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China’s AI Awakening (technologyreview.com)
186 points by eaxitect on Oct 27, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 175 comments



Key competitive advantages of China are their strength in quantitative skills, a huge population, and the hard working and competitive culture of the populace.

An objective measure is PISA results [1]. When comparing with even the best performing US state, Massachusetts, China has many more top performers in Math, as a proportion of population [2].

(In 2015 only four provinces of China participated, but their combined population was 230 million vs Massachusetts's 6.8 million. The math result of Shanghai (24 million pop.) alone would show an even larger gap.)

Since PISA results are scaled such that OECD country's mean is 500 and standard deviation is 100, China's 531 math score implies country mean at 0.3 SD above PISA mean, and US' math score at 470 implies 0.3 SD below mean. If people capable of doing AI research or proper AI implementation need to have math skills at, say, 2 SD above PISA mean, then there will be a tremendous difference in proportion between two populations with 0.6 SD difference.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming above figures, is the proportion will be about five times as large. But China has more than 4 times the population of the US, so the difference in potential numbers of AI-capable natives could be around 20 times. (Since other provinces may drag down China's mean, it could be a bit less. An opposite influence is increasing wealth and thus more resources devoted to education, both by parents and the state. We'll see soon since China as a whole will participate in PISA 2018.)

Moreover, the Chinese government is pushing AI and programming education into their education system, starting from the primary level [3].

The distinct advantage of the US is that it is the magnet for top talents and ambitious people from all over the world, including the Chinese, so it might continue to lead for a while. However, if the US becomes inhospitable to talents or potential talents, it is clear that China with its quality and quantity of human resources will soon take the lead.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_St...

[2] http://www.compareyourcountry.org/pisa/country/usa1?lg=en

[3] http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/0828/c90000-9261282.html


Also, my previous comment in a thread on China's progress in quantum computing: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15535241

China's advances in AI are impressive as well. A ranking based on publications at top conferences from 2012 to present (2017) has both Beijing and Tsinghua University in the world's top 5.

http://csrankings.org/#/index?ai&vision&mlmining&nlp

(The starting year in the link needs to be changed to 2012.)

Many of the top researchers in US academia are mainland Chinese. I wonder if they will be enticed back home when the Chinese government has managed to reduce the pollution in their major cities down to healthy levels. It appears that the salary for top people there, especially those with experience at major Western institutions, is comparable to those in the US in nominal terms, and the research funding is easier to get.


This article adds nothing new to the discussion about AI.

* We knew about Tencent's AI Lab (Saying you need your own capabilities is another way of saying: We have NIH and we will waste 3 years building our own framework from the bottom up).

* We knew about China's AI plan, which was announced in July. That was huge news at the time.

* We knew about Baidu, but Baidu is actually slipping. They lost Andrew Ng and Adam Coates, and frankly they have executed poorly on social media and cloud computing compared to Tencent and Ali. It looks like they'll lose their lead in AI.

And the article actually contradicts its own sub-headline: "The West shouldn’t fear China’s artificial-intelligence revolution. It should copy it." The West is leading in AI research, and China is copying the West. So what does it mean that the West should copy China? China is playing catch up in AI just like it has been playing catch up in GDP growth. Catching up always moves faster than blazing a trail. The West is blazing a trail now. They don't have much to learn from players trying to catch up.


>so what does it mean that the West should copy China?

I don't think you're addressing OPs point at all. They pointed out that the US currently does have the lead in the field due to its larger prosperity for the most part, but that China is rapidly developing more talent.

What we should copy is thus not the technical status quo, but our attitude towards education and talent acquisition in the relevant fields.Technical advantages are not self-perpetuating. If the West grows complacent and does not develop the talent necessary to advance the research, then that lead will reverse.


No. The US has the lead because its competitive advantage in the world economy is exporting innovation. That's what it's good at. The Chinese economy is outperforming the American one in many ways, but the US enjoys a more open society and economy, which encourage innovation. No one would ever say that the West should be complacent, but people are making a big deal out of the Chinese AI push, exaggerating it in a way, and that aligns with more widespread fear-mongering about China. In reality, corruption, chaos and censorship continue to hold China back more than is being reported.


