A Chinese Perspective: Is the U.S. Ahead in AI?

Article By : Rick Merritt

Your competitive position in the global rush to deep learning varies depending on where you sit, according to a story of recent articles in EE Times China.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — While some engineers — and politicians — in the U.S. express concerns that China is getting ahead of them in AI, engineers in China appear to have similar concerns about their U.S. counterparts.

A look at the most popular AI stories in our sister publication EE Times-China in the period from Nov. 25, 2018, to Feb. 25, 2019, shows that six out of 10 articles had a similar thread — China may be behind the U.S. in AI.

For example, the third most popular story of the period was a roundup of textbooks on AI for K–12 students. One volume covered Python, Java, and TensorFlow, including input from Google engineers. A second set aimed to appeal to young readers with titles such as “The Magical Animals on AI,” “AI Super Engineer,” and “The Hero of AI — Python.”

The story also described primary and secondary textbooks in Suzhou covering a wide range of tech topics including AI in medicine, VR, 3D printing, robotics, and even gene splicing. In addition, the story said that middle schools in Shanghai are piloting Python courses.

But the article wasn’t bragging about China’s prowess in STEM. Rather, it noted that “about 67.5% of children in U.S. K–12 schools are engaged in online programming classes … Scratch, the world’s leading programming language for children, has the highest penetration rate in the U.S. market, reaching 44.80%, 9.31% in the U.K., and 0.96% in China.”

The fourth most popular AI story of the period was a Jan. 24 report that iFlyTek, considered one of China’s most promising AI startups, laid off 30% of its staff. It noted charges, denied by the company, that the layoffs failed to follow China employment laws. The layoffs came after declining financial performance that resulted in the company’s stock losing two-thirds of its value.

China AI texts
A new series of textbooks in China bring AI to K–12 students. (Images: EE Times-China)

Coming in second in a novel cucumber race

The fifth most popular AI story of the period was a Dec. 24 report on a competition in the Netherlands that China’s Tencent lost to Microsoft. Wageningen University pitted AI systems against a professional horticulturalist to see who could grow the most greenhouse cucumbers between Aug. 27 and Dec. 7 last year.

Tencent and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences came in second to Microsoft and partners — the only team with a yield of more than 50 kg per square meter. The story noted that China has the world’s largest collection of greenhouses, covering more than 3 million hectares.

The competition was motivated in part by a belief that climate change could drive more agriculture to greenhouses in urban areas. The story noted that Google’s venture group led a $90 million investment round in Bowery, a company that uses AI to grow crops and plans to open vertical farms near U.S. cities in 2019.

Tencent cucumbers
Tencent came in second to Microsoft in growing cucumbers with AI — but both web giants beat human farmers.

The seventh most popular AI story of the period was a feature on the outlook for emerging technologies, led by AI. It noted the rising trade wars with the U.S. and how Amazon and Google were early to market in the emerging category of smart speakers.

The story noted that Alibaba, Baidu, Haier, and others are now fielding their own smart speakers. It said the relatively high price of Baidu’s first-generation product led to its “devastating failure.” A new, smaller, and cheaper model grew Baidu’s market share last year, and the web giant is expanding with partnerships with smartphone makers Huawei, OPPO, Vivo, and others.

The ninth most popular AI story of the period was a Feb. 13 report on a list of the 100 most promising AI companies by a Silicon Valley researcher. It included only six from China and only one chip company, Horizon Robotics.

Other China companies who made the list were 4Paradigm, Face++, Momenta, SenseTime, and YITU Tech. China was up from just four companies on the list in 2017. This year, Israel and the U.K. also had six companies on the list, while the U.S. had a whopping 77.

Interestingly, five of the China companies were among 11 total companies on the list with valuations over a billion dollars, putting them in the so-called unicorn category. In addition, one of the China companies raised the most financing in the past year, a whopping US$1.63, compared to $608 million and $574 for the next two, both from the U.S.

The top two stories of the period were eyebrow raisers that had little to do with U.S./China competition in AI. One was a report on a Tesla and a robot that collided at the Consumer Electronics Show, despite use of AI in both products. Another was a report on MediaTek’s P90 smartphone application processor, touted as beating both Huawei and Qualcomm chips on AI benchmarks, a case of Taiwan getting ahead of both China and the U.S.

Another top story, ranking No. 6 for the period, was something of an anomaly — a report on Google CEO Sundar Pichai explaining to Congress why a search for “idiot” returned results that included pictures of President Trump.

In general, EE Times China editors find that news articles related to events, companies, and commercially available products tend to get the most page views, said Luffy Liu, an associate chief analyst of EE Times China who compiled the top 10 list at the request of EE Times editors in the U.S.

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