China and US are engaged in a tight race towards domination of artificial intelligence (AI). While US has traditionally been the leader in AI research and industry, China is quickly catching up, and in some areas, has gotten ahead of its major competitor. In this year’s budget, India has responded to its neighbour’s plans to become an AI superpower by announcing a new national programme focussed on research and development of the new revolution in industry.
AI itself is not new. But its progress has been slow because until recently we have lacked the processing power required to look at huge datasets and make AI work. Future growth of AI depends on the development of hardware suited for carrying out data intensive tasks. On this front, China has taken the lead. Chen brothers, professors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and founders of Cambricon Technologies Co., came out with an AI-optimized chip in 2016 called Cambricon 1A, considered to be the first of its kind.
Of course, AI also cannot work without data. Another reason behind China’s success story is the massive amounts of data generated everyday by the 751 million people who are online. Lack of privacy provisions mean this data is available widely for harvesting. If data is the new oil, China is “the Saudi Arabia of data”, as The Economist said.
India is lagging behind in both data and the availability of skilled professionals capable of handling data. In China and US, tech giants such as Baidu and Google are leading AI innovation. In India, startups are the primary developers of AI. The absence of tech giants also makes it essential that the government lends its support to development of this sector. Budget allocation to the Digital India programme which will finance India’s AI endeavours doubled this year to Rs 3,073 crore ($477.5 million). While this is welcome, it cannot match with China’s ambitions. China announced the construction of an AI technology park in Beijing worth $2.1 billion. This also exceeds US spending.
Academic research is also playing a major role in creation of new, more efficient algorithms, which will further the spread of AI into other industries. AI and machine learning are becoming the point of focus in computer science education in India. Our country is also contributing significantly to the amount of literature published in this field. According to data from Elsevier, China produced the highest number of research papers in AI, followed by US, with India at number 6. In terms of quality, judged by the metric of citation impact, India does not feature anywhere in the top, and China also ranks low at number 34.
There is a major downside to the AI revolution in China with the government actively using this data to maintain a watch on its citizens. The AI development roadmap presented by China’s State Council states that AI will play “ an irreplaceable role in effectively maintaining social stability.” An instance of deployment of this technology presents itself un Xinjiang. 2009 witnessed deadly riots in this region as a result of ethnic clashes. The Wall Street Journal reported that surveillance cameras have been installed in several Chinese cities, with Xinjiang having facial recognition checkpoints at places such as mosque entrances and gas stations.
Privacy debates are stronger in US, where plans of introducing facial matching by US Customs and Border Protection were not taken so lightly. In India, facial recognition has been proposed as a part of the Aadhaar project which itself is mired in controversies of surveillance and violation of the right to privacy.
Both AI industries and research in India will need a huge boost to get anywhere close to competing with global leaders. But with countries rushing to get ahead in the AI race, many fear that the risks posed by intelligent machines are not being properly addressed.