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“Will china dominate AI?” – is the wrong question



Will china dominate AI?

When I spoke at the UK China business forum last month, I discussed this topic in response to an audience question.

In the current climate of nationalistic fervour, I see the same question asked in many guises.

For example, Politico present the problem of AI dominance as a threat perspective (a sputnik moment for the USA)

I summarise my views below.

As a disclosure, these are personal views. They are not associated with any organisation I am connected with (commercial or academic)


Like many in Europe, I take the view of building bridges and of collaboration.

In many ways – the question of AI dominance is the wrong question

A view also echoed by others in Europe such as allai – there is no ai race

I have worked with Chinese AI companies (in robotics) and also enjoyed working with excellent Chinese students who I have mentored.

I am also familiar with the Chinese education system – such as the Gaokao  

For anyone exploring AI and China, Kai Fu Lee’s book AI superpowers provides a great starting point

The key lessons from that book, as I see them, are:

  • China is creating original ideas and applications (papers, patents etc)
  • The availability of data in China gives an advantage to Chinese companies
  • AI is more industrial revolution than a Cold War
  • A divergence of skills will develop across geography (ex as Swiss and Japan for craftsmanship etc)
  • China engages in bold experimentation when it comes to AI

All of this is true – for example – if current trends continue, China will overtake the US in the most-….  Via exponential view

China has a three-step plan for AI: firstly, it must be able to keep pace with all leading AI technology, and its application in general, by 2020. Part two is to make major breakthroughs by 2025, which is intended to lead to the third part of the plan – the establishment of China as the world leader in the AI field by 2030

Why is AI dominance the wrong question?

So, why is AI dominance the wrong question?

While every major country has national strategies for AI   I believe that no country can dominate the complex AI space

To elaborate, here is an example from another domain

In early 2000s, with the start of 3G,  NTT docomo and imode was expected to dominate

Everyone looked to Japan and Korea for the future of mobile

Indeed, Japanese and Korean mobile applications were rich media and cool

In fact, too rich media   for world domination

In all other parts of the world, the networks were not advanced

And by the time they were, along came the iPhone and there was never a talk of a Korean or a Japanese company becoming the world leader in mobile (like the iPhone has become)

The early successes of iMode and other systems were due to deployment and standardization in specific geographies

standardization creates winners only in your local geography

By definition, that’s not world domination

Instead it is more relevant to focus on fundamental strengths and enable private companies to innovate

We are seeing the same in AI. Many of the advantages gained through Data for example are not translatable to other geographies (unless you can get hold of relevant data in those geographies – which is highly unlikely) 

By this nuanced definition, there are many areas of excellence

  • Engineering education – China, Israel, India
  • Ecosystems and culture Canada – CIFAR
  • Hubs – Waterloo, Oxford, Cambridge, London
  • Favourable immigration policies for tech – currently Canada
  • Investments from private companies – UK, India, Israel
  • Education systems : GaoKao in China
  • Specific areas – semiconductor industry in China

Obviously, China appears in many of these and in that sense will be a key player – but I do not expect a single dominant player to emerge. 


  • Core strengths matter more – and in that sense China will be a key player
  • The question of who will dominate is misleading
  • An open ecosystem will float all boats i.e. everyone will benefit by a free flow of ideas

Image source: Digital crew

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