As an Indian, India's performance in the PISA test is simultaneously both humiliating and horrifying. India ended up near the bottom of the test when it first took it. Cause for concern? Sure! What did the government of India do? They pulled out of the test citing that it was "unfair" to the Indian students. Around 70 odd nations apparently didn't have this problem.

I have come to think that the country barely has a government at all. We're somehow coping amidst the chaos.


This is a very cynical view, Indian government (central) is and never will be effective, its the structure of India. People feel well governed at district level/zilla parishads. Given the size of country, there should be more push for decentralization, but every Indian politician and his dog loves centralization.


There is no hope for India. In 100 years it will be the same. Best hope is to migrate to Silicon Valley


pardon my ignorance, but what is the specific correlation of math skills to dominance in AI ? yes, AI/ML/dnn uses substantial amounts of linear algebra, much the way accountancy uses large amounts of arithmetic. but we don’t see mathematicians racing to be accountants. i have specifically written to several math departments in the US asking if they do any sort of AI/ML related graduate research. Even schools that offer courses like “math of deep learning” are happy to confess that this is just a bait - they are using that course title to hook more students to sign up, but the course content is plain old eigenvalues and matrix decompositions and what used to previously be called “advanced linear algebra”. you aren’t likely to get any AI breakthroughs from math folks - that is simply not the focus of math depts. i have correspondended with several COLT folks who deal with the theoretical end of sgd/neural nets/ statistical learning, and even there the correlation with math is expendable.

now if you are talking statistics, in particular applied statistics, most of those departments are retooling by hiring ml folks from csee departments. but the bread and butter courses required to get a stat phd remain the same as they were a decade ago - 2 core inference courses, 2 core math-stat measure theoretic courses, 2 courses on experimental stats. literally no stat dept mandates an ML course, though a few do allow ml as an elective. now, all of this can and will change over the next few years, but its very early days.

essentially, predicating ai dominance on raw math skills is a mistake. there’s no significant correlation.


The PISA test (at least when I took it) measures math skills in calculation, i.e. the kind of applied mathematics that academic departments write off as too trivial. Nonetheless, those are the skills that are required for Deep Learning as well as accountancy.

You could make an argument that high performers on the PISA test would find AI and accountancy too boring and would go into pure mathematics instead; but I don't think those proportions would be different between countries, so a higher potential (schoolchildren with good math skills) should still translate into more AI researchers, on average.


> those are the skills that are required for Deep Learning

Why do you believe that?


Rereading that, I should have worded it as "those are skills that are required for Deep Learning research". There are of course a bunch of other skills you need to be successful, but you won't get far without being comfortable with linear algebra and calculus.

To answer your question, I believe that because I haven't yet seen a Deep Learning paper which did not couch its results in terms of those, even if it might not have been strictly necessary. If you do not understand the basics of current approaches, you'll have a hard time developing them further.


We are not talking about the level of professional mathematicians or ML theory researchers you mentioned [1]. An average person, in the overall population, is unlikely to pass or possess the prerequisites (e.g. two semesters of college calculus) to attend the linear algebra course in the first place [2] [3].

For simple, routine applications, one can call machine learning APIs without deep understanding of the math behind them. In most real world applications, however, input data tend to be messy and there are many complications and constraints to satisfy. For the foreseeable future, applying machine learning in the real world requires input from humans who understand the why's and the how's behind an API.

For more advanced work, reading papers is necessary and most of the recent machine learning papers contain substantial math (from the viewpoint of an average person, not a professional mathematician).

In addition, math skills, at the basic level that PISA measures, are highly correlated with logical thinking, which will be relevant for AI engineering for a long time to come.

[1] There are perhaps fewer than 100,000 professional mathematicians in the US out of over 100 million knowledge workers there. https://mathoverflow.net/questions/5485/how-many-mathematici...

[2] https://www.noodle.com/articles/the-problem-with-college-cal...

[3] http://hechingerreport.org/high-failure-rates-spur-universit...


I'm going to get smashed into the ground for saying this, but a lot of psychology research has found that East Asians have a higher average IQ than caucasians. That's known to be a strong predictor of success at math at school and surely has something to do with ML.


The US will continue to cut funding for research and higher education in general. This will give China the edge in almost every level and attract top researchers back. The US is losing its edge.


I only hope the "Sputnik Moment" comes before we give away control of the next major economic sector that technology creates.


