The battle in A.I is becoming one of the most important factors in determining who the world leader for the rest of the 21st century will be. So let’s explore why Artificial Intelligence (A.I) is so important?
In a country with a population and aspirations like China, A.I, big data, and the internet are tools needed to put it on the front-line of the global stage. President Xi Jinping certainly thinks so, as he included these points during a three and half hours talk in front of 2,300 party members, back in October 2017. The summit at which he was speaking was the Communist Party Congress, which only happens every five years and this was the first time some of these topics got attention in this elite conference.
Conversely, in the U.S., the new Trump administration doesn’t care as much about the battle unfolding within A.I. To support that, the reports made by the previous Obama administration were archived. Additionally, Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin dismissed the idea of A.I taking jobs from humans, at least not for half a century, anyway.
However, the tune changed in Washington as a rivalry started to brew between Washington and Bejing. This spiked as China committed US$150 billion to it’s A.I industry by 2030. Consequently, the American media started to call the battle in A.I, the new cold arms race.
While these two governments are not very similar, they do see their own countries the rightful world leader. Winning the battle in A.I would not only give economic advantages globally but also would enable that government to have strength and dominance in areas like military and intelligence. Therefore, for them, winning the A.I battle could not only be used to flex power internationally, it has the potential to control and monitor entire populations. While at the moment, in the US, this would be mostly for national security reasons, in China it is being used to increase the government’s grasp on its own people.
The Data ‘Gold’ Rush
The battle in A.I is not only about governments wanting to control or at least monitor, each other’s data. The fact is that, nowadays, we are constantly generating new data about our behaviour. This comes as a result of broadband speeds increasing and faster mobile data being rolled out. Just look at how our data consumption has drastically changed since we all started adopting smartphones.
We went from writing comments on Facebook and reading the news to almost living online. We use the internet to communicate, document and organize our lives. Everything from fitness classes to flights is booked and managed online. It’s no longer your partner or your parents who know you in and out, its Google or WeeChat that know you best. Do you really want any government, let alone those of Washington or Bejing, have access to all your data? Just look at the controversy caused by the U.S government request for the social media of tourists and immigrants.
While governments, China especially, do track some of their citizen’s data, they don’t have it all. Less so, in regards to foreigner’s data, but the battle in A.I could make this more of a priority.
After all, data is what brings A.I to life. Think about it, how does machine learning happen? It’s by consuming data and analyzing that for patterns, so the more data the better.
Additionally, this is one of the ways A.I can save a government or business money. As it is a machine, A.I learns new tasks without taking the day off work or getting upset about it’s routine being changed. In other words, it’s much more productive.
A.I in Society
This is one example of how A.I pays for itself, even though it’s expensive and difficult to implement at the beginning. A.I will pay organisations off in the long run. Therefore, if A.I implementation is happening on a national scale, the profits seen by companies soon starts to positively affect the economic growth of the country.
Furthermore, A.I adoption by society, in general, works in its favor. We will see that the population experiences better health, less traffic congestion, more efficient access to government services. Also, fewer people will be needed for repetitive and low paid jobs like street cleaning and park maintenance. That said the fear is these people will be displaced from the labor market.
Also, there will be less need for humans to do ‘risky’ jobs like in emergency services and military. In a pro A.I society, robots will put out fires and smart systems will deter crime. In addition, only soldiers will have to do risky work on the ground, but more warfare will also be happening digitally.
So not only is A.I going to keep humans out of high-risk situations, it will improve the outcome of such objectives. For example, the military will do much better as it gets more automated. An outlook backed by an Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force:
“I can’t really think of any mission that doesn’t have the potential to be done better or faster if properly integrated with A.I,”
– US Airforce Offical, Dr. Will Roper
Which industries are pushing A.I?
Well, like many technologies, the military in the US, China and beyond has been a major driver in looking into A.I. However, so have corporations and of course research departments. As one would expect, research departments and to a lesser extent corporations are pretty liberal about sharing their research. In fact, we have seen plenty of Sino-American cooperation in these sectors. For example, Microsoft educated many of China’s most prominent A.I researchers and helped shape many of those countries A.I startups. This also works the opposite way, too, for instance, Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent hired US engineers in their American hubs.
However, this trans-pacific relationship in the A.I industry isn’t exactly resistant to the widening political divisions that the two super-powers are seeing. As a result, the tech sectors in both nations seem to be growing apart. It’s likely that Bi-lateral collaborations between researchers and corporations in these two countries could be jeopardised. Which may (or may not) make their governments happy, however, it will surely affect the speed at which A.I breakthroughs are made. After all, the more diverse the group working on the project, the more room there is for new ideas.
A.I in China
At first glance, A.I usage in China feels like it came right out of a Black-Mirror episode. More than likely, if you’re told any other nation-state has technology such as: facial-recognition to pick out fugitives from a crowd at a stadium; its own Cloud System for its police services (to monitor people of interest) and wants to bring in a social credit scores for it’s population; wouldn’t you think it’s fiction.
While some American’s might worry about the National Security Agency (NSA) and tech giants stalking them online or tracking their phones, it is still nothing like the surveillance in China. At the end of the day, in the US, the average person won’t be monitored. Another difference is that A.I is used less in this kind of way in the US than in China.
There is a fundamental reason why China can carry out this kind of A.I aided hyper-surveillance. Furthermore, it’s not a democratic country, so protesting won’t happen. Because of that, getting voted out isn’t a concern for the communist party. In addition, the size of its population and tech industry means that it’s an incredibly data-rich country. Furthermore, despite improvements, there are very lax laws regarding data protection. Importantly, China has never been a democracy, to begin with. Before communism took over, it was an absolute monarchy. Similar to Russia, people don’t have the same perceptions and concerns about freedoms.
