Nations sharpen AI strategies as global competition heats up

The U.S. and China are the leading countries in AI research and development right now, but nations throughout the world are developing strategies to remain competitive.

Most developed nations are now formalizing AI strategies that the countries' leaders hope will transform the way their workers, society and economy operate. Why now are countries just getting around to developing and adopting AI strategies when machine learning has been around for about seven decades, and why has no country yet asserted dominance in the AI industry?

U.S. and China lead on AI today

The U.S. and China have been getting lots of attention lately for the AI-focused startups, talent and investment coming out of these two countries. AI startups in the U.S. and China are garnering eyebrow-raising funding rounds. Case in point: SenseTime, a Chinese startup, is now the most valuable AI startup in the world having raised $1.6 billion to date. In 2017 alone, AI-focused startups raised a staggering $12 billion, and investment shows no signs of slowing down in the years ahead.

The Chinese government sees AI as a strategic imperative and is investing heavily into developing the industry. A little over a year ago, China released a three-step program outlining its goal to become a world leader in AI by 2030. They are making big bets with AI around use cases for military, smart cities and citizen welfare, including heavy use of facial recognition technologies.

Laws in China are some of the most relaxed with regards to citizen privacy, especially when compared to western countries. The use of AI technologies such as facial recognition is now becoming the norm and citizens have little expectation of privacy. China currently has 170 million surveillance cameras with an expectation of that number increasing to over 570 million by 2020. By creating an interconnected network of cameras, many with AI-enabled capabilities, the country claims to be better able to catch criminals committing a variety of crimes ranging from jaywalking to robbery, and can even try to predict crimes, all while keeping a very watchful eye over its 1.4 billion citizens.  

While China only recently doubled down on its AI investment, the U.S. has deep roots developing AI strategies, and technology in general. The term artificial intelligence was coined by a U.S. professor in 1956 at a Dartmouth University summer conference. As a result, the U.S. is an academic powerhouse, home to many of the major research institutions that have helped to develop the field of AI and top tech talent that continues to push the boundaries of what is capable with AI.

Backing up this research are powerful and pioneering tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and IBM, which have defined themselves as AI-first companies and are aggressively investing in AI technologies. Just as is the case with China, many U.S. AI startups are receiving massive rounds of funding. Some of these include Dataminr, which has raised $577 million; CrowdStrike, which has raised $481 million;, which has raised $251.2 million; and, which has raised $214 million.

While the U.S. government has not come out with a comprehensive national strategy around AI, the federal government set up a taskforce in May 2018 to help further the country's AI development in the areas of military and defense. However, the U.S. faces stiff competition for AI dominance, not just from China, but also from other corners of the world.

European countries pushing forward with AI investment

Many European countries now see the importance of adopting their own AI strategies. The U.K. government announced in November 2017 £68 million ($86.5 million) of funding for research into AI and robotics projects aimed at improving safety in extreme environments, as well as funding four new research hubs to develop robotic technology aimed at improving safety for offshore wind and nuclear energy. The University of Cambridge is installing a $13 million supercomputer that will allow U.K. businesses access to this supercomputer to help with AI-related projects. The country is also trying to position itself as a leader with ethical AI, helping to create worldwide standards.

France's President Emmanuel Macron is very bullish on AI and in early 2018 released a national strategy for AI. Over the next five years the country will invest more than €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) in AI-related research, as well as support for emerging startups. France's plan targets four specific areas of AI related to health, transportation (including driverless cars), the environment, and defense/security.

Germany, long seen as an industrial powerhouse with great engineering capabilities, also has lots of AI talent. Berlin is currently touted as Europe's top AI talent hub. Cyber Valley, a new tech hub region in southern Germany is hoping to create new opportunities for collaboration between academics and AI-focused businesses. Germany also has a very notable automobile industry with a long track record of innovation. Almost half of the worldwide patents on autonomous driving are held by German automotive industry companies and suppliers such as Bosch, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche.

Other Asian countries' AI strategies should not be ignored

Japan has long been a leader in the development and adoption of robotics. In March 2017, Japan's government released their own Artificial Intelligence Technology Strategy and Industrialization Roadmap, which focuses the development of AI in three phases: the utilization and application of AI through 2020, the public's use of AI from 2025 to 2030, and lastly building an ecosystem by connecting multiplying domains.

The strategy focuses on R&D for AI, as well as a collaboration between industry, government and academia to advance AI research and address use cases related to productivity, welfare and mobility. Japan is also home to one of the largest venture funds in the industry, Softbank, which has over $100 billion to invest in industry-shifting AI companies.

South Korea also has ambitious plans around artificial intelligence, and is no stranger to AI. In 2016 it famously hosted the match where DeepMind's AlphaGo defeated Go's world champion Lee Sedol, a South Korea native. In response to a shortage of AI engineers, South Korea has plans to create at least six new AI schools by 2020, with plans to educate more than 5,000 new highly skilled engineers. The government also plans to support homegrown startups with the creation of an AI-oriented startup incubator. Additionally, it plans to fund large-scale AI projects related to medicine, national defense and public safety, as well as start an AI R&D challenge similar to those developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

More AI initiatives around the world

AI technologies have the ability to transform and influence the lives of many people, which is one of the reasons why so many countries are now seeing the importance of this technology and are adopting strategies around it. AI technologies are already having dramatic impact on the labor market, countries' defense strategies, cybersecurity, transportation, ethics and many other aspects related to lives of citizens. It is for this reason that the above mentioned countries, as well as others, are developing comprehensive AI strategies to stay ahead of potentially economy-changing developments in the industry. As such, the race for AI dominance is just starting and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

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