AI ‘gold rush’ mentality in China might backfire
Published: Sep 09, 2018 09:53 PM

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

While Sino-US trade friction initially appeared to be largely a soybean trade war involving the world's two largest economies, there is a strong case for arguing that artificial intelligence (AI), among other vibrant technological innovations, is the actual focal point of rivalry.

That certainly demonstrates China's marked rise as a global innovation hub. But it also stirs worries about the potential negative impact on China's technology sector of the trade face-off, considering the US dominance in core technologies such as microchips.

The sober reality ought to give more weight to efforts that will strengthen China's tech fundamentals, AI implementation in particular.

In a fresh sign of trade war concerns, stocks listed on the Chinese mainland related to fifth-generation (5G) telecoms networks, chipsets, software and AI began a dive near the end of the morning session on Friday that continued throughout the day. Prices fell on rumors that Chinese technology goods might be in the crosshairs of the Donald Trump administration's planned tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports. Four major US-based technology companies - Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks -have reportedly asked for key product protections from the next round of tariffs.

Tariff concerns hanging over China's push for crucial technologies can only be dealt with by intensive efforts to improve the country's core strength in disruptive technologies, notably AI. The US' technological supremacy seems to be eroding, despite its dominance in elite expertise terms. But it's unlikely that a shift in supremacy will occur overnight, which means the present - and the years to come - are a crucial period for future technology leadership. The new era of AI that highlights the implementation of various AI technologies, if taken full advantage of, could provide China with a shortcut to climb the ladder of global tech leadership.

In his new book AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, former Google China President Kai-fu Lee argues: "As artificial intelligence filters into the broader economy, this era will reward the quantity of solid AI engineers over the quality of elite researchers."

Lee, now chairman and chief executive of venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures, believes that "Silicon Valley's edge in elite expertise isn't all it's cracked up to be" in the age of AI implementation, while China's techno-utilitarian approach will pave the way for the economy to harness the potential of AI.

If so, going even heavier on AI's real-world applications would help to offset China's weakness in theory, algorithms, talent and core components.

Specifically, that could mean greater commitments to initiatives that aim to integrate AI technologies into different uses and scenarios. In this sense, other than big bets made by the central government and local governments across China that envision turning AI into an accelerator of innovation and economic growth, it matters even more for all participants in the AI world to find genuine ways to transform the disruptive technology into a game-changing catalyst for different industries.

The recently launched AI Challenger 2018, a global AI programming competition co-hosted by four major Chinese tech companies that include Sinovation Ventures, search engine Sogou, on-demand delivery platform Meituan-Dianping, and beauty app maker Meitu, could be an effort pushing for the use of AI technologies to address real-world problems in the world's second-largest economy. This year's contest, which also involves many other businesses, as well as universities and government institutions, aims to choose the best AI systems in five categories including machine reading comprehension, English-Chinese translation and autonomous driving perception.

Initiatives like this could mobilize the wider society, not only domestically but across the world, to embrace an AI-powered future. Such initiatives can also play an increasing part in stepping up China's implementation of AI technologies.

But an AI "gold rush" that sends too much money into start-ups boasting AI capabilities would be foolish. With escalating Sino-US trade tensions pushing the AI rivalry to the forefront, China's AI commitments need to be kept on a rational track.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.