China's Artificial Intelligence Revolution
A security guard walks past robots at 2017 China International Robot Show in Shanghai, China (July 5, 2017).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Aly Song

China's Artificial Intelligence Revolution


On July 20, China’s State Council issued the “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” (新一代人工智能发展规划), which articulates an ambitious agenda for China to lead the world in AI. China intends to pursue a “first-mover advantage” to become the “premier global AI innovation center” by 2030.  Through this new strategic framework, China will advance a “three in one” agenda in AI: tackling key problems in research and development, pursuing a range of products and applications, and cultivating an AI industry. The Chinese leadership thus seeks to seize a “major strategic opportunity” to advance its development of AI, potentially surpassing the United States in the process.

This new plan, which will be implemented by a new AI Plan Promotion Office within the Ministry of Science and Technology, outlines China’s objectives for advances in AI in three stages.

First, by 2020, China’s overall progress in technology and applications of AI should keep pace with the world’s advanced level, while its AI industry becomes an important economic growth point. By this time, China hopes to have achieved important progress in next generation AI technologies, including big data, swarm intelligence, hybrid enhanced intelligence, and autonomous intelligent systems. At that point, the value of China’s core AI industry is targeted to exceed 150 billion RMB (over $22 billion) in value, with AI-related fields valued at 1 trillion RMB (nearly $148 billion). Concurrently, China should have advanced in gathering top talent and establishing initial frameworks for laws, regulations, ethics, and policy.

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Next, by 2025, China should have achieved major breakthroughs in AI to reach a leading level, with AI becoming a primary driver for China’s industrial advances and economic transformation. At that point, China intends to have become a leading player in research and development, while widely using AI in fields ranging from manufacturing to medicine to national defense. China’s core AI industry should have surpassed 400 billion RMB (about $59 billion), with AI-related fields exceeding 5 trillion RMB (about $740 billion). In addition, China plans to have achieved progress in the creation of laws and regulations, as well as ethical norms and policies, along with the establishment of mechanisms for AI safety assessment.

Ultimately, by 2030, China intends to have become the world’s premier AI innovation center. At that point, China believes it can achieve major breakthroughs in research and development to “occupy the commanding heights of AI technology.” In addition, AI should have been expanded and its use deepened within multiple domains, including social governance and national defense. By then, China’s AI industry is targeted to exceed 1 trillion RMB ($148 billion), with AI-related fields totaling $10 trillion ($1.48 trillion). To support its continued primacy in AI, China plans to create leading AI innovation and personnel training bases, while constructing more comprehensive for legal, regulatory, ethical, and policy frameworks.

Through this agenda, the Chinese leadership plans to leverage AI to address a range of economic, governance, and societal challenges. Since China’s economic growth has started to slow, Beijing hopes that AI can serve as a “new engine” to advance future economic development through unleashing a new scientific revolution and industrial transformation. According to a recent report, AI could enable China’s economy to expand 26 percent by 2030. Concurrently, AI will be leveraged across governance and society to improve a range of services and systems, including education, healthcare, and even the judiciary. Concurrently, the Communist Party of China (CPC) hopes AI will have utility in enhancing the “intelligentization” of “social management” and protecting social stability, through such techniques as advanced facial recognition and biometric identification.

China recognizes that AI will be critical to its future “comprehensive national power” and military capabilities. The plan focuses on building critical competencies to enable future innovation, applications, and enterprise, with a focus on open-source platforms and open data. The Chinese government will invest in a range of AI projects, encourage private sector investment in AI, and establish a national development fund for AI. Critically, the plan will also cultivate high-end talent, recognized as an integral element of national competitiveness in AI. For instance, China intends to improve education in AI and strengthen its talent pool. Concurrently, China will seek to draw upon the world’s leading talent, including through recruitment and talent programs, such as the “Thousand Talents” plan.

This plan acknowledges and seeks to mitigate identified shortcomings in China’s current capacity. Although there have been considerable advances in the numbers of papers and patents, the Chinese leadership recognizes gaps relative to more advanced countries, including the lack of “major original results” and relative disadvantage in core algorithms and critical components, such as high-end chips. Looking forward, China intends to pursue high-end research and development that could enable paradigm changes in AI, such as brain-inspired AI and quantum-accelerated machine learning. Although China’s state-centric approach to industrial policy may have certain disadvantages, this attempt to formulate an integrated, whole-of-nation approach to “innovation-driven development” could be successful in building upon inherent national advantages, notably China’s massive data resource base and potential talent pool.

While building indigenous capacity, China will seek to coordinate and optimize the use of both domestic and international “innovation resources.” The plan calls for encouraging cooperation between domestic AI enterprises and leading foreign universities, research institutes, and teams. China will encourage its own AI enterprises to undertake an approach of “going out” to pursue overseas mergers and acquisitions, equity investments, and venture capital, while establishing research and development centers abroad. According to this plan, China will also encourage foreign AI enterprises to establish their own research and development centers in China. Through such measures, China could attempt to leverage foreign advances and expertise while in the process of building up an adequate domestic base for innovation. This approach may prove controversial and could provoke further friction, against the backdrop of current U.S. debates on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and recurrent concerns over Chinese investments in sensitive technologies.

Notably, this new plan explicitly highlights an approach of military-civil fusion (or civil-military integration) to ensure that advances in AI can be rapidly leveraged for national defense. Certain next generation AI technologies that have been prioritized will likely be used to enhance China’s future military capabilities. For instance, China intends to pursue advances in big data, human-machine hybrid intelligence, swarm intelligence, and automated decision-making, along with in autonomous unmanned systems and intelligent robotics. Accordingly, China seeks to ensure that scientific and technological advances can be readily turned to dual-use applications, while military and civilian innovation resources will be “constructed together and shared.”

Given the potential disruptive nature of AI, China also recognizes that new challenges could arise for governance, economic security, and social stability. As such, this plan calls for minimizing these risks to ensure the “safe, reliable, and controllable” development of AI. While formulating legal, regulatory, and ethical frameworks on AI, China will create mechanisms to ensure appropriate safety and security in AI systems. China also plans to build capacity to evaluate and prepare for long-term challenges associated with AI, including through establishing a new AI Strategic Advisory Committee and AI-focused think-tanks. In addition, the plan includes measures to mitigate likely negative externalities associated with AI, such as retraining and redeploying displaced workers. The CPC will also continue to pursue new techniques to bolster its coercive apparatus and thus assure regime security, such as the use of big data and AI to enable sophisticated censorship and surveillance, as well as the new social credit system.

Looking forward, China seeks to take full advantage of the unfolding AI revolution to enhance its national power and competitiveness. Recognizing the strategic importance of this new technology, the Chinese leadership intends to leverage AI in its quest for innovation-driven development, with the aspiration of enabling China to become a global power in science and technology. Concurrently, the CPC will attempt shape the development of AI in accordance with the objectives and interests of the party-state. However, AI is unlikely to be a panacea for China’s economic and societal challenges, and the future trajectory of the implementation of this new plan remains to be seen. Ultimately, China’s AI agenda reflects its ambitions to take the lead in emerging international competition within this critical technological domain.

Elsa Kania is an analyst focused on the Chinese military’s strategic thinking on and advances in emerging technologies, including unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. Elsa is also in the process of co-founding a start-up research venture.

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