When a Google computer program beat the world’s best player of an ancient Chinese board game last May, it might have seemed like an incremental milestone. But for some, the success of the program known as AlphaGo marked more than a man vs. machine clash. It set up a broader race between China and the United States over artificial intelligence, a competition that could mold the future of humankind just as the widespread arrival of electricity did in the last century.
The Go tournament took place in Wuzhen, a city of canals that is more than 1,300 years old, a fitting venue for a competition involving the strategy board game Go that has been played for several thousand years. Go is renowned for its complexity, and it is said that there are more variations to the game than there are atoms in the universe.
Perhaps it was a coincidence of timing, but the AlphaGo competition kicked off events that demonstrated China’s resolve to close the gap with — and quickly surpass — the United States in deploying artificial intelligence, or AI. Goals Chinese authorities announced last July are ambitious: Reach parity with the United States by 2020, achieve major breakthroughs by 2025, and “occupy the commanding heights of AI technology by 2030” as the world’s undisputed leader.
Can China do it? Experts say the race is in its early stages but the challenge has been set, and China is taking action to move toward its aspirations.
“There’s a lot of ambition, a lot of enthusiasm but it still remains to be seen whether this is possible,” said Elsa B. Kania, a specialist in artificial intelligence and Chinese defense innovation at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. Nonetheless, she added, “there is a very real chance and possibility” that China could achieve its goals. The stakes are high. Advances in artificial intelligence could add trillions of dollars to a major economy and give an edge on the battlefield, shifting empires and global power.
“For the moment, the United States is the most advanced AI country in the world. But that gap is closing,” said Chris Nicholson, chief executive of Skymind, a San Francisco start-up that focuses on deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence. Russia, too, is paying attention, although it is not in the same tier as China and the U.S.