Feb 20, 2017

China and the Pursuit of Artificial Intelligence

While the 20th century is marked by the rise and dominance of the United States, the next 100 years are being dubbed the Asian Century by many prognosticators. No country is driving this tectonic shift more than China, whose GDP has grown from $30B USD in 1952 to just over $11T in 2015. To give you an idea of its growth, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. This year it will nearly triple Japan.

China--its government, corporations, and populace--is well-aware of the predictions concerning its imminent rise to global dominance and it’s doing everything it can to make those predictions a reality. It’s investing heavily in national infrastructure, education, and a favorable business environment. And yes, it’s investing in artificial intelligence.

Note: If you're already familiar with why the race for AI matters, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs
It’s beyond the scope of this article to give a full treatment to the importance of AI in a world power’s development, but it is worth a little context. Depending on how much of a nerd you are, you may or may not be aware that computers are now better at recognizing faces, identifying objects, playing Go, and--in some ways--driving than humans are. We’re in the middle of an AI “spring” - driven largely by advances in a technology called deep learning.

The exciting things happening in the field of AI today are cause enough for any country to roll up its sleeves and get involved. The economic use cases are becoming more and more obvious by the day. But that’s not why any of this really matters. To understand that, you need to look ahead.

Futurists lay out three “ages” of artificial intelligence development. We are currently in the first one: the age of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). In other words, the AI applications being developed today are applicable to only narrow fields (playing Go, for instance). ANI will eventually be followed by artificial general intelligence (AGI), or human-level artificial intelligence. This will be when computers can do anything--more or less--that humans are capable of. AGI will then, at some point, give way to artificial superintelligence (ASI), or the ability for computers to perform cognitive tasks well beyond the scope of human ability.

AGI and ASI may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but there is good cause to be thinking about it now. You see, the median AI expert believes that AGI will be developed by 2040. Computers could be as capable as humans 23 years from now.

As if that wasn’t exciting (or frightening, depending on your mindset) enough, the most aggressive futurists believe that the advent of AGI will be very closely followed by the development of ASI. Some believe that the gap between the two could be as short as a few days. The reality is that we don’t have nearly sophisticated enough of an understanding of the underlying dynamics to truly predict how long that “take off” period will be. But that doesn’t change that some intelligent people with deep knowledge of the space believe it’s possible.

Accordingly, there is an argument that the first organization to develop AGI will also be the last. That such an intelligence would prevent the development of any other through its superhuman capabilities and desire to survive. Without assigning Skynet-style agency to the system itself, imagine yourself in the shoes of the government with such a power in hand. If it gave you the capability to prevent any of your competitors from catching up, wouldn’t you be tempted to use it for that very purpose?

Every major world power and technology company in the world is aware of these predictions and possible scenarios. China is unique in that it is well-positioned to be that originator of AGI and may be the only country with the capability to organize and unify itself toward that effort.

China and AI: A Modern Tale

Outside of the United States, no country is pushing further faster in the field of AI than China. This stems in large part from China’s rise in computing power more broadly. At the turn of the century, China didn’t have a single entrant among the world’s fastest supercomputers. Today, they top the charts. More disturbingly for the U.S., China’s Sunway TaihuLight achieves its 5x advantage over other supercomputers using chips sourced solely from China. This is a direct result of the 2015 decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce to ban the sale of Intel Xeon chips to Chinese manufacturers.

Given that the current AI spring is largely driven by the improvements in computing capability necessary to train powerful deep learning models, China’s supercomputer dominance gives it one of the key building blocks for an advantage in AI (though it’s worth noting that GPU computation power is proving to be more relevant than CPU for AI). Of course, that’s not enough. Software algorithms are driving much of the progress in AI as well, and China is at the forefront of driving that innovation.

While artificial intelligence was a commercial failure throughout the early part of this century, its development continued to push forward through the tireless efforts of the academic community. This is as true in China as it is in the U.S. Academic research in China largely comes out of two institutes: Tsinghua University and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. Tsinghua is ranked as the #2 computer science university in the world by U.S. News, mostly off the strength of its academic research publishing.

In fact, according to a special report on AI released by the White House in October, China is now responsible for more published academic research in the field of deep learning than the U.S. Of course, not all research is created equal. But it’s worth noting that China also beats out the U.S. on publications that have been cited at least once.

This fact comes as a shock to many in the AI space in the western world. And therein lies one of the major problems: most practitioners in the U.S. and U.K. simply aren’t aware of what is happening in China. Much of the news and research is never translated into English and doesn’t make its way into the standard TechCrunch-esque western media outlets. The result is a mass ignorance--and correlated underestimation--of the AI capabilities of China as a whole. A recent Andrew Ng quote to the New York Times illustrates this phenomenon perfectly: “There are many occasions of something being simultaneously invented in China and elsewhere, or being invented first in China and then later making it overseas. But then U.S. media reports only on the U.S. version. This leads to a misperception of those ideas having been first invented in the U.S.”

