A teenager’s drive to beat a computer program for domination over artificial intelligence in china

It was, as Lee describes it, China’s Sputnik moment. The reference is to the 1957 satellite launch by the Soviet Union, which stunned Americans. Their Cold War adversary had done something technologically that the U.S. was still attempting. It led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and President John F. Kennedy’s pledge that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The space race was on.

In the two years since, both the Chinese government and private entrepreneurs have poured money into the field. Private investors alone sunk $4.5 billion into AI in the five-year period ending in 2017.

By the end of that year, China’s venture capital investments made up 48 percent of AI venture funding globally. It was the first time China had surpassed the U.S. in total investment.

The Chinese government’s goals are explicit: By 2030, it wants China to be the center of the AI universe, leading in theory, technology and application. All the government resources pushing AI may not be invested efficiently, but the fact that everyone from China’s tech powerhouses—Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu—to individual entrepreneurs are pouring private money into the field virtually guarantees its significant growth.

That’s true in part due to what’s happening in the AI industry globally. For decades, computer scientists at universities and in the private sector have pursued AI, but progress has been plodding. An IBM-designed computer named Deep Blue shocked the world in 1997 by defeating Garry Kasparov, then world chess champion, but the program “had few practical applications,” says Lee, who studied AI at Carnegie Mellon University in the 1980s.

The key to the revolution is massive amounts of data and the computing power needed to process it. That exists: The average smartphone has more processing power than the computers that helped send Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969, when the U.S. made good on JFK’s pledge. The data “trains” the deep-learning programs to recognize patterns, and massive computing power allows the program to sort through the data at high speeds.

Until China’s Sputnik moment, almost all the important research in the field took place in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. The industry’s key research papers were written a full decade before Ke faced off against AlphaGo. But Lee and others believe the era of fundamental innovation in AI is now over; the future will belong to the companies and countries that can best put innovations to work.

As China demonstrated after its economic opening to the West some 40 years ago, it knows how to play catch-up in a hurry. And its massive entrepreneurial class is pragmatic and effective in learning how to build businesses out of technological innovation. Critically, in the mind of many analysts, China’s huge digital universe—where hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens spend a good chunk of their time every day—creates and captures oceans of new data about the real world, as Lee writes in AI Superpowers. Lee is not alone in believing that as AI moves into the era of “implementation,” it will be advantage China.