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Artificial Intelligence battle
Published on: 2017-07-14
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030At the start of this year, two straws in the wind caught the attention of those who follow the development of artificial intelligence (AI) globally. First, Qi Lu, one of the bosses of Microsoft, said in January that he would not return to the world's largest software firm after recovering from a cycling accident, but instead would become chief operating officer at Baidu, China's leading search engine. Later that month, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence postponed its annual meeting. The planned date for the event in January conflicted with the Chinese New Year.


These were the latest signals that China could be a close second to America - and perhaps even ahead of it - in some areas of AI, widely considered vital to everything from digital assistants to self-driving cars. China is simply the place to be, explains Mr Lu, and Baidu the country's most important player. "We have an opportunity to lead in the future of AI," he says.


Other evidence supports the claim. In October 2016 the White House noted in a report that China had overtaken America in the number of published journal articles on deep learning, a branch of AI. PwC, a consultancy, predicts that AI-related growth will boost global GDP by $16trn by 2030; nearly half of that bonanza will accrue to China, it reckons. The number of AI-related patent submissions by Chinese researchers has increased by nearly 200% in recent years, although America is still ahead in absolute numbers (see chart).

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To understand why China is so well placed, consider the inputs needed for AI. Of the two most basic, computing power and capital, it has an abundance. Chinese firms, from giants such as Alibaba and Tencent to startups such as CIB FinTech and UCloud, are building data centres as fast as they can.


Yet it is two other resources that truly make China a promised land for AI. One is research talent. As well as strong skills in maths, the country has a tradition in language and translation research, says Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft's AI efforts. According to some estimates, China has more than two-fifths of the world's trained AI scientists.

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The second advantage for China is data, AI's most important ingredient. In the past, software and digital products mostly obeyed rules laid down in code, giving an edge to those countries with the best coders. With the advent of deep-learning algorithms, such rules are increasingly based on patterns extracted from reams of data. The more data are available, the more algorithms can learn and the smarter AI offerings will be.


China's sheer size and diversity provide powerful fuel for this cycle. Just by going about their daily lives, the country's nearly 1.4bn people generate more data than almost all other nations combined. Even in the case of a rare disease, there are enough examples to teach an algorithm how to recognise it. Because typing Chinese characters is more laborious than Western ones, people also tend to use voice-recognition services more often than in the West, so firms have more voice snippets with which to improve speech offerings.

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