The artificial intelligence race has kept the world watching in rapt attention. Will the People’s Republic of China beat the United States of America? If so, what are the implications? Kai-fu Lee, a former executive at Apple, SGI, Microsoft, and Google, argues in his novel AI Superpowers that China will outpace America in terms of AI development thanks to abundant data, eager entrepreneurs, well-educated and trained scientists, and a supportive policy landscape. However, the debate must be reframed: it’s not a battle between the United States and China, but it instead appears to be a tug-of-war between seven technology companies—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft on the American team and Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent on the Chinese side. Kai-fu Lee highlights these seven companies as ones spearheading the movement.
Dive into this game further and the key players become clearer: it’s not even between the seven companies listed above. It’s simply a race of two giants pioneering access to consumer goods: Amazon and Alibaba. Ultimately, these two companies’ combination of consumer data and extraordinarily precise supply chains have not only shaped retail, but they are also mastering the so-called third level of AI called perception. In AI Superpowers, Kai-fu Lee describes four layers of AI:
Internet as a recommendation agent (e.g., Gmail providing suggestions when drafting emails)
Business applications, especially with big data
Perception, in particular facial recognition and speech recognition
Autonomous hardware, such as self-driving cars
The third AI layer illustrates the increasing complexity of AI and its use. When thinking of how these two companies are improving “perception,” Alexa already comes to mind, but can Amazon take it further? How does Alibaba plan to catch up? Or is it already ahead?
As the United States government has put AI development on the backburner, Chairman Xi Jinping has pledged to build a $1 trillion industry by 2030. The U.S. is cutting funding for research and education overall; this, along with stricter immigration policies, can be a detriment to the country. The current state of America raises many questions on how it should deal with this situation.
Should the U.S. approach developing AI from the lens of the military? While the Department of Defense traditionally developed cutting-edge technology, it most likely cannot compete in the way it used to during the Cold War. There is already discussion that the U.S. is more likely to spend on maintaining and upgrading mature systems and underinvest in technological breakthroughs. Instead, the innovation hub is clearly Silicon Valley, with smaller hubs appearing in cities across the country.
Should President Donald Trump sharply criticize Amazon? Most certainly not. Trump and Xi have opposite views with regards to dealing with these major technology companies. Already, we see the Chinese leader steering the technology sector to maintain a competitive position in the global arena. In contrast, Trump has lacked a clear direction when it comes to his approach to technology.
Should American regulators discuss the breakup of “Big Tech”? A radical idea, but definitely the most harmful. These technology companies, especially Amazon, have amassed influence because of their talent and overwhelming presence. Splitting them up will lead to weaker and smaller companies. On the other hand, Chinese conglomerates will continue achieving scale and eventually overtake these smaller, broken-up companies.
More broadly, how can local governments balance support of Amazon and the economic benefits it brings while also protecting constituents? As Chinese cities are embracing technology companies’ involvement into their day-to-day lives, American cities are doing the opposite. The best example is of Amazon and its plan to build its second headquarters in New York City. Amazon eventually scrapped the project, ultimately forcing Amazon to focus on expanding to Virginia. These types of political debates, while certainly healthy in democratic societies, eventually slow down progress in the long term. Amazon was unlocking a lot of potential in New York by tapping into a unique labor pool and accelerating expansion; however, its citizens prevented it from executing. Thus, if cities want to be competitive and support the overall effort to improve technology, they have to be much more supportive of the private companies and be willing to let them grow quickly.
The more regulation, whether from the government or society, America puts in place, the more its citizens effectively halt the progress of artificial intelligence. As Amazon attempts to take one step forward, current social and political forces it to take two steps back. Currently, Amazon and Alibaba have comparable levels of technology thanks to their access to consumer data, but that won’t be for long. Amazon will soon be left in the dust as Alibaba races to the AI finish line.