As we’ve been reading about political events in Hong Kong and how United States technology companies are responding to newly implemented Chinese laws and policies in the special administrative region, we’re reminded of a discussion the Silverchair community had with renowned geo-political analyst and media commentator, Ian Bremmer, at Platform Strategies 2019. There, in New York last September, Bremmer briefly spoke about the global internet fracturing into sovereign fiefdoms and the rise of China’s artificial intelligence and more general technology prowess.
The following is an excerpt of Bremmer’s talk. You may also view the clip in the video below, or watch the full recording here.
What's happening in technology and data? What's happening with content? Here is the area where the Chinese are a superpower and it's not cooperative. Let's first talk about how they are a superpower because, economically, everyone out there knew they were becoming a superpower. Everyone out there, for twenty years now, has been saying, we can see them becoming the largest economy in the world. 1.4 billion.
But technologically, if you talk to Americans that are in Washington in the policy establishment, they'll say, well, they steal stuff, but they don't innovate. They're not entrepreneurial. And even five years ago, you could have made that argument. You can't today. Today the Chinese are actually a legitimate technology superpower.
In fact, they're one of two. We're the other one. In some areas, the Chinese are actually leading the United States, specifically in facial recognition and voice recognition. They have 800 million people with smartphones. Their data is integrated vertically with only a couple of apps that are much more capable than our apps are because everyone's on them, and they do lots of stuff.
So that data's all being used to complete the same studies about human behavior. Last year, if you look at data, digital commerce in China was 50 times greater than the United States. Ride sharing was 1,000 times greater in terms of total amount, data online.
Anyone who travels to China knows that they don't use credit cards. They don't use wallets. It's all smartphone. You want to go into a building? Increasingly, no ID. Just use your face. So that is a very different system. And the Chinese competition with the United States here is real.
Now, do I believe that they will win? I don't know. I will tell you that our entrepreneurs are a lot better than theirs. Theirs work harder. But ours are much more outside the box. The Chinese are better at figuring out how to commercialize existing AI applications. I suspect they will make more money out of AI in the next five years than we will. But they're not doing a lot of, what's the next moonshot research?
Mustafa Suleyman, who runs DeepMind, told me, “Look, let's be very clear. What we are trying to do at DeepMind—and by the way, everyone in the US is trying to do—is, by 2045, replace all human beings with automated AI capacity. We're trying to create artificial general intelligence in the next generation or so.” That's what their goal is. There are a lot of people working on that in US AI.
Google is the leader. Microsoft and Amazon are close. There's almost no one working on that in China because they don't yet see the short-term applications for that that are going to make money. Now, there's no question that the Chinese are paying for a lot more people to do AI research in China. They're educating a lot more of them now. And they're also providing enormous amounts of cash to people graduating from universities in the US with a relevant STEM education.
They're not only paying them more. They're paying their spouses. They're setting up research laboratories. They're giving them money for those research projects. But broadly speaking, American institutions of higher learning are feeling less welcoming for a lot of top scientists from emerging markets, especially those that aren't white, than they were two years ago, three years ago.
And those numbers are changing, while the Chinese are doing everything possible to grab those people. So, that's a problem, but it's a problem at the margins. The fundamental question is, what is AI going to look like as a marketplace? Is it the Manhattan Project? Or is it climate change?
Kai-Fu Lee, the lead AI specialist in China, wrote this book called AI Superpowers. He believes that AI is dumb. It's basically all about getting more, and more, and more data, and just doing pattern recognition, learning from that data in ways that human beings could never do, but computers are very well suited. And he thinks that's what's going to happen for the next twenty years. And if he's right, the Chinese will probably win because they will simply have vastly more resources they can throw at it. And the government will be aligned making that the most important strategic sector.
He could easily be wrong. Most people I know in the US, like Reid Hoffman, and Eric Schmidt, and Mustafa, who I just mentioned, they believe that, actually, AI breakthroughs are like climate change. Thirty years ago, we knew climate change was coming. But we didn't know if we were going to make big breakthroughs in cold fusion or if it would be stupid. We didn't. And it turns out, so far, it's been stupid, right? But even Al Gore didn't think, ten years ago, that solar would be cheaper than coal by 2020. And it is. That's extraordinary.
But you need to be taking an awful lot of bets on weird technologies that aren't yet developed in order to find out what you're going to do to respond to climate change. Now, the Chinese are now the largest solar panel producers in the world. But the basic research in all the big new breakthroughs on things like carbon sequestration, taking it out of the atmosphere, geoengineering, shooting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would actually reduce the temperature of the planet, that's all being done overwhelmingly in the United States.
If it turns out that AI is more like that, then it's likely the Americans are going to win.
Excerpted from: Platform Strategies 2019 - “Sovereign Internets, Scholarship, and Business Risk: Publishing in Controlled, Fragmented, and Complex Markets”
About Ian Bremmer
Ian is a political scientist who helps business leaders, policy makers, and the general public make sense of the world around them. He is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk research and consulting firm, and GZERO Media, a media company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He is also the board president of the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF), a non-profit organization committed to helping people understand the impact geopolitics has on their lives. He is the host of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer, which airs weekly on US national public television. Ian is also a frequently featured guest on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the BBC, Bloomberg, and many others. A prolific writer, Ian is the author of 10 books, including the New York Times bestseller Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, which examines the rise of populism around the world. He is also a Foreign Affairs Columnist and Editor-at-Large for Time magazine.