The race to dominate the field of AI has a number of big players and the stakes are high

China has the population, education, data and lax privacy rules. The US has the money and the motivation. Canada has the talent and government buy-in. Is Canada the dark horse in this race?

AJ Chisling
6 min readJan 8, 2018

This July, The Economist reported that China may match or exceed America’s lead in the field of AI. The magazine cites two events that took place earlier in the year that perhaps foreshadowed things to come: “First, Qi Lu, one of the bosses of Microsoft, said in January that he would not return to the world’s largest software firm after recovering from a cycling accident, but instead would become chief operating officer at Baidu, China’s leading search engine. Later that month, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence postponed its annual meeting. The planned date for the event in January conflicted with the Chinese new year.”

CNBC reports that China has laid out a detailed three-step plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, with the aim of making the industry worth 1 trillion yuan ($147.7 billion). Phase one “proposes that China makes progress in developing a ‘new generation’ of AI theory and technology. This will be implemented in some devices and basic software. It will also involve the development of standards, policies, and ethics for AI across the world’s second-largest economy.” In phase two, “China expects to achieve a ‘major breakthrough’ in AI technology and the application of it, which will lead to ‘industrial upgrading and economic transformation.” And finally, in the last phase, which will happen between 2025 and 2030, “China become the world leader in AI, with the industry worth 1 trillion yuan.”

The race to become the world’s first AI super power is well underway. The Verge reports that China has all the ingredients it needs to move into first. These include government funding, a massive population, a lively research community, and a society that seems primed for technological change. China has the numbers: “a massive 1.4 billion population (including some 730 million internet users) might be its biggest advantage.”

China is a lot more lax when it comes to users’ privacy. According to The Verge, “This means that AI is being deployed in ways that might not be acceptable in the West. For example, facial recognition technology is used for everything from identifying jaywalkers to dispensing toilet paper. These implementations seem trivial, but as any researcher will tell you, there’s no substitute for deploying tech in the wild for testing and developing.”

Bloomberg seems to reiterate these points, saying: “[China] is betting heavily on AI. Money is pouring in from investors, big internet companies and its government, driven by a belief that the technology can remake entire sectors of the economy, as well as national security. A similar effort is underway in the U.S., but in this new global arms race, China has three advantages: A vast pool of engineers to write the software, a massive base of 751 million internet users to test it on, and most importantly, staunch government support that includes handing over gobs of citizens’ data –- something that makes Western officials squirm.”

Other evidence of the AI race, according to The Economist, includes China leading the US in published articles on deep learning, almost half of the expected $16 trillion AI-related growth by 2030 will go to China, and AI-related patent submissions by Chinese researchers have increased by 200% in recent years.

Writes Bloomberg, “Every major U.S. tech company is investing deeply as well. Machine learning — a type of AI that lets driverless cars see, chatbots speak and machines parse scores of financial information — demands computers learn from raw data instead of hand-cranked programming. Getting access to that data is a permanent slog. China’s command-and-control economy, and its thinner privacy concerns, mean that country can dispense video footage, medical records, banking information and other wells of data almost whenever it pleases.”

In China, major players are already investing in AI. For example, Alibaba recently showed off an AI service called “ET City Brain” that uses video recognition to optimize traffic in real time. It claims the system has already increased the average speed of traffic by 11%. The company is also planning to beef up what it calls “ET Medical Brain,” which will offer AI-powered services to discover drugs and diagnose medical images. (The Economist) And Baidu “is putting most of its resources into autonomous driving: it wants to get a self-driving car onto the market by 2018 and to provide technology for fully autonomous vehicles by 2020. On July 5th the firm announced a first version of its self-driving-car software, called Apollo, at a developer conference in Beijing.” (The Economist)

“Sure, there might be data sets you could get access to in China that you couldn’t in the U.S.,” said Oren Etzioni, director of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence [quoted in Bloomberg]. “But that does not put them in a terrific position vis-a-vis AI. It’s still a question of the algorithm, the insights and the research.”

And while these two superpowers battle it out, Canada has not-so-quietly made deep inroads into R&D and everything else AI. Here’s a visual of what Canada’s AI map looks like at the moment, including ROSS Intelligence: Financial Post. The federal government, provincial governments, big business, non-profits and universities are all investing in AI and you better believe people are taking notice. As we say in our article Meet Canada the Queen of AI: “Canada is indeed a feast of AI research, and the big American companies want to make sure they have a seat at the table.”

Says Jean-François Gagné, author of the AI in Canada FP graphic linked to above: “AI has reached the point where its impact is being felt across the Canadian economy. We have the financial resources, combined with the technology, talent and good understanding of how we need to reinvent business. AI is large enough, wide enough and has been disrupted long enough that we can build a sustainable business model around the opportunity. Some answers will come from research, some from entrepreneurs, and some from engaging with corporate joint ventures.”

ROSS Intelligence recently opened its own R&D headquarters in Toronto. Said University of Toronto President Meric Gertler at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in June: “I have to say that these developments, while they are very, very impressive, are no mystery. They are a clear example of how long-term public support for investigative-led, curiosity-driven research, expands our knowledge of the world and also expands our ability to change the world for the better, ultimately it becomes a key driver of innovation and prosperity.”

And just a few weeks ago, in September, Russian President Putin said that whatever nation leads in AI, also leads the world. (The Verge)

So who will win the race for AI dominance? Answer is most definitely not yet known.


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