> The US will continue to cut funding for research and higher education in general

And for K-12 education, which is necessary for preparing students for higher education. What proportion of Americans go to schools which give them little chance at high-tech jobs?


Is there any evidence that higher spending in education actually improves student learning outcomes? I'm pretty sure we spend more per capita on our students than China does atm anyway.


Just wait until they apply that talent to go all Minority Report with social control and their Sesame Credit system. It'll be way easier than with crime; look at the wealth of information on social media, and people want to be listened to.

Chairman Yang? Nah, y'all; it's gonna be Chairman Jinping.


Even with the hostile environment in the US, I suspect China is far more hostile. I don't see China retaining top talent--these individuals might simply go to Europe, Canada, Japan or elsewhere.


I've been living here for 5y and I work in a research lab. A lot of talent is deciding to stay here or come back (Chinese that went to study/work abroad). Attracting foreign talent is a little different, but so far the government is not really worried about that.

I can only see the trend speeding up. Especially as/if the environment (air quality, etc.) improves. This now, in my personal view, seems to be the main factor for many people to decide to come or not.


Extremely relevant quote from the talented Mr Ng:

> “When the Chinese government announces a plan like this, it has significant implications for the country and the economy,” says Andrew Ng, a prominent AI expert who previously oversaw AI technology and strategy at China’s biggest online search company, Baidu. “It’s a very strong signal to everyone that things will happen.”

ie. There is going to be a tonne of money poured into this.

Will it make a difference, tangibly to economic transformation? Who knows...

...but anyone sitting here scoffing that China can’t make itself a world leader in a field by simply pouring money and support onto the problem needs a serious history lesson.

They have before, and there is every indiction they will again, here with this.

More interesting: will it be as transformative as everyone is hoping?


> ...but anyone sitting here scoffing that China can’t make itself a world leader in a field by simply pouring money and support onto the problem needs a serious history lesson. They have before, and there is every indiction they will again, here with this.

What are they currently leading?


They are leading in solar, renewable, nuclear, patents, electric vehicles, high speed rail, hydropower, # of cities, industrialization, # of new universities, etc.

China is leading in pretty much everything right now. They are the top trading partner of pretty much every significant country. And they are planning on building another 100 cities in the next 10 years.

It is ridiculous how much change china is going through right now. Historically, urbanization/cities correlated with economic/military strength. Will that trend hold.

China currently has 100 million man cities...

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/20/china-100-cit...

They are planning to double that in the next 10 years.

We have 10 cities that are 1 million+ people. Europe ( including turkey and russia ) has 33 million man cities.

Think about that.


China was kind of domineering, but on a global historic scale they could be considered somewhat non-violent. They even got invaded twice while being the top economic power of their time. There are quite a few aspects I don't like about China, but warmongers, they are not.

If anything, the modern era should be a boon to them, since developed countries are virtually conquerable at a certain scale, via modern technology instantly turning that industrial base into a top tier military, if needed, and via the usually strong alliances provided by strong trade relations.

I actually believe China can be a peaceful #1, provided they can be stopped from bullying their neighbors and Africa when the latest political scandal demands a distraction (à la Clinton - Kosovo).


> They even got invaded twice while being the top economic power of their time. There are quite a few aspects I don't like about China, but warmongers, they are not.

Is extrapolating from the past really useful if the Chinese government has been completely replaced in a civil war, which was followed by the massive changes of the cultural revolution?

Likewise, is Germany a dangerous country right now because "we" have started 100% of world wars within the last century? Honestly, I wouldn't even trust our military to capture Luxembourg right now... (probably for the better!)

This applies to all aspects of China's development, of course, not just their military.


> warmongers, they are not

Perhaps they were not, though they were so dominant that they had no security fears and had other levers of power.

Contemporary China has militarily threatened or even had conflicts with most of their neighbors, including Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Taiwan, and also the U.S. Communist China fought a war with Russia in the mid-20th century, invaded S. Korea (with the N. Koreans' assent), and invaded and annexed Tibet. They have built-military and quasi- military bases in Sri Lanka (not sure of the status of that one), Pakistan, and Djibouti. They've built infrastructure supporting potential military logistics throughout Asia.

