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06 Jan 2020

Chinese Advances on AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) continues to shape our future, with everything from workplace productivity to military might influenced by the intersection of technology and cognition. While the long-term outcomes of AI remain completely unknown, key advances in smart computing are already having a profound effect on how we work and play. China is gaining an edge in this brave new world, with other nations increasingly interested, and concerned, about the influence of AI beyond national borders and recognised systems of control.

AI is having a huge effect on society, with technological advances occurring both front-and-centre and behind the curtain. The global workplace, and workforce, continues to adapt and evolve to meet the demands of new intelligent technology. Jobs are being replaced and transformed at a rapid rate, personal data is being used to influence state decisions, and military power is increasingly defined by automation and technological expertise.

While the United States and other western nations continue to invest in AI, the unique political and economic situation in China allows for a much greater level of integration and control. According to Abishur Prakash, a prominent futurist and AI author, "China is betting on AI and investing in AI and deploying AI on a scale no other country is doing." The country recently announced billions in AI start-up funding, along with multiple domestic and international programs into machine learning and facial recognition.

The evolution of AI is driven by technological expertise and access to big data. While the US undoubtedly has more experience building tech companies and utilising AI systems across disciplines, China has the advantage when it comes to big data sets. It's not just the huge population of China that's used to drive these advances, but also the will and capacity of the government to motivate private companies and access private data through mechanisms of surveillance and control.

While democratic nations have to navigate the delicate split between the government and private sector, China can enjoy a seamless, if entirely questionable, relationship between private and public data. At a recent media conference, a US official said Chinese tech companies were "de facto tools" of the state's Communist Party, adding they "have become deeply enmeshed in Beijing's system of oppression at home and its increasingly assertive strategic ambitions globally."

Along with access to huge data sets, AI advances in China have been driven by increased isolationism. Traditional cross-border collaboration is under increasing scrutiny due to political tensions, with global Chinese investment dropping along with falling student numbers and research projects. For example, cutting off access to US microchips is only likely to accelerate Chinese efforts to develop alternatives. Instead of research being shared across borders, China is increasingly able to utilise its own technology and data to meet its own objectives.