In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Earth’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. The craft was no bigger than a beach ball, but it spurred the US into a frenzy of research and investment that would eventually put humans on the Moon. Sixty years later, the world might have had its second “Sputnik moment.” But this time, it’s not the US receiving the wake-up call, but China; and the goal is not the exploration of space, but the creation of artificial intelligence.
The second Sputnik arrived in the form of AlphaGo, the AI system developed by Google-owned DeepMind. In 2016, AlphaGo beat South Korean master Lee Se-dol at the ancient Chinese board game Go, and in May this year, it toppled the Chinese world champion, Ke Jie. Two professors who consult with the Chinese government on AI policy told The New York Times that these games galvanized the country’s politicians to invest in the technology. And the report the pair helped shape — published last month — makes China’s ambitions in this area clear: the country says it will become the world’s leader in AI by 2030.
“It’s a very realistic ambition,” Anthony Mullen, a director of research at analyst firm Gartner, tells The Verge. “Right now, AI is a two-horse race between China and the US.” And, says Mullen, China has all the ingredients it needs to move into first. These include government funding, a massive population, a lively research community, and a society that seems primed for technological change. And it all invites the trillion-dollar question: in the coming AI Race, can China really beat the US?