China not only has the world’s largest population and looks set to become the largest economy — it also wants to lead the world when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI).
In 2017, the Communist Party of China set 2030 as the deadline for this ambitious AI goal, and, to get there, it laid out a bevy of milestones to reach by 2020. These include making significant contributions to fundamental research, being a favoured destination for the world’s brightest talents and having an AI industry that rivals global leaders in the field.
As this first deadline approaches, researchers note impressive leaps in the quality of China’s AI research. They also predict a shift in the nation’s ability to retain homegrown talent. That is partly because the government has implemented some successful retainment programmes and partly because worsening diplomatic and trade relations mean that the United States — its main rival when it comes to most things, including AI — has become a less-attractive destination.
“If America loses its openness edge, then the country risks pushing AI talents right back into the arms of its competitors, including China,” says AI analyst Joy Dantong Ma at the Paulson Institute, a think tank in Chicago, Illinois, aimed at fostering US–China relations.
But observers warn that there are several factors that could stymie the nation’s plans, including a lack of contribution to the theories used to develop the tools underpinning the field, and a reticence by Chinese companies to invest in the research needed to make fundamental breakthroughs.
“There’s no doubt China sees AI as one of the critical technologies of this era and wants to match the United States,” says Jeffrey Ding, who studies China’s development of AI at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, UK.
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