The West in Unaware of The Deep Learning Sputnik Moment

Carlos E. Perez
Intuition Machine
Published in
6 min readSep 10, 2017


Artist: Gregory R Todd

I wrote in a previous article about the recent Sputnik moment in Artificial Intelligence:

One thing the Western world is overlooking is that the dominating play of AlphaGo, an AI that was developed by the British, was equivalent to a Sputnik event for Asian nations. Asian nations in reaction to this achievement are doubling down on A.I. investment so as to not only catch up, but also perhaps overtake the West in their AI capabilities. The governments of the West do not realize what their citizens have invented and only the keenest of Internet giants are making the necessary effort to keep an edge.

Many readers are unfamiliar with the history of Sputnik The effect of Soviet Union’s achievement in launching the first man-made satellite (i.e. Sputnik) to the American psyche. Sputnik created the urgency to upgrade America’s science and technology infrastructure:

Sputnik also contributed directly to a new emphasis on science and technology in American schools. With a sense of urgency, Congress enacted the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science. After the launch of Sputnik, a poll conducted and published by the University of Michigan showed that 26% of Americans surveyed thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to that of the United States.

In March 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo bested Go’s world champion Lee Sedol. This was viewed by a shocked audience of over 200 million people. A vast majority of that audience was from countries where the game of Go is popularly played (i.e. China, Japan, Korean). The game of Go has a special reverence in China, where it has traditionally considered the four arts that aristocrats considered as essential accomplishments:

They are qin (the guqin, a stringed instrument. ), qi (the strategy game of Go, ), shu (Chinese calligraphy ) and hua (Chinese painting ).

A movie that depicts the drama of the Sputnik moment.

To have Western developed automation arrive and vanquish a legendary player like Lee Sedol certainly shocked the population to its core. Chinese authorities were concerned enough about the social ramifications that they hastily imposed a country-wide ban on the live-streaming of the event. This kind of shock of one’s core view of the world is certainly to galvanize serious action.

The Koreans promptly created an 860 million fund right after the AlphaGo shock:

South Korea announced on 17 March that it would invest $863 million (1 trillion won) in artificial-intelligence (AI) research over the next five years. The commitment includes an already-budgeted 138.8 billion won for 2016; if the rest is spread evenly over the following four years, it represents a 55% increase in annual funding for AI.

In a July 20th, 2017 article from NY Times reports of China’s heavy investment on A.I.:

Many are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, but some have earmarked even more. In June, the government of Tianjin, an eastern city near Beijing, said it planned to set up a $5 billion fund to support the A.I. industry.

In addition, just look at the heavy investment money flowing into Chinese AI startups. The funding appears to be 10 times more than what you find for US and European AI startups.

An August 2017 report “Japan to pump funding into AI chip development” from Nikkei writes about heavy investment by the Japanese of A.I. hardware:

To fund the program, the ministry plans to seek more than 10 billion yen from the fiscal 2018 budget, and will also finance basic studies of next-generation semiconductors.

All the above announcements indicate substantial government funding.

The Russians (who don’t usually play Go) don’t really have their own Sputnik event to galvanize more heavy investment. However, Vladimir Putin took into his own hands the need to educate his population through a broadcast speech to the students of Russia. Where he tells students: “the one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world.” In classic Russian fashion, if I can’t supply my people with the arms, I might as well have them rely on their grit and perseverance. The Russian objectives, however, are quite alarming:

The government’s Military Industrial Committee has set a target of making 30 percent of military equipment robotic by 2025.

I am however unsurprised with Putin’s further remarks begging everyone else to share their A.I. research. Mr. Putin knows that Russia is playing catch up, so he’s hedging.

Now, regarding EU and US government investments in Artificial Intelligence and more specifically in Deep Learning. Don’t hold your breath waiting. For most Westerners, few have ever played or much less seen a game of Go. DeepMind’s accomplishment is seen as some obscure esoteric achievement that requires very little urgency in response. There is zero appreciation of the magnitude of the achievement.

I surmise that A.I. isn't considered to be a public good that should be shared by its citizenry. We are all perfectly fine surrendering our own privacy to a few private monopolists in exchange for an occasional dopamine fix. A recent article, tells you about the sad state of affairs:

To date, the Trump administration has paid little attention to how AI is likely to affect Americans — or the world writ large. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has cavalierly dismissed concerns that automation will displace U.S. workers; the Office of Science and Technology Policy lies in shambles; and the State Department’s science envoy recently resigned while calling for the president’s impeachment.

Well, at least the Canadians are throwing in some spare change to address the competition:

In Budget 2017, the Government of Canada announced $125 million in funding for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy to be led by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).

The severe lack of government subsidy in the U.S. is forcing academic institutions into selling their souls to private corporations. Corporations want to lock-in the intellectual property as fast as possible, the best way to do that is to lock-up the researchers. Meanwhile, academic institutions with the smarts are starved of government research funding and are forced into indentured servitude. The latest MIT-IBM announcement is simply a reflection of this predicament.

In conclusion, there indeed has been a Sputnik moment for East Asian countries. The consequence of this is an urgency to upgrade its competitiveness in A.I. and Deep Learning. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is mostly complacent, neglecting vital research funding and unawares of the disruptive potential of this new technology.

In my opinion, I don’t think the West can rest on the idea that firms like Google, Microsoft and Facebook are performing the majority of the research on Deep Learning. Eric Schmidt of Google in a recent interview is in virtual panic mode:

He said that America needs to “get [its] act together as a country” to develop an AI strategy that involves both government and private industry. That way, he said, the US could expect to continue its leadership in developing AI. “Weren’t we the ones that invented this stuff? Weren’t we the ones that were going to go exploit the benefits of all this technology for betterment and American exceptionalism, in our own arrogant view,” he said, adding: “Trust me, these Chinese people are good.”

Certainly, we see them sharing some of their research. However, but I highly doubt that they will be quick to share the biggest breakthroughs. These firms are way ahead of anything the government is doing. A recent report shows the current problems the defense industry is having:

“That’s a hard problem to solve because … a lot of the best minds are moving to these large commercial ventures,” he said. “You can’t even find them in the universities anymore. They’re being stripped out of universities to go work and develop algorithms” in places like Silicon Valley.

To conclude, current A.I. research and funding will benefit only a few firms and a few nations. For the rest of us, we’ll have to beg (similar to Russia) that others will be kind enough to share their discoveries.


A detailed report of Chinese deep learning can be found here.

More coverage here:



Carlos E. Perez
Intuition Machine

Author of Artificial Intuition and the Deep Learning Playbook —