The global race for AI dominance
As the influence of AI grows ubiquitous, competition between countries for leadership in the field is increasing, prompting some observers to talk of a new “space race”.
Two quotes are being used by journalists and researchers to describe the current state of affairs in the global race for AI leadership. The first comes from former US president Lyndon B. Johnson. Sixty years ago, while still Senate Majority Leader, Johnson issued a dramatic warning to his fellow senators: whoever attained supremacy in the coming space race, he claimed, would gain “control, total control, over the Earth for purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom”. The second quote comes from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Speaking to a crowd of students in 2017, Putin stated that the first nation to lead in AI would become “ruler of the world”. Both quotes effectively display the powerful new narrative emerging around AI: far from remaining confined to startups and Silicon Valley gurus, the AI-hype has cemented itself on the political agendas of world leaders, sparking an explosion of new plans and declarations. The idea is that whoever gains supremacy in this field will gain a strategic edge over their competitors, potentially creating a gap that will be impossible to bridge in the near future.
In the search for the turning point that helped initiate the global AI-race, some point to the victory of Google’s AlphaGo over Chinese Go-grandmaster Ke Jie in 2017: set against the dramatic backdrop of the ancient Chinese river city of Wuzhen, this match-up confirmed the impressive improvements in machine learning that AlphaGo had displayed in South Korea the previous year. It wouldn’t be too much of an overstatement to call Ke Jie’s defeat by a computer program China’s very own Sputnik moment – the moment that sparked a national awareness and a sense of urgency about the potentials of AI. And, most importantly, about the consistent edge that American tech-giants had in this field.
The ultimate outcome has been the presentation of a highly ambitious initiative by the Chinese government aimed at positioning the country as a global leader in AI by the year 2030. Plans laid out by the Chinese State Council in July 2017 seek to raise the total worth of the Chinese AI-Economy to €127 billion by the year 2030. Such huge numbers are seeming increasingly realistic as private companies like Tencent and Alibaba are putting their full weight behind the government’s grand strategy, and other complementary governmental programs in fields like education and infrastructure are rapidly following suit. The scale and size of these concerted actions clearly demonstrate that Chinese leaders are very confident about their assets in the coming race – and they have every reason. China has all the crucial ingredients needed for an AI-breakthrough: the People’s Republic can rely on a massive, constant increase in computational power, and thanks to the unrivaled size of its internal market, the ubiquity of digital technologies and the almost unlimited surveillance powers of its governmental apparatus, it can tap into a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of data to feed its new supercomputers.
Other governments and institutions have been rapidly following the Chinese example over the past few months, fearing they might miss out on a historical development. French president Emmanuel Macron recently presented his own plans in a largely publicized interview with Wired magazine, and the European Union announced a wide-ranging series of measures worth €20bn to catch up with China and the US. Meanwhile, American companies continue to make massive investments in AI, accounting for 66% of global investments in 2016, according to a study by McKinsey. Still, with the notable exception of some programs funded by the Pentagon’s DARPA Agency, the US government so far has shown no intention of deploying a publicly funded effort to defend its current status as the global AI leader, raising concerns among decision-makers and observers. Other “under the radar” players include digital pioneer Japan, and even minor powers like Canada, Norway and Russia are showing no intention of being left behind, with the latter hoping to become a leader in the field of military AI applications and cyberwarfare.
The AI race has not yet been decided. It could become one of the most significant geopolitical competitions since the early days of the space age. Alternatively, as skeptics suggest, it might turn out to be more a reprise of gold rushes of the 19th-century than the space race of the 20th. In the end though, the biggest winners might be those selling the algorithmic shovels and picks to the gold-diggers of the digital age: private companies and research institutions offering their services to the highest bidder. Whatever the outcome, it’s a race that will be worth watching closely.