Mon, May 29, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Is China outsmarting US in artificial intelligence?

‘NEW GENERATION’:Beijing is pouring billions into AI development just as the US is cutting funds for research, unaware that China has engaged it in a race in computing

NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Soren Schwertfeger finished his postdoctoral research on autonomous robots in Germany and seemed set to continue his work in Europe or the US, where artificial intelligence (AI) was pioneered and established.

Instead, he went to China.

“You couldn’t have started a lab like mine elsewhere,” Schwertfeger said.

The balance of power in technology is shifting. China, which for years watched enviously as the West invented the software and the chips powering today’s digital age, has become a major player in artificial intelligence, what some think might be the most important technology of the future.

Experts widely believe China is only a step behind the US.

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out science-fiction ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K. Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the Internet.

Beijing is backing its artificial intelligence push with vast sums of money.

Having already spent billions on research programs, Beijing is readying a new multibillion-dollar initiative to fund moonshot projects, start-ups and academic research, all with the aim of growing the country’s AI capabilities, according to two professors who consulted with the government on the plan.

China’s private companies are pushing deeply into the field as well, although the line between government and private in China sometimes blurs.

Baidu Inc (百度) — a pioneer in AI-related fields like speech recognition — this year opened a joint company-government laboratory partly run by academics who once worked on research into Chinese military robots.

China is spending more just as the US is cutting back.

Last week, the administration of US President Donald Trump released a proposed budget that would slash funding for a variety of government agencies that have traditionally backed artificial intelligence research.

“It’s a race in the new generation of computing,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The difference is that China seems to think it’s a race and America doesn’t.”

Schwertfeger’s lab, which is part of ShanghaiTech University, works on ways for machines, without aid from humans, to avoid obstacles.

Decked out with wheeled robots, drones and sensors, the lab works on ways for computers to make their own maps and to improve the performance of robots with tasks like finding objects — specifically, people — during search-and-rescue operations.


Much of China’s artificial intelligence push is similarly peaceful. Still, its prowess and dedication have set off alarms within the US defense establishment.

The US Department of Defense found that Chinese money had been pouring into US artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.

Quantifying China’s spending push is difficult, because Chinese authorities disclose little.

However, experts say it looks to be considerable.

Numerous Chinese provinces and cities are spending billions on developing robotics, and a part of that funding is likely to go to artificial intelligence research.

For example, the city of Xiangtan in Hunan Province has pledged US$2 billion toward developing robots and artificial intelligence.

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