The Chinese government's talking point is in the comment above: China does not interfere in other countries affairs and they seek a 'peaceful rise', citing their history as if President Xi restricts himself to what was done in the Qing, Ming or prior dynasties centuries ago. Almost all warmongers in history, or the ones with any sense, have made the same claims about peace; look up some German propaganda from the 1930s.


[flagged]


Please don't break the HN guidelines like this. If someone is wrong, it's fine to explain how substantively, so we all learn something. It's not fine to call names, which teaches nothing and makes both you and the community look worse.

If you don't want to take the time to write a substantive reply, posting nothing is a fine option as well.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Next time I'll just go low-effort and paste 2-3 Wikipedia links :p


One example where they poured money and got ahead is the rail system and the high speed rail system.


They have 14,000 miles of high-speed rail with an additional 10,000 coming in 10 years. They move 1 billion people a year.

They are also developing production low-speed maglev trains.


That is a proven technology though. A completely different case.


Their maglev train was built by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp in Germany, the _real_ leader in high speed rail transportation.


Their high-speed rail train is not maglev. There is one built by Germany in Shanghai, but it was more of a demo than an actual infrastructure.


It doesn't work like that. If you sell significant goods in China, you have to manufacture there and your methods will be copied. China is moving towards economic autarchy very quickly.


One area is scientific computing: based on, for example, the Top500 list, or their recent successes with the Gordon Bell prize (basically best paper prize for the biggest supercomputing conference).

Of course there are a lot of political factors in both of those achievements. But money definitely translated into results.

(I'm not arguing that China is the best nation in this area either, but they are clearly a leader.)


Any country can literally buy their way to the top in this category.


Internet related area, like payment service, on demand market, cloud computing, etc.


Scale of deployment is not technology leadership


It seems we need to agree on a definition of "technology leadership" before discussing it further - otherwise it's too easy to keep moving the goalpost.


A fair definition of technology leadership is you are in the lead and others copy / strive for your achievements.

Not many actual breakthroughs come from China so far, even though they could fill a few Olympic pools with PhDs.


I would guess manufacturing


China is already the first global superpower. To believe otherwise is delusional. China became capitalist several decades ago under the disguise of communism, keeping a tight control over its people, economy and foreign policy.


> world leader in a field by simply pouring money and support onto the problem

Look at their debt and then tell me they dont try.


Volume Manufacturing


Pollution.


solar


The US has dumped large amounts of money and support behind huge scientific endeavors like the Human Genome Project.

Certainly that example helped advance genomic science and the biotech industry in America. But it didn't quite live up to the hype, and it hasn't exactly saved the US economy from the normal ups and downs of global competition.

Course ya never know, could be the start of the next ARPANET too.


I'm getting a bit of a flashback to the Japanese Fifth Gneeration Computing project (I wasn't around back then; I've read about it though).

Then, too, an East Asian country (Japan) known for excellence in one field (manufacturing) initiated a state-funded research project into a promising technology (AI). Then, too, the West reacted with alarm, fearing the Asians would leave them in the dust. Then, too, the project was about AI.

Except, back then, it didn't go too well [1]. But, perhaps this is just pattern matching failure on my part and nothing is even remotely the same today.

____________________

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_generation_computer


The current crop of AIs is already starting to make a big impact in commercial and other spheres. All of the major tech giants in the US and China are using AI in their offerings and behind the scenes. There are substantial differences between the two eras.


This should be the top post. Marc Andreesen commented back when he was in college he was freaking about the Japanese taking over tech and how he was worried he didn’t know Japanese.


I wonder if the late 80s are repeating themselves in more ways than one. Huge domestic asset bubble waiting to pop including massive speculation in foreign real estate, and perhaps even a 3rd AI winter? It doesn’t have to happen the same way, of course.


Another competitive advantage of China is data. China has 1.4B population, and nearly everyone in the country owns a mobile phone. This will contribute data 3-4 times larger than US. Considering second-order interactions (network effect), the data could be an order of magnitude larger.

Chinese citizen also seems less concerned about their privacy. I've talked to one of the largest chat platforms in China, and they seems very open to share their conversation datasets with third-parties for dialogue research.

In high-value verticals like healthcare, there is also less regulation compared to U.S. For example, it's easy to start a AI + radiology company in China and have access to hospital patient data, without going through tedious approval process.


