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.
SETTING OFF ALARMS
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.
Other places have direct incentives for the AI industry.
In Suzhou, leading artificial intelligence firms can receive about US$800,000 in subsidies for setting up shop locally, while Shenzhen is offering US$1 million to support any AI project established there.
On a national level, China is working on a system to predict events like terrorist attacks or labor strikes based on possible precursors like labor strife.
A paper funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China showed how facial recognition software could be simplified so that it could be more easily integrated with cameras across the country.
China is preparing a concerted nationwide push, according to the two professors who advised on the effort, but declined to be identified because the effort had not yet been made public.
While the size was not clear, it would most likely result in billions of US dollars in spending, they said.
Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed budget would reduce the National Science Foundation’s spending on intelligent systems by 10 percent, to about US$175 million.
Research and development in other areas would also be cut, although the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing.
The cuts would essentially shift more research and development to private US companies like Google and Facebook Inc.
“The previous [US] administration was preparing for a future with artificial intelligence,” Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence president Subbarao Kambhampati said. “They were talking about increasing basic research for artificial intelligence. Instead of increases, we are now being significantly affected.”
China’s money would not necessarily translate into dominance. The government’s top-down approach, closed-mouth bureaucracy and hoarding of information can hobble research.
It threw a tremendous amount of resources toward curing severe acute respiratory syndrome, the deadly virus known as SARS, when it swept through the country 15 years ago. Yet the virus was eventually sequenced and tamed by a small Canadian lab, said Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU Shanghai and a technology writer.
“It wasn’t that anyone was trying to stop the development of a SARS vaccine,” Shirky said. “It’s the habit that ‘Yes’ is more risky than ‘No.’”
Authorities in China are now bringing top-down attention to fixing the problem of too much top-down control.
While that might not sound promising, Wang Shengjin (王生進), a professor of electronic engineering at China’s Tsinghua University, said he had noticed some improvement, such as professional groups sharing information and authorities who are rolling back limits on professors claiming ownership of their discoveries for commercial purposes.
“The lack of open sources and sharing of information, this has been the reality, but it has started to change,” Wang said.
Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Tencent Holdings Ltd (騰訊) and Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行) have opened artificial intelligence labs in the US, as have some Chinese start-ups.
Over the past six years, Chinese investors helped finance 51 US artificial intelligence companies, contributing to the US$700 million raised, according to a Pentagon report.
Still, there are advantages in China’s developing cutting-edge AI on its own. National efforts are aided by access to enormous amounts of data held by Chinese companies and universities, the large number of Chinese engineers being trained on either side of the Pacific and from government backing, Wang said.
For all the government support, advances in the field could ultimately backfire, Shirky said.
“The fact is, unlike automobile engineering, artificial intelligence will lead to surprises. That will make the world considerably less predictable, and that’s never been Beijing’s favorite characteristic,” Shirky said.
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