Andrew Ng himself is one of the very rare bridges between the AI communities of the U.S. and China. Ng’s parents were originally from Hong Kong, but he was born in the U.K. and educated in the U.S. He rose to international popularity first as a researcher and professor at Stanford University, working on projects like the Stanford autonomous helicopter. In 2011, Ng founded the Google Brain project. Later, in 2014, he joined Baidu as their chief scientist, heading their artificial intelligence work. Ng is perhaps best known for his online machine learning course, which originated from Stanford but was spun up into Coursera due to the hundreds of thousands of students that it attracted.

In some ways, Andrew Ng has served as an ambassador for Chinese AI in the U.S. He is one of the few voices representing China that practitioners in the western world get consistent exposure to. And a strong voice it is: Ng consistently appears in lists of top AI researchers to know and follow.

Under Andrew Ng’s supervision, the Baidu research lab has gained world-wide recognition. It currently claims to have the world’s top voice-to-text technology (though there is no standard benchmark for comparison to Microsoft or IBM) and is looking to mass-produce driverless cars within 5 years. The lab scored a major victory just last month when it announced that it had attracted former Microsoft executive Qi Lu.

Baidu isn’t the only Chinese tech giant diving head first into this battlefield. Tencent (operators of WeChat) established its own lab about a year ago, and has grown to about 30 researchers. Didi, the Chinese equivalent of Uber, has established an AI lab of its own to delve into the world of autonomous vehicles. Given the glacial speed at which most of the world’s governments move in the realm of technology, these sorts of large corporate initiatives play a major role in pushing the ball forward.

Naturally, much of the innovation is happening at the earlier stages of the technology company spectrum. Chinese venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have seized upon the opportunity to pour expertise and money into the space. Sinovation Ventures, for instance, has invested $100M into 25 different AI startups. Although industry-wide statistics are more difficult to come by than they are in the U.S., investment in Chinese AI startups looks to have been over $400M in 2016.

While in many domains within the AI realm Chinese technologists are busy playing catch-up, there are signs that the country has promise for new innovation. Baidu’s voice-to-text capabilities are one. Other under-the-radar innovations include one of the most lifelike--albeit creepy--robots in the world and one of the most public implementations of natural language generation for sports news coverage during the Rio Olympics.

Supporting all of this progress is an official strategy by the Chinese government to create a $15B AI market by 2018. Although public details of this strategy are vanishingly thin, even just the indication of support is powerful in comparison with the relative governmental silence in the U.S. Whereas 2016 saw some promising strides toward the encouragement of AI development in the U.S., the new federal administration has yet to communicate any kind of technology strategy. In comparison to the centralized efforts of the Chinese economy against 5 year plans, there is little hope for a cogent organized strategy by the U.S. government in the near future.

Of course, governmental involvement in innovation can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, no private organization has the same ability to muster attention and resources on a single effort. On the other, the government’s capacity to stifle development out of fear is very real, with abundant historical precedent. I would argue that China has the advantage on this dimension as well. The drive for technological supremacy is central to China’s broader development strategy and the government is in a better position to take control of any kind of step-change outcome. America, on the other hand, has limited infrastructure for taking control of technological innovation. The U.S. government is far more likely to simply restrict such developments than it is to invest heavily in the development of AGI by a private corporation.

Looking Forward

To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to present an imminent “red scare” type of threat from China’s pursuit of artificial intelligence. To put things in perspective, Baidu spent $1.5B on R&D in 2015. Google by itself spent $12.3B. No one questions that the United States is the current leader in the AI race.

Rather, this is a call for open-mindedness. The current view of Chinese activity in the field of AI is dominated by fog: a mass ignorance that prevents many of us (myself included) from having an accurate perspective of the future. Given how important it is to advance the development of ever-more-powerful AI in a responsible way, I don’t think that ignorance is acceptable.

I encourage all of us to more proactively seek out the latest news from the Chinese AI community, learn from it, and promote it. If anyone has a good list of resources or is willing to collaborate with me to pull one together, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Where possible, we should all seek to collaborate with Chinese--and other international--researchers and practitioners to push our collective understanding and pursuit of the responsible development of AI.

==3/3/17 Addition==
Thanks to Christian Horn for bringing Face++ to my attention, a Chinese startup that sells facial recognition services (one of its largest customers is Alibaba). Face++ is rumored to be worth $1B. Also iCarbonX, which has raised nearly $200M.