For more than a decade, the Chinese government has been working to push the Chinese manufacturing sector up the value chain. More recently, the push from the central government has become more formalized, resulting in the 2015 issuance of the State Council manufacturing modernization manifesto: Made in China 2025《中国制造2025》(State Council, July 7, 2015). Made in China 2025 focuses less on the types of products to be manufactured and more on the methods of manufacturing. It is okay to continue making rubber duckies, so long as the process for doing so is modernized. That is, massive automated factories churning out thousands of identical items with minimal human intervention.
The Chinese government has made clear it believes the largest and most successful manufacturing companies in the world have achieved that status in large part through software/information technology. This has led China to focus on artificial intelligence (人工智能). The Chinese government experienced what Will Knight at the MIT Technology Review has termed China’s AI Enlightenment. The process started with the issuance by the State Council of A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (新一代人工智能发展规划 July 8, 2017) setting forth a plan for AI development in China. The plan will progress in three stages, concluding in 2030. The final goal is ambitious: by 2030, China’s AI theories, technologies, and applications will lead the world, making China the world’s primary AI innovation center.
We are now in Stage 1 of the AI Plan, covering the period from 2018 to 2020. The first stage plan has been issued by the PRC Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). The plan is set out in the Three-Year Action Plan for Promoting Development of a New Generation Artificial Intelligence Industry (2018–2020) (促进新一代人工智能产业发展三年行动计划 （2018-2020年）(December 12, 2017, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), Science and Technology Department).
Artificial intelligence is a vast field. The term means many things to many people. To cut down the field and make its objectives clear, the 3 Year Plan proposes concentrating on seven technical sectors:
- Intelligent Connected Vehicles (ICV) (智能网联汽车). It has long been a goal of the PRC government to push its huge but technically primitive domestic auto manufacturing sector into new directions. The electric car program has not been successful, so MIIT has begun to push ICV technology. This is embodied in its recent Guide for Establishing an ICV System (Discussion Draft) issued by MIIT in June, 2017 ( 智能网联汽车 国家车联网产业标准体系
建设指南 （智能网联汽车）（2017 年）（征求意见稿）(MIIT, June 12, 2017)
- Intelligent Service Robots (智能服务机器人). This is not manufacturing robotics and automation.
- Intelligent Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV, i.e. drones) (智能无人机). This focuses on drones rather than self-driving vehicles (passenger autos and trucks).
- Computer Aided Medical Imaging Diagnosis Systems (医疗影像辅助诊断系统). If China cannot develop more doctors, maybe they can automate the diagnostic systems.
- Video Image Recognition (视频图像识别). This technology includes facial recognition, a major focus of recent PRC government efforts for surveillance and control.
- Artificial Audio Intelligence (AAI) (智能语音). This is a major focus of Tencent/Wechat as part of their most recent cloud computing platform. In the U.S., this sector is focused on smart homes. It is not clear what Tencent is planning.
- Computer Translation (智能翻译). AI got its start at MIT with John McCarthy in the 1950s. A major focus of the MIT project was machine translation. They failed, setting AI research back for decades. The problem still has not been solved.
Many of the hot topics in AI are not mentioned in the Three-Year Plan. For example, there is no mention of machine learning, neural networks, custom AI IC chips and other recently fashionable technologies. Perhaps this is being done and simply has not been mentioned. Or perhaps the list of potential projects has been pruned to allow for more focus. As I have noted above, some of the choices are surprising, focusing on problems different from what we might expect.
It is always difficult to know what conclusions to draw from PRC government issued development plans. The typical plan is full of buzz words and lofty aspirations and short on specifics, like who will do it, how will it be done, and how will funding be arranged? The Three-Year Plan is no different. In fact, the ratio of buzz words to concrete planning is higher than in most.
In this case, by looking at the list of fields that will be promoted, we can though gain at least some insight into the current direction of AI development in China. The key thing to understand is that AI development is already taking place in China. Chinese companies like Baidu and Tencent and Alibaba are not waiting for government support. They are obtaining funding outside China and they are moving forward aggressively in developing products in the AI sector.
I see two big questions regarding AI in China. One, will Chinese universities and company R&D departments develop the theoretical underpinnings of AI, or will the Chinese remain dependent on the research done in other countries? Two, as with information technology in general, the AI sector in China is dominated by private companies neither owned nor controlled by the Chinese government. This lack of control has allowed these companies to take an innovative and market directed approach toward their development of AI. Will the Chinese government allow this independence to continue and what will be the impact if the government seeks to get more directly involved in these private companies?
How do you see the future of AI in China?