When Nations Vie for AI Supremacy

Countries, as well as companies, are vying for supremacy in the artificial intelligence market.

When it comes to the world of “big data”, whoever has the most data has an advantage. And whoever has the most and best data scientists with the best tools to crunch that data usefully, build on that advantage.

That’s a key reason CIOs now look at all the data their companies collect and enlist data scientists and new tools to try to wring competitive advantage from what they learn.  Entire economic blocs and countries are also upping the investment ante as they seek to slake their thirst for data and the riches machine learning and other AI technologies can bring.

For example, the European Union’s Digital Market Commission in April said it would increase its artificial intelligence R&D spending to $1.8 billion. The EU’s 28 member countries also plan to boost AI investment to $24 billion over the next two years.

The United Kingdom, heading for Brexit, days later launched a $1.8 billion initiative of its own to boost the nation’s artificial intelligence sector.

China Turns up the Heat

China beat both the UK and EU to the punch back in July 2017, announcing a plan to make the country a $150 billion AI superstar by 2030.A statement released by the Chinese government at the time said: “Artificial intelligence has become a new engine of economic development.”

Speaking at a recent press event in Cambridge, Mass. about the British effort, Alex Chisholm, the UK's permanent secretary for business energy and industrial strategy (BEIS), said he does not see this as “a race between countries” but a recognition that strength in AI will be important going forward.

Yet, there was a strain of competitiveness in the factoids he and other visiting British officials brought up.  The UK, he claimed, has four of the top 10 centers of academic excellence in the field.

And, while noting that the huge Indian and Chinese economies will have more data than smaller countries, the UK can boast of advances in specific areas, such as medical data collection and analysis, he said, citing the “unrivaled set of national data on patients” maintained by the National Health Service, as an example.

Aside from sheer volume of data, other factors, such as how much of that data is available, the quality of collected data, and how easily that data can be accessed, are also important in evaluating how well a country (or company} can do the field of AI.

The UK is also betting that London’s status as a fintech and investment hub will also be an advantage. Data creation and collection requires connectivity and the UK claims an edge there as well, with 95% of UK homes having fast broadband.

“Given that we’re neither a dictatorship or a city-state, that’s remarkable,” said Matthew Gould, director general for digital and media at the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Part of this effort is a push to educate more data scientists both at the masters and doctoral level, and encouraging people from different disciplines to get into the arena

The UK’s goal now is to train one thousand Ph.D.’s in AI by 2025.

Building Ethics into AI

The British plan also calls for the creation of a new Center for Ethics and Innovation to help guide the use of AI going forward – a critical factor given the recent  Facebook/Cambridge Analytics situation. Presumably, this organization would help AI innovators think through possible unintended consequences of their work before it is broadly deployed.

People want government to set rules to help companies innovate but also protect against abuses.  “We must make sure we keep the faith and enthusiasm of our citizens. There is a chance we can lose that,” Gould said.

“If this is to prosper, ethics have to be built in from the start. It’s clear there is public concern about AI going bad. There are things the public already finds creepy or potentially worse about AI. “We have to prove we’ve thought this through and discussed how this should work,” he said.

This is a thorny problem. The UK, one of the most heavily surveilled countries in the world by virtue of its CC-TV networks, has experience trying to balance public safety with privacy.

The US, home to many of the innovators in AI, also invests heavily in the arena.

Frank Gens, senior vice president and chief analyst for market research firm IDC, says there is now a common understanding that AI is crucial across public and private sectors.

“AI is as fundamental as electricity to the future of national economies as well as companies.  We need policies that balance mining data for insights against privacy” he said.

Barbara Darrow, who has reported on business technology for more than 20 years, is now a senior director of communications for Oracle Corp.

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