Understanding, reasoning, learning

The Asian economies’ race for Artificial Intelligence leadership

For many years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) – an area of information technology that develops technological systems able to autonomously carry out tasks and activities typically performed by the human brain – has been recognised by state and economic leaders as one of the major driving forces of innovation and development. AI technologies promise, and partly deliver, a wide range of applications: from Artificial Intelligence Marketing (AIM) to logistics, from health care to financial services and financial technology (Fintech). The race to adopt AI and achieve leadership in this sector involves both the West and Asia in terms of investments and start-ups: the number of “young” businesses in the AI field is an important indicator of the sector’s development in individual countries as well as the level of preparation and specialisation of their respective work forces. According to a study of European political institutions by consulting firms Roland Berger and Asgard Capital, today the USA is the undisputed leader with over 1,390 start-ups active in the country while China is the runner up with 383 start-ups. Other leading countries include Israel (362 start-ups), the United Kingdom (245), Japan (113), India (82) and South Korea (42). Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Seoul, Singapore and Bangalore, which collectively host over 500 businesses in the field of AI development and its applications, are among the Asian cities disputing the status of regional AI hub.

South-East Asia has been investing in the sector for many years and has seen a constant increase in the output of patents since 2013, according to a study published by Clarivate Analytics. The region has produced 24,000 patents in the AI field, 86 percent of which are from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Singapore alone produced 77 percent of the total number of patents from the ASEAN area and over 40 percent of research in the field. However, in South-East Asia, as well as Japan and India, there is a lack of public fund investments such as that supplied by the Chinese government: last year, Beijing implemented a three-point plan to secure global leadership in the field of AI by the year 2030 with the aim of creating a 150 billion dollar market. The plan’s first phase, forecasted for the year 2020, will develop new generation AI theories and technology in order to reach a turning point over the following five years and “update the industry and achieve economic transformation”. The plan is powered by ambitious investments, such as the 2.3 billion dollars for a new AI research centre in Beijing and the 5 billion dollars for a second hub in the port city of Tianjin. According to estimations from “Asia Times”, Beijing has provided over half of global investments in the field of AI over the past five years. However, China still has to face significant structural disadvantages, such as the lack of chip ownership. Large enterprises such as Baidu, the e-commerce giant Alibaba and household electronic appliance producer Gree Electric Appliances have started taking initiatives in an attempt to solve this vulnerability. Huawei Technologies issued a challenge to the main global producers of semiconductors by introducing the Ascend 910, a microchip designed for AI in data centres which the company claims offers the highest computing density in the world. Asia’s major economies are attempting to keep up with China. In order to avoid losing its status as leader in the semiconductor sector, South Korea, with nearly 100% of internet penetration and the first national network, will invest 2 billion dollars in AI research by 2022.

Japanese government investments in AI equal just 20 percent of Chinese investments, whereas private investments reach 5.4 billion dollars. The Japanese government has entrusted development to businesses and academic institutions and is concentrating on paving the way for the definition of AI operational regulations, an as yet undefined field aimed at dealing with issues such a privacy. Japanese progress in these regulations has attracted the interest of the European Union, said European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen in October. The EU and Japan signed an economic partnership agreement this year and committed to continue dialogue regarding industry and trade. Katainen participated in the first of these dialogue sessions which was also attended by Japan’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Economy, Taro Kono and Hiroshige Seko. AI is a priority topic in the dialogue, said Katainen. Tokyo has already set up a committee for the regulation of AI-linked technology. Last month, the committee adopted a draft of new legal guidelines prohibiting any violation of fundamental human rights by AI and citing the importance of carefully managing personal information and guaranteeing the security of AI.