Is China Beating America to AI Supremacy?

Is China Beating America to AI Supremacy?

Beijing is not just trying to master artificial intelligence—it is succeeding. AI will have as transformative an impact on commerce and national security over the next two decades as semiconductors, computers and the web have had over the past quarter century.


As we try to think about the path of unconstrained competition, five unanswered questions leave us uneasy.

First, could the creation of machines a thousand times smarter than humans lead to any one of the cataclysmic dystopias now popular in sci-fi? We have seen numerous examples: from the Terminator franchise’s Skynet, a self-aware network that decides to kill its human creators, to artificial general intelligence that outwits humanity to reverse the relationship between commander and commanded. We are skeptical. But we are also aware that we have watched what we once thought were clear distinctions between sci-fi and fact erode faster than we could have imagined.


Second is “Kissinger’s Specter.” As admirers of America’s greatest living statesman, we have been inspired by the readiness of someone who recently turned ninety-six to try to understand enough of the technology to think seriously about its implications. In his words, “The Age of Reason originated the thoughts and actions that shaped the contemporary world order. But that order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with...” We underline the question he poses: “Will AI, left to its own devices, inevitably develop slight deviations that could, over time, cascade into catastrophic departures?”

Third, should the current stage of the AI race in which the United States and China are peer competitors be recognized as a second “Stimson moment?” In the same month he dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, President Harry Truman recognized that America’s atomic monopoly would be fleeting. Fearful that a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union could end in nuclear Armageddon, he asked his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to think seriously about sharing this monopoly with the emerging Soviet adversary. That effort failed. A similar effort to find ways in which the United States and China could jointly develop military applications of AI might also founder. But given the risks, shouldn’t we explore an analogous effort?

Fourth, if an AI race between the United States and China essentially follows the path of the U.S. and Soviet rivalry in developing and deploying nuclear weapons, is there likely to be a plateau equivalent to mad: mutual assured destruction? As each superpower in the nuclear race rapidly acquired a robust second-strike arsenal, they found themselves locked in a stalemate. Neither could launch a nuclear attack on the other without triggering a response that would destroy itself. Technology thus created an overriding shared interest in avoiding the nuclear war of which both would have been the ultimate victims. Despite its high costs and extreme risks, this condition contributed to a certain caution and stability in the “long peace” of the past seven decades without great power war. In AI, we have not been able to identify any analogous plateau.

Fifth, are there unrecognized shared interests between the United States and China that should lead them to adapt and apply lessons from the Cold War? Through a series of close calls, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear superpowers discovered their mutual interest in preventing misperceptions, misunderstandings and accidents from dragging them into a war they were determined to avoid. They developed new ways to communicate (the hotline), to constrain deployments of particular weapons (arms control treaties), and even to cooperate in preventing other nations or terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons (the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). As the United States searches for a viable strategy to establish and sustain a position of leadership in AI, we believe that the risks inherent in an unconstrained AI race should motivate far-sighted Americans and Chinese to seriously explore together potentially safer alternatives, perhaps in the process helping to shape a new U.S.-China relationship.

IS AI a race China is destined to win? With a population four times the size of the United States, there is no question that China will have the largest domestic market for AI applications. With many multiples of the United States in data, substantially larger numbers of computer scientists and a government for which there is a first-order priority, we can understand colleagues who are pessimistic. Indeed, it is our best judgment that on the current trajectory, while the United States will maintain a narrow lead over the next five years, China will then catch up and pass us quickly thereafter.

Nonetheless, we believe that this is an arena in which the United States can compete—and win. Congress recently established the “National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence,” with Eric Schmidt as its chair, and Bob Work—who served as deputy secretary of defense under both Obama and Trump—as vice chair. Its mission is to develop that strategy “to ensure America’s national security enterprise has the tools it needs to maintain U.S. global leadership.” In the hope of being helpful to that effort, we conclude with five pointers toward a winning strategy.

First, Americans must wake up to the challenge. Recognition that the United States faces a serious competitor in a contest in which the outcome will be decisive for our future is necessary to get our competitive juices flowing. The Olympics offers an instructive analogy for thinking about a competitive strategy for AI. It also reminds us that competition is inherently a good thing. Competition produces superior performance. Participants in a marathon run faster than they do when running alone. Indeed, competition is a core American value. Free markets organize a competitive process that produces better products at cheaper prices. Science and its applications advance as research teams compete to better understand the world.

Second, in this competition, the United States cannot hope to be the biggest—in that category, China wins by default due to the size of its population. However, what the United States can be is the smartest. In seeking to improve and advance the most advanced of technologies, the brightest 0.0001 percent of individuals make the difference. The United States can succeed by recruiting talent from all 7.7 billion people on Earth and enabling these individuals to realize their full potential. In fact, U.S. companies have now recruited more than half of the top one hundred recognized AI geniuses. In sharp contrast, China is a closed society—limited essentially to 1.4 billion Chinese speakers. Just one thousand foreign-born individuals became Chinese citizens last year. So while the United States will not win competitions in which bulk numbers are the dominant factor, where brilliance, creativity and innovation matter most, the United States has a decisive advantage.

Third, platforms matter. Here the United States begins with a huge sustainable competitive advantage: English is the universal language for science, business and the web. Chinese face the choice of either speaking English, or simply talking to themselves. Not only do the Chinese, but also the French and others often complain that this is unfair—and it may be. But it is a fact. To transform Singapore from a third-world city into one of the world’s most successful and prosperous global trading hubs, Lee Kuan Yew insisted on making English its first language. (Indeed, at one point in counseling Chinese leaders, he suggested that China make English its first language.) Today, more than half of the 7.7 billion people on Earth speak English—and another billion are seeking to learn.

Fourth, American companies have a significant first-mover advantage in the establishment of the major platforms in AI, including operating systems (Android and Apple), design of advanced semiconductors (ARM), and killer apps—including Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Instagram has 1 billion monthly active users; Facebook more than 2.4 billion. While Chinese competitors will certainly attempt to displace the current leaders in both platforms and applications, if American companies are smart enough to continue enlarging their users’ opportunities, improving their experiences, and expanding the number of people using their platforms and applications, Chinese and others who want to speak to the world could have to continue relying on U.S.-dominated platforms.

Fifth, while competing vigorously with the intention of sustaining U.S. leadership, we must recognize at the same time the necessity of cooperation in areas where neither the United States nor China can secure its own minimum vital national interests without the help of the other. The consequences of human energy consumption on the climate offer a vivid illustration. If either the United States or China keeps emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate, in one hundred years, this could produce a biosphere in which neither nation can survive. Thus there is no viable alternative to cooperation. The same is true in other realms including preventing third-party provocations—for example, in North Korea or Taiwan—from dragging the United States and China into a catastrophic war; and cooperation to prevent recurring financial crises like the Great Recession of 2008 from cascading into another Great Depression. We suspect there may be an analog in limiting the unconstrained advance of AI.

The possibility that nations could simultaneously compete ruthlessly, on the one hand, while cooperating intensely, on the other, sounds to diplomats like a contradiction. In the world of business, however, it is called life. While no one has yet developed a felicitous term for what is sometimes called “coopetition,” Apple and Samsung offer a powerful example. The two are ruthless rivals in the global market for smartphones (where, in fact, over the past five years Samsung has become number one). But who is Apple’s largest supplier of components for smartphones? Samsung. Managing a relationship that is simultaneously competitive and cooperative requires vigilance, judgment and agility in adapting. But if, as we believe the evidence shows, technologies on a small globe have left the United States and China with two—and only two—options, we believe they can find ways to coexist, however uncomfortably, if their only alternative is mutual destruction.