Will China surpass the US in AI technology? Mason experts weigh in.

The United States and China recognize artificial intelligence (AI) as critical to the future of the global economy and military. But the United States needs to speed up its development efforts and invest significantly more in research to remain the world leader, said George Mason University computer science professors Amarda Shehu and Craig Yu.

China released a policy note in 2017 predicting it would be the world leader in AI by 2030. A new report shows China is about a decade ahead of schedule, based on its output of highly cited research papers, which will soon be greater than those coming out of the United States.

One reason China is outpacing its prediction is because of the strategic plan of China’s State Council, Shehu and Yu agreed.

“Washington [D.C.] needs to take a page out of Beijing’s plan and accompany their strategic plan with strategic investments,” Shehu said.

China’s plan mentions more specifics on how investments will be made in AI research and technologies than America’s Artificial Intelligence Initiative does, Shehu said.   

China’s investments, including their latest $30 billion venture capital fund, impact state-owned firms, academic and research institutions, commercial companies and startups, Yu said.

“With abundant funding support, government policy support and a big market to serve, some of these entities are able to grow very fast in a very short amount of time,” said Shehu, who gave the example of Sensetime, a Beijing-based company focusing on computer vision technologies that started in 2014 and is now valued at more than $4.5 billion.

But the news that China is expected to exceed the United States in AI research publications doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be the next world leader in AI, Yu said.

“One needs to consider the impact and innovative side of research publications,” he said. “A significant amount of the most innovative breakthroughs in AI algorithms are still originating in U.S. research institutes—these U.S. institutes also have the largest pool of leading AI researchers.”

There is another challenge for the United States, Shehu said.

“Fundamental AI research happens at U.S. institutions, but it is becoming harder for these institutions to retain their best talent,” Shehu said, adding that a significant amount of AI professionals and PhD graduates choose industry jobs with lucrative benefits instead of staying in academia.

The trend could have a long-term impact as “we may not have enough professors to nurture the next generation of computer scientists and AI visionaries,” Shehu said.

“Universities need to make competitive offers to retain research talent, and it’s imperative to motivate undergraduate students to pursue graduate studies in computer science related fields, including AI,” Yu said. “This is key to maintaining a sustainable talent and innovation pipeline that propels the whole industry and research community.”

Amarda Shehu can be reached at 703-993-4135 or ashehu@gmu.edu.

Craig Yu can be reached at 703-993-4813 or craigyu@gmu.edu.

​For more information, contact Mariam Aburdeineh at 703-993-9518 or maburdei@gmu.edu

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. For more information visit gmu.edu.