Big guns

April 29, 2019
The ongoing trade war between the United States and China could have a profound impact on China’s AI aspirations.

This is an extract from “The ecosystem“, the first report of the four-part series, “Asia’s AI agenda”, by MIT Technology Review Insights.

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China could have a profound impact on China’s AI aspirations. On one hand, China’s lead in device manufacturing is unparalleled, as is its indelible concentration of other key aspects of global technology supply chains, such as complex assembly and chipset testing. On the other, higher function microchip development and other related technology is still largely the purview of companies in the United States and East Asia, and the recent tensions have meant that Chinese enterprise access to this is limited.

Should the geopolitical wedge persist, some AI industry observers predict negative outcomes for all players. “China enables (AI) to develop faster because of the scale of what it can discover and how it can use its population to get there,” says Jonathan Woetzel, director at the McKinsey Global Institute. “This might be the area in which it becomes indispensable for product development globally,” and that for players who do not fully engage with China’s AI ecosystem, “it’s going to be very hard to be successful in things that we think are globally scalable solutions.”

“China enables AI to develop faster because of the scale of what it can discover and how it can use its population to get there.”

Jonathan Woetzel, Director, McKinsey Global Institute, and senior partner, McKinsey & Company, Shanghai

Will Knight, senior editor for artificial intelligence at MIT Technology Review, believes that the trade war will expedite China’s independence with regard to chips. “China seems to be making significant progress,” he says, “especially in application-specific AI chips (those used to do inference on devices). Evidence for this can be seen in Huawei’s latest Kirin chip, and in the devices demonstrated by startups including Cambricon and Horizon Robotics. It’s essential for the country to master cutting-edge chipmaking if it wants to become a real tech superpower.”