Scan the headlines and it’s easy to believe that China is already the world’s leading power in artificial intelligence (AI). Facial recognition is helping police catch criminals, banks are automating entire branches and the military is planning autonomous submarines that can launch “suicide attacks.”
These developments are impressive. They point to China having an “AI-first” society — and they show how far behind the rest of the world is. But looking at AI this way paints a skewed picture. The way AI is taking off in China (or the number of AI-patents China has), isn’t as important as this: who is using Chinese AI? For China to take the AI-crown from the US, China must supply the world with its AI.
"Who is using Chinese AI? For China to take the AI-crown from the US, China must supply the world with AI."
A few years ago, Chinese AI was nonexistent outside of China. But in the past few years, things have begun to change. Chinese AI has emerged in South America, Asia and Africa. And this points to a new phase of the AI-competition beginning.
South America: In November, 2016, Ecuador introduced a policing system called “ECU911” to monitor its population. It was built by “China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation (CEIEC),” a state-owned firm. ECU911 uses advanced cameras and facial recognition technology supplied by China. Through the system, crime has dropped 24%.
Asia: In September, 2017, Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, deployed an intelligent traffic-monitoring system, suppled by a Chinese firm called "Hikvision." In January, 2018, the Malaysian government signed a deal with Alibaba to turn Kuala Lumpur into a smart city. Alibaba will supply Kuala Lumpur with "City Brain," an AI-service that is operating in several cities in China, helping bring down crime and congestion. It was the first such AI-deal Alibaba signed outside of China. A month later, in February, 2018, a Chinese company called “Yitu Technologies,” supplied a division of Malaysia’s police with facial recognition technologies. It was the first deal Yitu signed outside of China. In June, 2018, the Chinese firm "Megvii," which is one of the biggest players in China's facial recognition market, announced that it had appointed a distributor in Thailand and had demonstrated its technology to local police departments (along with working with commercial banks in the country).
Africa: In April, 2018, a Chinese startup called “CloudWalk” signed a deal with the government of Zimbabwe for a “mass facial recognition” project. It was the first time China sold AI in Africa. And, the entire deal was structured through China’s “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” initiative. In June, 2018, Zimbabwe announced that it would be using facial recognition technology, donated by Hikvision, at airports and border crossings.
This expansion of Chinese AI points to a new reality. For decades, the world came to the US for technology. This gave the US a huge amount of geopolitical power. Now, when AI is the name of the game, countries are turning to China. This should scare the US.
The deals in Ecuador, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Zimbabwe were not coincidental or random. They were deliberate and carry a subtle message: China wants to bring the new economic powers of the world, countries in South America, Asia and Africa, into its sphere of influence. To do this, China first used loans and infrastructure. Now, China is using AI. And because AI is a technology, China may be able to reach more countries in a shorter period of time.
For the US to keep its AI-crown, Washington must develop and deploy a new AI-vision. This vision must revolve around the US taking its AI to any and every country, regardless of history, culture, geopolitical alignment or economic size. China isn’t picky about who it sells AI to and neither should the US be.
Whether this means the US creates a “basket” of AI-services and offers it to countries or creates an AI-Free Market, where AI can be traded, developed and sold in a brand new way, the US government must start thinking way outside the box. The US must come up with ideas that take US foreign policy in a brand new direction.
China’s rise with AI may be the biggest threat to US global influence in recent times. When China sells AI, countries will be dependent on Chinese technology. China could leverage this dependency to cut better trade deals, negotiate new security contracts, give Chinese businesses an edge and supply other technologies like 5G. And that’s just touching the tip of the iceberg of how China could use its AI.
As China supplies AI to the world, it will create a new geopolitical status quo: any country that picks a fight with China will have to deal with China’s AI, deployed everywhere.
As China and the US compete around AI, the world is glued on patents, deployment and funding. But the real juice, the real competition can be seen when China strikes an AI-deal abroad. When this happens, it is another crack in the US world order. It is another shift in the foreign policy of nations. It is another sign that China is reorienting countries, not through missile defense systems or currency swaps, but through AI.