A US congressional advisory body has warned that China’s focus on developing artificial intelligence (AI) could have marked effects on the global economic and military balance, shifting the seat of power from America to China.

Why it matters: Beijing has set ambitious goals to become a world leader in AI by 2030. Sensetime, the world’s most valuable AI startup, comes from China.

  • Nevertheless, the country faces a slew of challenges in reaching this goal. While China’s internet population generates gargantuan amounts of data that can be used to train an AI, its domestic chipmaking sector, which the AI industry relies on, is largely inferior.
  • Likewise, China is known for quickly implementing AI applications but lacks talent compared with the US.

“Chinese firms and research institutes are advancing uses of AI that could undermine US economic leadership and provide an asymmetrical advantage in warfare.”

—US-China Economic and Security Review Commission 

Details: China is prioritizing AI as it underpins the development of many other technologies, and could lead to “substantial scientific breakthroughs, economic disruption, enduring economic breakthroughs, and rapid changes in military capabilities,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its 2019 report released on Thursday.

  • The commission was set up in 2000 to evaluate the national security implications of economic ties between the US and China.
  • China’s military strategists see AI as a “breakout technology” that could develop tactics to exploit US vulnerabilities, the report said.
  • China’s policies on civil-military fusion seeking to leverage private sector innovation for the defense sector are worrisome for the US given the breadth and opacity of the campaign, the commission warned.
  • Washington is concerned that the close collaboration between China’s military and private sector, which in turn works with US companies, could give China a leg up in a global arms race.
  • The body highlighted China’s advantages in manufacturing, which could allow the country beat out the US in commercializing mass market and military discoveries made and funded in America.

Context: In the midst of the protracted US-China trade war, several high-profile Chinese AI companies have found themselves in the crosshairs.

  • In October, the US barred Sensetime, as well as surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision and AI firms iFlytek and Yitu, among others, from doing business with American firms, effectively cutting off their supply of US-made components.
  • Meanwhile, US-based think tank, Center for Data Innovation, has warned that the close ties between China’s military and private sector could hurt the country’s goals of becoming a world AI leader as distrust of companies linked to China’s government grows against the backdrop of US-China trade tensions.

China’s ‘military-civil’ partnerships could hurt its AI ambitions: report

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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