Tue, Feb 07, 2017 - Page 9 News List

China’s intelligent weaponry gets smarter

As China asserts itself as a force in artificial intelligence and other high-tech research, the US is left to consider the implications of its slipping control over military technology

By John Markoff and Matthew Rosenberg  /  NY Times News Service

“The AI technologies, including machine vision, sensor fusion, planning and control on our car are completely home-brewed,” Wu said. “We wrote every line by ourselves.”

Their first vehicle is intended for controlled environments like college and corporate campuses, with the ultimate goal of designing a shared fleet of autonomous taxis.

The US’ view of China’s advance may be starting to change. In October last year, a White House report on AI included several footnotes suggesting that China is publishing more research than US academics.

Still, some scientists say the quantity of academic papers does not tell us much about innovation, and there are indications that China has only recently begun to make AI a priority in its military systems.

“I think while China is definitely making progress in AI systems, it is nowhere close to matching the US,” said Abhijit Singh, a former Indian military officer who is now a naval weapons analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Chinese researchers who are directly involved in AI work in China have a very different view.

“It is indisputable that Chinese authors are a significant force in AI, and their position has been increasing drastically in the past five years,” said Lee Kai-fu (李開復), a Taiwanese-born AI researcher who played a key role in establishing both Microsoft’s and Google’s China-based research laboratories.

Lee, now a venture capitalist who invests in both China and the US, acknowledged that the US is still the global leader, but believes that the gap has drastically narrowed. His firm, Sinovation Ventures, has recently raised US$675 million to invest in AI both in the US and in China.

“Using a chess analogy,” he said, “we might say that grandmasters are still largely North American, but Chinese occupy increasingly greater portions of the master-level AI scientists.”

What is not in dispute is that the close ties between Silicon Valley and China both in terms of investment and research, and the open nature of much of the US AI research community, has made the most advanced technology easily available to China.

In addition to setting up research outposts such as Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Laboratory, Chinese citizens, including government employees, routinely audit Stanford University AI courses.

Stanford professor Richard Socher said it was easy to spot the Chinese nationals because after the first few weeks, his students would often skip class, choosing instead to view videos of the lectures. The Chinese auditors, on the other hand, would continue to attend, taking their seats at the front of the classroom.

AI is only one part of the tech frontier where China is advancing rapidly.

Last year, China also brought the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, online, supplanting another Chinese model that had been the world’s fastest. The new supercomputer is thought to be part of a broader Chinese push to begin driving innovation, a shift from its role as a manufacturing hub for components and devices designed in the US and elsewhere.

In a reflection of the desire to become a center of innovation, the processors in the new computer are of a native Chinese design. The earlier supercomputer, the Tianhe 2, was powered by Intel’s Xeon processors; after it came online, the US banned further export of the chips to China, in hopes of limiting the Chinese push into supercomputing.

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