their alleged roles in hi-tech surveillance of the Muslim Uygur minority in the Xinjiang region. It also cut off Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies’ access to advanced chips last week, as the two countries battle for control of the next generation of mobile networks.
The report concluded that the US military should focus on three areas – converting AI technology for defence use, assessing the effectiveness and suitability of such technology, and adapting it for operational strategies.
It said the American culture of being more accepting of risk and more encouraging of initiative and innovation gave the US an edge over China in those areas.
More from South China Morning Post:
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