Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China, has unveiled plans to launch a 100 billion yuan ($16 billion) fund to bolster the local artificial intelligence industry.
The move is yet another step toward China’s goal of becoming the world leader in AI by 2025.
US technology companies currently dominate the sector, a factor in political tensions between the two nations. However, China’s population of 1.4 billion people and scant data protection laws means that it is able to both build and train AI algorithms at unprecedented scale.
Big incentives for AI firms
Vice mayor of Tianjin Sun Wenkui has pledged up to 30 million yuan in financial support for every AI-related research institution that sets up in the city. Individuals could be rewarded with up to two million yuan ($314,000) per person, he said.
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It remains to be seen whether Tianjin’s AI incentives will simply shift talent and business from one part of China to another, or if the scheme will make waves internationally. Either way, there’s no escaping the fact that local governments in China have been pouring vast sums of money into AI development, in line with the emphasis placed on the sector by central government.
Tianjin’s fund alone rivals Europe’s promise to increase investment in AI across the whole of the EU to at least €20 billion ($23 billion) by 2020.
It also dwarfs the UK’s recently announced Sector Deal for AI, which brings together £700 million ($945 million) in private funding with a claimed £300 million ($405 million) of new central investment – although the latter may simply replace lost funds from the EU, post Brexit.
In January, Beijing unveiled plans to build its own 13.8 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) AI development park. Similarly, Shanghai has equally bold ambitions to be at the centre of a world-leading AI industry by 2020. Another Chinese city, Shenzhen, is already home to companies that dominate the global drone industry.
Taken together, along with its huge central investment in AI startups, and in robotics, autonomous systems, and driverless vehicle technologies, the chances of China failing to dominate AI and robotics in the next decade are slim.
China is already automating faster than any nation on Earth, and in 2016 alone bought 66,000 industrial robots, which, together, are capable of doing the work of one million human beings.
However, there is one obstacle on the world stage, and that is GDPR, not President Trump. The shift in public sentiment in the West against mass data trawling, and with increased citizen rights over how data is collected and managed, may mean that China will find it harder to export its AI products to the US and Europe.
More, algorithms trained on 1.4 billion people in a highly conformist culture may not be so applicable in other societies.
Meanwhile, the many Western companies that are engaged in technology partnerships with China may find themselves having to justify working with a country that is introducing a compulsory social ratings scheme in 2020, monitoring every aspect of citizen behaviour, both online and in the real world, and penalising bad behaviour.
Some may find the chance to train their own technologies on a billion people without legal redress irresistible; others may find their customers don’t share that enthusiasm.
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