Wednesday, 02 May 2018

Algorithms that have been trained on masses of Chinese data may soon be making decisions that deeply affect the way people in the US live their lives.

A Shanghai-based artificial intelligence start up Yitu Technology, won top honours in two AI competitions in the US last yer for its facial recognition technology. They built the system for Chinese law enforcement using data collected by the authorities. The company boasts having the "world's largest portrait system, covering more than 1.5 billion people." They are currently looking for customers in the US to put its software to work. Wu Shuang, who heads Yitu Technology's Silicon Valley research group believes "there are a lot of applications for this technology".

Yitu Technology are not alone, Malong Teechnologies a Shenzhen-based company have also trained their image recognition algorithms on masses of Chinese data. They analyse hundreds of thousands of photos from fashion shows to identify trends for clients in the garment industry. They are now trialing the technology with ecommerce companies in the US.

A key difference in China is there are just more people, more data, more businesses - its just bigger" according to the chief technology officer Matt Scott, a former Microsoft researcher who moved to China to co-found the company. "Having access to that data in China, we can export [the tech] around the world."

Algorithms like these will go a long way to determining economic leadership in the era of Big Data. China is quickly catching up quickly and are now vying with the US to be the dominant force.

The idea of an 'AI revolution' usually conjure up ideas of robots and drones that can outperform and replace humans. But its impact will also be felt from a less visible source- the ability to sweat the data the hardest. Machine learning systems that can find patterns by analysing large data sets are at the cutting edge of today's artificial intelligence.

In some industries, deep learning, the most advanced form of the technology, has the potential to create value equivalent to as much as 9 per cent of a company's revenues, according to a report in April from McKinsey Global Institute. This translates into trillions of dollars of potential economic value- the US and Chine are clear leaders. "It's a two horse race in AI" states Michael Chui, a McKinsey partner who led the study.

For China, the AI boom has fed the country's swelling sense of confidence in its expanding technology base. President Xi Jinping has made AI one of the central pillars of the Made in China 2025 plan to transform the country's economy. They are aiming to be the world leader in the technology by 2030.

China's advances are having the opposite affect on the US, they are beginning to realise they can no longer take their technological exceptionalism for granted. The Trump administration's decision for a trade war with Beijing are partially motivated by fear of China's advances in new technology.

Robert Silvers, former assistant secretary for cyber policy at the department of homeland security sayd that "it's clear that the US government sees itself in a tech arms race with the Chinese government." It appears that the US is taking the view that these kinds of technologies are so transformative that being a global leader in this industry will not just have an economic or tech advantage but also a national security advantage.

The contest over AI is connected with a race to find a new military edge. The same technology which can be used in the home can be deployed to synchronise drone swarms, analyse pictures taken by spy drones and control autonomous boats.

Sean Gourley, founder of Primer, a Silicon Valley AI start-up believes that Dominance in AI could bring a step change in warfare, easily undermining the military advantage of great powers. The AI and tech revolution is likely to lead with a reordering of global power.

Most experts still believe that the USA still has a clear lead. However, the perception in China is that whilst the Chinese tend to study coding or engineering, the Americans throw themselves into fundamental research and are heavy duty mathematicians. China is rapidly narrowing the algorithm gap depsite the USA's advantages.

In terms of hardware development, China has been slower to build the type of homegrown chip industry needed to edge towards the lead. This is in part due to decisions which have essentially bar acquisition of US chip companies which began under the Obama administration and was accelerated under Trump.



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