Excellent point. But you have to factor in american companies international reach. Chinese companies dominate china and that is extremely lucrative, but american tech companies dominate europe and the americas and the rest of the world.

Europe and at americas combined have a larger population than china and a geographical landmass 3X larger than china.

The real question is why europe ( 800 million people ) and latin america ceded their tech industry and data to the US.

If data is the oil of the 21st century, then the US, china and india are going to rule the nest. Europe has no future and neither does south america.

I under why china, russia, etc had protected their own internal industries to compete against FB, GOOGL, TWTR, AMZN, etc. I just don't understand why europe, south america, etc haven't.

All europe/south america have/had to do is invest a few billion to capture a few trillion in wealth. Instead, they've ceded all that wealth to predominately american tech companies. It's very strange when you think about it.


Recent emeeging internet markets in china’s backyard like Myanmar and Cambodia are even more dominated by western internet companies. To the average Cambodian, internet means YouTube and Facebook. Chinese companies are completely MIA.


Interesting, care to share the source?

I was under the impression that Cambodians are mostly using devices from Chinese brands and hence exposed to pre-installed Chinese software (at least to a small extent).

For example, Xiaomi phones come without google play stores but Chinese app stores.


There was a big article about their success in SE Asia (including Cambodia and Myanmar) a few years ago, but I can’t find it ATM. Anyways, this page helps:

http://geeksincambodia.com/cambodias-2017-social-media-digit...

Chinese phones outside of china are generally sold with a straight google app stack. None of those Chinese services are localized in kmher!


https://www.similarweb.com/apps/top/google/store-rank/kh/all...

According to this page,number 8,9,10 ranked Android apps (from play store) are app offered by Chinese companies.

Also, there are cheap Android phones directly brought over from China which are installed with Chinese app stores (I know that's the case for Myanmar, not sure about Cambodia), they wound be missing from this chart.

So I wouldn't say it's entirely MIA.


Sure...I mean, yes, they have a couple of Chinese apps that are used (for pirating movies and TV shows?), if that's what you mean. But no WeChat, Baidu, or the major ones.


Is it though, your talking about a federation of democratic and culturally different nations to two locked down regimes with homogeneous societies.

I don't think Europe could do what China and Russia did even if they tried.


You're very mistaken if you think either Russia or China are homogeneous societies.

And I'm not sure Russia can be considered a locked down regime in recent years. Unless you mean specifically Putin's grasp on power.


German has the same policy.


Hmmm. MIT Tech Review now behind cognito-only browser shield? Is that new?

What's really interesting is the continued trend of cashless WeChat Pay adoption in China versus say trickling Digital Payments penetration here in USA. I actually just had to order a new replacement set of paper checks. And its simply due to the fact that so many small merchants cite higher credit card fees as a reason for preferring cash or checks for payments.

Coupled with AI, I think this preference for instant, fee-less digital payments will translate into convenience stores without cashiers. Auto repair shops where you just drop off your faulty electric vehicle and hop into a loaner without actually interacting with a customer service agent. And thousands of other technology-mediated retail experiences.

It's Asian consumer adoption and demand driving AI solutions from the bottom up. And that makes it much more likely to result in first mover advantage and the potential for game-changing breakthroughs.


I haven’t used a personal check states side in many many years; I don’t even bother ordering them anymore going for a cashiers check on the rare case I need a check for something. And when was the last time you went to an ATM in the states, maybe once every 6 months?

In contrast, up until a few years ago, I had to bring a backpack full of 100 RMB notes to pay my rent every 3 months. China has made a transition for sure, but don’t forget the local problems they were solving (poor penetration of UnionPay, poor online payment facilities). And online retail and a godsend when you consider the horrible state owned department store system and anemic brick and mortar retail clones they replaced.

Chinese companies will probably change the game in china, it as long as they are focused and limited to local problems, I don’t see how it will effect the west very much.


One advantage China has in payments is the lack of incumbent credit corporations. In the United States credit cards were widely deployed and trusted decades ago while in China tech companies have an open playing field where real innovation can happen fast.


That's a competitive advantage when it arises against competitors that you're willing to destroy. But in the years ahead, China's major competition will arise increasingly within China. That portends a lot of internal disruption of the status quo which the government is unlikely to anticipate (like the ongoing explosion of e-commerce there and its immeasurable disruption of the day-to-day lives of established retailers).

