The Trump administration’s chief technology officer warned on Tuesday that while the US currently leads in artificial intelligence (AI) development, China is quickly narrowing the technology gap.

Why it matters: China’s government has taken a top-down approach to improving the country’s technological capabilities, with emphasis on AI advancements.

  • The State Council, China’s cabinet, in 2017 laid out plans to become a global leader in AI development by 2030.
  • Some observers have dubbed the US-China dynamic an “AI arms race” amid trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

“Although America is the leader in AI,  China is working to catch up… Today, our goal is very clear: The uniquely American ecosystem must do everything its collective power can to keep America’s lead in the AI race and build on our successes.”

—US Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios

Details: Kratsios added that the competition between the two nations too often focuses on the disparity in government spending on research and development, referring to China’s funding budgets as being “aspirational” and “cryptic.”

  • Kratsios was speaking at an event in organized by think tank the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) in Washington D.C.
  • He said that the US is home to 17 of the world’s 32 AI unicorns, adding that the country has around 2,000 AI companies. The CTO criticized the Chinese government for “choosing winners in the AI field,” referencing the country’s state-sanctioned AI champions—Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Sensetime, and iFlytek.
  • Kratsios said US government agencies planned to spend $1 billion on non-defense AI research during the next fiscal year.

Context: In February US President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing government agencies to increase their focus on AI. However, observers criticized the order, saying it lacked clarity and funding goals.

  • Kratsios is not the first to warn of China’s technological rise. In a report last month, the CDI said that China lags in AI but is catching up to the US.
  • The organization said the country’s civil-military partnerships, in which the government is promoting closer ties between the private sector and the military, could hurt China’s AI ambitions as distrust of companies linked to the Chinese government grows amid US-China tensions.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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