As a result, much of the population feels satisfied as long as the country keeps on growing economically. According to a recent survey by Edelman, a public relations consultancy firm, almost 85% of Chinese trust in their government. Compared to just over 30% of the U.S respondents, however, American’s are more likely to respond honestly as they don’t fear repercussions from speaking out.
A wee thing called WeChat
Other interesting factors are the multi-purpose, cross-platform apps like WeChat that are far more common in China than in western markets.
On the average westerner’s phone, there are the social media staples like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and maybe Snapchat. In addition, there is likely to be WhatsApp, a banking app or two, maybe good old eBay, Amazon, PayPal and of course Tindr might be installed at some stage. WeChat is like having all these apps in one platform, so in other words your whole digital self. Furthermore, the Chinese have almost triple mobile phone users than Americans which results in nearly 50 times more payments on these devices.
If it didn’t make you uneasy that one company could hold so much information on individuals, it might when you realize that the government can request this at any time for any reason and saying no to them won’t end well for anyone.
The great Chinese A.I movement is not only about national surveillance, but also about innovation such as making consumer goods better. Also, A.I can’t do all the work by itself, it needs human intervention, strong software and processors. Other subfields of A.I are also in growth, in China. Things such as reinforcement learning, which can generate its own data (of course requiring much computer power). Dedicated teams keep developing AI products and the public seems to be welcoming it. Meanwhile, they have the full support of the government, so it’s easy to see China winning the battle in A.I.
A.I in the U.S
America has long been the home of innovation, ever since the gilded age. A more recent example is the internet and the World Wide Web. Despite the World Wide Web being a British invention, it was the American’s who made it a household name. The last three decades saw American companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft run the world (at least online).
However, the big difference between the U.S and China is that American corporations don’t need to answer to their government. Sure, they have laws to follow, as shown recently with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify at Congress. That said, it’s not autocratic and companies can challenge the government through the courts or lobby groups. Not having this supreme rules over how big tech is running somewhat hurts the U.S government in their battle in A.I.
For instance, the U.S military loss Google as a partner in their recent A.I-powered image recognition development know as Project Maven. This was due to pressures from employees, imagine this happening in China?
It wouldn’t, however, this doesn’t mean the Pentagon was too happy, as shown in the following statement:
“It is ironic to be working with Chinese companies, as though that is not a direct channel to the Chinese military […] and not to be willing to operate with the US military, which is far more transparent and which reflects the values of our society. We’re imperfect for sure, but we’re not a dictatorship”
– Former Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carte
The U.S won’t back down to China
The suspicion about China’s A.I developments led to an investigation into China’s trade practices. For example, the alleged theft of US technology via cyberspace by the new administration in Washington. As anti-Chinese sentiment grew, the American’s launched new tariffs that affected billions of dollars in Chinese goods and investments. Additionally, the new administration put restrictions on technologies that China sees as the gateway to its A.I future and to achieve it’s manufacturing ambitions.
One thing that would worry the gatekeepers of US cyber-security is the prospect of the Chinese dominating both A.I and 5G. As played out with the Huawai ban issued on May of this year.
The US is working hard to protect itself from Chinese and Russian threats. Therefore, this will likely push the military A.I developers even harder to fight back, as a real cold-war may end up being cyber.
On the commerce side of things, unlike their Chinese counterparts, the American companies don’t have government calling the shots. This gives US tech giants more room to do what they like and to set their own agendas. This means the US, through good old capitalism, might dominate the A.I consumer market. Which is likely if the trust in the west for Chinese consumer goods faces decline as more security concerns are raised.
A.I in Other Regions and Countries
In Europe, A.I seems to be less about world dominance and more about innovation. The E.U is funding many A.I projects, with the European Commission increasing its annual investments for A.I through the research and innovation program, Horizon 2020. Currently, it has increased by 70% up to €1.5 billion. Additionally, 25 European countries signed a Declaration of cooperation on Artificial Intelligence last April.
This declared that the European Commission will have a plan coordinated by the end of the year. However, Europe has GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which means companies don’t have as much free reign with user’s data as in the US and definitely nothing like China.
However, American companies are still managing to have A.I operations in Europe, for example, Deloitte set up an Artificial Intelligence Center of Expertise, in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, China is bringing the battle in A.I to Africa, a continent already seeing major Chinese investment. The Chinese firm CloudWalk teaming up with the new Zimbabwe government to build an A.I and facial-recognition system. Adding to Zimbabwe state surveillance, giving the Chinese new data and strengthening their foothold in Africa.
Closer to home, China installed the 2,950km (1,833 Miles) Pak-China cable in Pakistan into China. Something Huawei developed in addition, with loans from the country’s Export-Import Bank.
Documents obtained by Pakistani’s Dawn newspaper suggest this project’s aim is to install sophisticated surveillance systems, in the country. These include cameras and vehicle monitoring systems. Huawei and other Chinese firms along with others launched a ‘Safe City’. An initiative, launched in 2016, with critics comparing it to a reverse Marshall Plan. Suggesting it is China’s way to encourage autocracy.
As much we would like to separate A.I from politics and see it grow organically, it’s not possible. Data is digital oil and A.I is the artillery it fuels. So as the fight between China and the US gets more and more competitive, we will see much more A.I developments. That said commerce and research still has an important role to play, especially bringing it to consumers.
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