Despite China's outward enthusiasm for advancement, high speed change promises to destabilize the totalitarian gov't, which suggests that a bumpy ride lies ahead.


I am a Chinese born AI researcher and I've had most of my higher education in the US. The funny thing is that when I was a high schooler in China, I was not particularly good at math and basically hated anything quantitative. There are two points I want to make to counter some of the arguments people have brought up.

First, even though Chinese high schoolers are "better" at math and there are certainly many gifted kids, it does not necessarily mean that they are better at abstract thinking and will excel at higher levels. On the other hand, some of the most talented people I know did not have super impressive test scores. They are insatiably curious and think from first principles.

Second, if you look at the top researchers today, you'll find their strength comes from combining knowledge from different disciplines, e.g. computer science and neuroscience. The education system in China pretty much hones students in a single dimension, pushing them into a narrow corner. Also, the most important thing in research is not just understanding what has been done. It is thinking critically and challenging authority. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this really goes against the Chinese regime and Chinese culture to a large extent.

I wouldn't be surprised by a large number of future Chinese AI "engineers" who can quickly replicate the latest research. But I think China has a long way to go in order to create an environment that allows students to freely explore and think before a real AI breakthrough.


Another key trend to consider - China's labor costs are growing up to 2x per year: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/23/welcoming-our-...

China's push for AI is a recognition that the loss of one advantage (cheap human labor) could be replaced by another (cheap machine labor).


They're not growing 2x every year. Even the article you linked says "“China’s labor costs are increasing, or doubling, every few years,”"

In any case, the advantage of cheap human labour has already been replaced by what you call 'cheap machine labour'. China has been able to dominate manufacturing in large part by giving companies access to cheap capital, which allows them to invest in machines. Silicon chips aren't made by hand. PCBs aren't soldered by hand.


Has China produced a single major AI breakthrough with all these cited papers? Just because they have a lot of papers written doesn't mean anything. Quality vs Quantity. You can take technology developed by others and copy it all you want, and assign all your grad students to write something publishable about it, but unless you innovate in it, I wouldn't say you are a world leader. At best you may see novel applications of AI tasking come out of China, and people will falsely equate this with "China is beating us at AI." I still think the General AI breakthrough will come from Western researchers out of the box thinking.


Yes, lots. StackGAN comes to mind.


ya, i mean, how could anyone think that those robots from China can think outside of the box right?

/sarcasm


The plan calls for homegrown AI to match that developed in the West within three years, for China’s researchers to be making “major breakthroughs” by 2025, and for Chinese AI to be the envy of the world by 2030.

Really? Major breakthroughs can be mandated by a centralized government? Back in the 80s-90s, Americans were convinced that Japan was going to eat its lunch. It gives me some hope in knowing that we still suffer from this complex.


US government basically mandated the Moon landings, and they happened within 12 years from Sputnik. So I'd say yes, sometimes a government can just mandate progress.


Dont DARPA and other US gov research groups have a pretty long track record of successful projects?

Computers, nukes, ICs, space, internet, self-driving cars, etc.

They seem to be some of the most well used research money -- precisely the government mandating progress.


True, but a lot of those were more specific in their end goals. What exactly is China going for here? Sounds like just general AI research and advancement. That's not a bad thing, but I think it'll probably end up more like the Human Genome Project. We'll get some great fundamental science and advancement out of it, but it's probably going to lead to more open-ended questions instead of the world-changing end results that get hyped at the beginning.


> Dont DARPA and other US gov research groups have a pretty long track record of successful projects?

And many failures too. You can't just buy whatever innovation you want with money; if that were true we wouldn't still have energy problems and powerlines for distributing it.


If you don't allow for failures, you won't get successes either. That's the problem of today - research is increasingly being done in market-driven style, which strongly favors short-term work that the sales department can turn into perceived miracle over long-term, uncertain but possibly high-impact projects.


The US Gov also poured an absolutely ridiculous amount of money into the space race, peaking around 4.5% of the federal budget for a couple years.


Which had one of the best ROIs of the things US spent money on. Space access and space-related tech is responsible for so many advances we enjoy today that's hard to even try and list them (some of them you can read about here, though: http://wtfnasa.com). So you kind of prove my point - that a government can literally mandate progress if they back it up with funding :).


