Forget the space race, the AI race is just beginning
The United States and China currently dominate the world of artificial intelligence, but used very different approaches to get there. While the US’s academic system has generated and incubated the research that made today’s AI possible, China’s government has pledged billions in funding and offered the technology its full-throated support.
It’s a space-race redux, where world superpowers battle to define generations of technology to come. Unlike space, there’s no clear finish line.
Despite the duopoly narrative, other countries, including Canada and the UK, have ramped investment in the technology, announcing deals to fund private and public AI ventures. After years of a slow trickle, the first months of 2018 have seen an explosion of government-backed projects announced all over the world. Here are some of the biggest and most consequential.
Refresher: US and China
China is investing at least $7 billion through 2030, including $2 billion for a research park in Beijing. The Chinese government foresees a $150 billion AI industry by that time, and has the most comprehensive national plan to become a leader in the technology. Chinese startups also received 48% of all funding for AI investments, according to CB Insights.
The US has no central AI policy, but individual projects are funded by military and paramilitary departments like DARPA and IARPA. While little is being done on a national level, AI industry and research is led by academia and private industry in the United States.
Last week, the UK announced a deal between private and public groups that would bring more than $200 million of AI investment into the country, a representative of the initiative told Quartz. The UK government is pledging $30 million to build AI tech incubators, while VC firm Global Brain has pledged a $50 million fund and Chrysalix will put up a fund of more than $100 million. The government will also take a more proactive role in funding academic research, financially supporting 1,000 AI PhDs at any given time. This supports universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, which both have large artificial intelligence programs.
The House of Lords also released a report earlier this month acknowledging that the UK can’t outspend countries like China and the US, but can instead specialize in areas like AI ethics to gain competitive advantages.
An April 25 report from the European Commission outlines a $24 billion (€20 billion) investment between 2018 and 2020, with the expectation that those funds will come from public and private entities. The Commission is starting that with a 2018 investment of $1.8 billion (€1.5 billion) in research, as a part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 fund. However, this is just a preliminary document—the Commission expects to have a fully fleshed out plan for AI investment by the end of 2018.
Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke April 22 to the importance of competing with China in AI, due to China’s aggressive goals of becoming the world’s leading nation in the technology, but the German government hasn’t committed to investing. However, Amazon is investing $1.5 million in awards and building a new research center next to a Max Planck Institute AI campus in Tübingen, which already does core AI research. One venture capitalist’s analysis of the world’s AI startup hubs pegs Berlin as the fourth largest in terms of number of startup AI companies, behind Silicon Valley, London, and Paris.
The French government will invest $1.8 billion (€1.5 billion) in AI research until 2022, president Emmanuel Macron announced in late March. The country’s AI initiative has a unique focus on data, with plans to make private companies publicly release their data for use in AI on a case-by-case basis. Other initiatives typically focus on backing research firms, rather than making private companies play nice with others.
An undisclosed portion of the funding will go towards an AI research partnership with Germany.
Canada saw government’s role in AI research before many others, and made a $125 million commitment to AI research in March 2017. After the election of US president Donald Trump, Canada also started recruiting AI talent, playing off the nationalist rhetoric coming out of the White House. The Quebec government has warned that if investment isn’t significantly ramped up to meet that of the UK and China, Canada will fall behind.
Vladimir Putin has made some grandiose comments on artificial intelligence, saying that the leader in AI will “rule the world.” While the country spends an estimated $12.5 million annually on AI, Samuel Bendett writes for Defense One that Russia’s real strength in AI comes from the ability for the government to corral participation between public and private organizations. Many of Russia’s AI demonstrations are military in nature, like AI-assisted fighter jets and automated artillery.
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