Beijing is backing its artificial intelligence push with vast sums of money.
Having already spent billions on research programs, China is readying a new multibillion-dollar initiative to fund moonshot projects, start-ups and academic research, all with the aim of growing China’s A.I. capabilities, according to two professors who consulted with the government on the plan.
China’s private companies are pushing deeply into the field as well, though the line between government and private in China sometimes blurs. Baidu — often called the Google of China and a pioneer in artificial-intelligence-related fields, like speech recognition — this year opened a joint company-government laboratory partly run by academics who once worked on research into Chinese military robots.
China is spending more just as the United States cuts back. This past week, the Trump administration released a proposed budget that would slash funding for a variety of government agencies that have traditionally backed artificial intelligence research.
“It’s a race in the new generation of computing,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The difference is that China seems to think it’s a race and America doesn’t.”
For Mr. Schwertfeger, the money mattered. He received a grant six times larger than what he might have gotten in Europe or America. That enabled him to set up a full artificial intelligence lab, with an assistant, a technician and a group of Ph.D. students.
“It’s almost impossible for assistant professors to get this much money,” he said. “The research funding is shrinking in the U.S. and Europe. But it is definitely expanding in China.”
Mr. Schwertfeger’s lab, which is part of ShanghaiTech University, works on ways for machines, without any aid from humans, to avoid obstacles. Decked out with wheeled robots, drones and sensors, the lab works on ways for computers to make their own maps and to improve the performance of robots with tasks like finding objects — specifically, people — during search-and-rescue operations.
Much of China’s artificial intelligence push is similarly peaceful. Still, its prowess and dedication have set off alarms within the United States’ defense establishment. The Defense Department found that Chinese money has been pouring into American artificial intelligence companies — some of the same ones it had been looking to for future weapons systems.
Learn more: Is China Outsmarting America in A.I.?
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