China can beat US, Courtesy of AI

“Data is the new oil.” — Clive Humby

I am an AI aficionado. Ever since I saw this eight minute video about using Artificial Intelligence in weapons, I just can’t stop thinking about our future. The video, titled “Slaughterbots”, was released around the end of 2017. My friend and I, we talked for hours about the possibilities of AI, debated the rights and wrongs of it. And we still do.

No matter how much I talk or read about AI, I just can’t get enough of it and it is not just me who feels this way. China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is planning to become a world leader in AI by the year 2030. Anyone who knows a thing or two about AI will know that when it comes to AI, data is the most important asset you can have. In our world, the more oil (Crude Oil) you have, the higher your net worth will be. Mohammad Bin Salman can vouch for that. In the world of Artificial Intelligence, the more data you possess, the better off your product will be. And China, has a lot of data.

The quantity of data that China possess is simply mind-boggling. For example, WeChat, China’s biggest online messaging app, alone has one billion monthly active users. It should be noted that the Tencent owned messaging service counts monthly active users as user accounts rather than individuals. It is common for an individual in China to have multiple accounts on WeChat for different purposes.

Roughly 83% of smartphone users in China use WeChat. That is about 580 million. Just imagine the amount of data they can possibly generate.

In mobile payments spending, China is way ahead of U.S, beating its rival by a ratio of 50 to 1. Almost anything and everything an individual needs to do can be done via WeChat. You can send messages, share your location and photos with friends, pay bills, get your digital version of government-issued id cards, etc. Of course, you can’t write or send anything that is politically sensitive or critical of the Chinese government. Interestingly, you can’t send money worth 6.4 yuan or 89.64 yuan around June 5th of every year. June 5th, 1989 was the date of the infamous suppression of Tiananmen Square protests by the Chinese government. Utter madness!

Mobile payment platforms like WeChat and Alipay have data on everything their users do. This helps them understand what their customers need before they even need it. Three of the world’s top 7 AI companies (Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent) are in China. SenseTime, a Chinese tech company, has become the world’s most valuable AI startup at a total valuation of over $4.5 billion. Kai-Fu Lee, Former President of Google China and currently the Chairman ad CEO of Sinovation Ventures, calls China the Saudi Arabia of Data in his new book AI Superpowers.

Mr. Lee is very right as China has a gazillion amount of data on its citizens, thanks to its weak privacy laws which were once seen as challenges to the development of the East Asian country. The government has data about its 1.4 billion citizens on things like their spending habits, social media usage, traveling data etc. And with the help of Chinese government, the startups in China are seemingly ready to compete with their rivals in Silicon Valley.

From 2013 to March 2018, China has invested $27 billion in AI technologies which is about 60% of the total money invested in AI in the world. By the end of 2017, China had 18,232 AI technology research talents or 8.9% of the world, ranked just behind the U.S. who has 13.9%. However, China manages to beat the U.S. in the number of papers on AI.

As of 2017, China has contributed 27.68 percent of the total number of research papers on AI which is more than what the United States had contributed.

A recent article in New York Times mentions that the cheap labor in China could help accelerate its growth in AI. In fact, AI already has created a new industry that could create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Data factories, as they call them, are companies which are helping AI understand how products or things or even people look like. Make no mistake, AI can be very smart. However, at this point of time, it still needs humans’ help to get better. There are divisions in AI which might not need human intervention to get better in the future. But, that’s a story for another day.

Taggers, people who identify things and feed them to AI, are very important to the development of the technology. Without the help of them, AI can be stupid and pointless. China, being the people powerhouse that it is, has access to tremendous amount of cheap labor. When you add that with the amount of data China has, it essentially increases the employment numbers and becomes a deadly combo which could only become successful.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that by the year of 2030, Artificial Intelligence could contribute $15.7 trillion to global economy. This is more than the current output of China and India combined, two of the most populous countries in the world. Estimates say that about $7 trillion of that would go to China.

At the time when the global economy machine is appeared to be showing the signs of a slowdown, China has announced that it is not going to sit back and watch. Instead, the communist country has decided to move forward much faster than ever. Now, it is up to the United States to wake up and do something about it.