We hosted our CDO-Circle, a gathering of key Chief Data Officers (and other senior D&A leaders) last week, during our UK Data and Analytics Conference. I was asked to join a panel and explore their most pressing concerns and questions. Technology was a topic of course, but so too was information; in fact information was much hotter than technology.
The hottest topic, the one that led to more CDOs joining the conversation, was China. More specifically the question was more akin to what is the challenge or opportunity with China? As I learned after the Conference (in another forum), the question of “China” can either be one of threat, or opportunity, based on how you start the conversation. For example, just after China joined the WTO, China was mostly talked about as an opportunity: adding a working population to the WTO with low wages would help keep global wages down and thus prompt low inflation. And this is what happened.
But even this ‘good news’ had a threatening edge. The influx of low wage workers led to displacement of higher-wage workers in parts of the world; the US has experienced this in spades and, due to lack of political foresight and planning, there are pockets of unemployed communities suffering from such globalization. Economically China and the WTO was an opportunity; politically for the US, China and the WTO was a challenge.
During the CDO circle, a D&A leader asked, “What of China and AI?” It was a great question and it led to the longest and most enthusiastic dialog across the group. Only the other day I had blogged on AI and China; from the EU perspective. See AI is increasingly a National Priority
After a few minutes of gentle exploration and meandering around the edges, I spoke up. “Re China and AI- I am scared,” I said. Technically I am not scared and it was not the right word anyway; what I should have said is that I am significantly concerned and I am constantly watching for news about China, IT, and AI. Even if you are a mostly-domestic business, China in context to AI represents both a notable threat and opportunity.
Clearly we don’t understand, we can’t relate well, to the country’s political model. It is an alien model, mostly. I would argue that the American form of capitalism is certainly not based on a totally free market since we operate in a heavily regulated and controlled environment; public policy is not uniformly reconciled to economic growth. But China is even more directed, controlled, and organized. AI is being seen by many nations as a significant innovation and so political energies are being spent on investing in and protecting it. As I noted in my blog the week, why else would Germany, a generally free market proponent, talk of industrial policy in this area?
The Economist reported some time ago that China has, as a single ‘market’, more data to hand than does the US or the EU. See In the struggle for AI supremacy, China will prevail. If firms in China could master investment, research, development and application of AI, theory would suggest China might become dominant in many markets. But China is also a huge opportunity. It is rapidly developing nation with a huge population, much of which wants in part to be more like the rest of the world (even if its political masters want to minimize that likelihood). China invests abroad; its citizens travel and live among us. China is a cultural bonanza of excitement and discovery. We will always learn by understanding more about each other.
But the risks keep coming. Two days ago in the US print edition of the Wall Street Journal is an article with the headline: China Gains on US in AI. Apparently China is catching up the US in terms of how many of the top 10 per cent most cited AI papers. The US used to be the source for 47% of the top 10 per cent of most cited papers in 1982 (not sure why that year was chosen). That is now down to 29% while China is up to 26%.
The growth of cited research output from China is not intrinsically bad. We can all learn from each other. There will be opportunities abound for all, even if risks remain. This is the same for AI, whatever the country, whatever the situation. The only thing we can rely on to be true is change, and the trade-off between threat and opportunity. From that perspective, this time is little different to any other. So if you are like me, you watch for news from and about China with guarded optimism: What is being research? What data is being used? What outcomes are being explored? Will firms in China, facing fewer controls than many western firms, be able to innovate in places others cannot? These are all interesting questions – we live in the most interesting of times….
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