On July 20, China's State Council issued the "Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan" (新一代人工智能发展规划), which articulates an ambitious agenda for China to lead the world in AI. China intends to pursue a "first-mover advantage" to become the "premier global AI innovation center" by 2030. Through this new strategic framework, China will advance a "three in one" agenda in AI: tackling key problems in research and development, pursuing a range of products and applications, and cultivating an AI industry. The Chinese leadership thus seeks to seize a "major strategic opportunity" to advance its development of AI, potentially surpassing the United States in the process. This new plan, which will be implemented by a new AI Plan Promotion Office within the Ministry of Science and Technology, outlines China's objectives for advances in AI in three stages.
The present global verve about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies has resonated in China as much as anywhere on earth. With the State Council's issuance of the "New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan" (新一代人工智能发展规划) on July 20, China's government set out an ambitious roadmap including targets through 2030. Meanwhile, in China's leading cities, flashy conferences on AI have become commonplace. It seems every mid-sized tech company wants to show off its self-driving car efforts, while numerous financial tech start-ups tout an AI-driven approach. Chatbot startups clog investors' date books, and Shanghai metro ads pitch AI-taught English language learning.
President Donald Trump and his top U.S. military adviser met with Google's CEO about concerns that Silicon Valley's AI collaborations in China may benefit the Chinese military. Such worries reflect awareness of how certain technologies developed for civilian purposes can also provide military advantages in the strategic competition playing out between the United States and China. The meeting comes after General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leveled pointed criticism at Google for pursuing technological collaborations with Chinese partners, during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 14 March. The spotlight's glare on Google grew harsher when President Trump followed up on Twitter: "Google is helping China and their military, but not the U.S. Terrible!" But beyond the focus on Google, the Pentagon seems more broadly concerned about U.S. tech companies inadvertently giving China a leg up in developing AI applications with military and national security implications.
The warnings from Chinese Premier Le Keqiang were unusually stark: China faces difficulties "of a kind rarely seen in many years." The economy is slowing and faces further downward pressure. And perhaps most sobering for the nearly 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress who listened to his address on Tuesday, the people of China are unhappy with the government's performance in many ways. "There is still public dissatisfaction in many areas such as education, healthcare, elderly care, housing, food and drug safety and income distribution," Le said, in a rare admission for a senior Chinese leader. The government is juggling a slowing economy with rising public demands for better services, a clean environment and an end to corruption and wrongdoing in government and food and drug companies.
Bottom Line: China's nationwide pursuit to become the world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) is an attempt to not only match U.S. economic power, but to bypass it geo-strategically. While Beijing's involvement is spurred by economic ambitions, it has made it clear that the development of AI will simultaneously be for military applications that could change the character of warfare and place the U.S. at a geopolitical disadvantage.