Founder and Senior Managing Partner
Depending on the way you measure it, China is either a close second to the U.S. in artificial intelligence or has already surpassed us.
Consider that 48 percent of the $15.2 billion global investment in AI startups in 2017 went to China versus 38 percent for the U.S. PwC also predicts that by 2030, AI-based growth will boost the global GDP by $16 trillion and more than half of that will go to China. China’s government last year also outlined a three-year plan to become the world leader in AI.
Facing this existential threat, the U.S. government has dithered. While the Obama Administration had identified China’s growing influence in AI and proposed a plan to counter it, the current administration has done nothing. “We are still waiting on the White House to provide some direction,” Tim Hwang, who worked on AI policy at Google, recently told The New York Times.
There is lots that the government could do, which I’ll outline below. But the nature of AI makes it less of a threat — at least commercially — than you might be led to believe. Simply put, China can’t dump AI in our market the way it has dumped steel.
Where is our Sputnik moment?
Observers have been warning for more than a decade that the U.S. is falling behind in STEM education. In a recent global education assessment, the U.S. was number 38 in math (out of 71 countries) and 24th in science. China currently produces about eight times as many STEM graduates as the U.S. By 2030, that figure will rise to 15X.
The U.S. has faced a similar threat before. In 1957, the U.S.S.R.’s launch of the Sputnik satellite signaled that the country had beaten the U.S. into space. That led to 1958’s National Defense Education Act, which funneled hundreds of millions (a lot of money back then) into low-interest loans for students and improvements to elementary and secondary education.
While I don’t anticipate any type of aid of this sort coming from the federal government, there’s some action at the local level and from private industry. Right now for instance, some 15 states offer incentives for public colleges and universities to produce STEM grads. Code.org is also pushing for every U.S. school to teach coding. Last year the state of Florida attempted to enact a law that let learning a programming language fulfill the school system’s foreign language requirement. The move didn’t pass, but it’s a good idea.
The biggest missed opportunity for our school systems is that our public schools for low-income students are so much worse than those for affluent kids. A 2016 Stanford University study, for instance, found that in one-sixth of U.S. public schools, average test scores are more than a grade below the national average. The study also found that the most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have scores that are four grades apart.
And now the good news…
While the U.S. clearly needs to improve its STEM education, one saving grace is that AI is not transferable the way that other technologies are. Apple’s new iOS can run all over the world, but Baidu can’t bring its AI system to the U.S., plug it in and start getting insights.
That’s because AI is based on data. Chinese companies use data about Chinese consumers. China working in China will be able to do great things in China. But China working in the U.S. won’t be able to do great things without U.S. data. As a result, U.S. companies’ AI will remain the best in the world — for the U.S. market.
Because China’s data is based on a much larger group of consumers (China’s population is more than four times that of the U.S. — a fact that also puts those STEM graduate stats in perspective), China’s AI will probably be better than ours. But that’s a moot point.
Of course, things could change. For one thing, AI isn’t just a commercial product. It also has national security implications. As we’ve seen, even tiny countries like North Korea can punch way out of their weight class when it comes to international cyberwarfare.
All the more reason why the best investment we could make as a country is in our teachers. At the very least, we should give the good ones the respect they deserve.