I wasn’t trying to refute you, just pointing out that it was a huge cost.

I’m skeptical that’s our current political climate in the US would be willing to do something like that again unless there becomes an “AI race" (which isn't far fetched, but not guaranteed either).


Japan has a significantly smaller population than China (and the US). I’m not sure how this eluded commentators in the 80s, but it seems a major difference this time around.


It's not a difference in terms of using AI for automation, however. All the recent advances in AI are strictly on highly specialized tasks, have had (and probably will have) little impact on subsuming general task execution. Thus it's unlikely to replace an entire human worker foreseeably soon.

Based on their keen interest in AI, the Chinese gov't presumably doesn't yet appreciate that success in task-specific AI does not assure the advent of AGI any time soon. I suspect like the Japanese's 5th gen AI initiative, China's quest to give life to terra cotta warriors also will end in disappointment, before the passage of several 5-year plans, anyway.


Whenever I read articles like this I'm really looking for the million dollar idea. Solving Go is good. Solving Poker is better. Best would be solving a high-value business problem for which a solution using AI can be developed.


Arguably high-value business problems that are currently being solved by AI and ML methods: 1) serving personalized ads, 2) efficient stock and commodity trading 3) fraud detection


Sure, and I would add to the list recommendation (Amazon/Netflix)...

But I'm looking for things where the technology has yet to be applied.


>I would add to the list recommendation

You bought a 3000$ DSLR yesterday.. Why not buy a 1000$ one today?


I didn't say it was perfect, but at least when it is wrong, it is funny.


Care to hazard some examples of the latter?


I can think of two: supply chain management (producing stuff more effectively) and market trend analysis (know what people will buy tomorrow - to build it when it's needed). The first involves a lot of people networking and dealing with the messy bits (hard) while the later is looking into the crystal ball with help of some data to extrapolate likely outcomes (somewhat hard).

There is also logistics (again tons of messy bits), customer service (interacting with people), transportation (now this is probably the lowest hanging fruit - which is why everyone and their dog is chasing it).

Just of the top of my hat.. of course there is R&D (hard), design (hard), bureaucracy (bookkeeping, process management, etc. - easy in theory, not so much in practice) -- well, and all the other things that we humans do during a day of business.

We could also involve politics, government and philosophy - but that would probably be stretching it.

ps. I also suck at counting, so maybe that too.


I don't think politics and government are a stretch. In fact that's the direction I'm considering.

I don't think transportation is very easy, it's just that the value is high and honestly, there is this trillion dollar asset (the nation's roadways) that companies are going to be able to leverage for a very low cost, which makes it appealing.


Thanks, I like crystal ball ideas.


I was reading the USNews CS ranking yesterday, got really surprised that apparently some Chinese universities are now considered as the best in CS.

top 20 list:

https://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/se...

https://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/co...


Caveat: the US News rankings are famously cooked and unreliable. You'd expect that from a cash cow that singularly keeps the US News brand alive, as well as the deliberate efforts of universities to drive up their brand's rank.

According to Wiki, three more independent and open source of rankings are the Acad. Ranking of World Univs, Times Higher Education, and Quaccquarelli Symonds.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_and_university_ranking...

The Chronicle of Higher Education is also a well-regarded rater, esp. in assessment of research.

http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-World-University-Rankin...


Well, it's interesting to see that the USNews ranks Harvard ahead of UCBerkeley. Back when I used to work at a quant shop in NYC, Harvard wasn't even considered for hiring -- they only recruited from MIT, CMU, UIUC, Berkeley, Stanford and UToronto.

Also, not surprisingly, most quants were Chinese.


Trust your own expertise. I can’t find the paper where I got this from but if you rank CS departments by where professors got their doctorates and where they end up teaching the basically equal top four were Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Berkeley and Stanford. Which four would round out the world Top 10? Georgia Tech?

Aren’t a ton of quants French as well?


Keep in mind they also have some pretty significant plagarism and pay-to-publish problems.


Keep in mind it's the lower end schools that have the plagarism and pay-to-publish problems. The top schools never had this problem.


What I never understood, if China is so great, why then do large parts of their upper middle class/upper class buy property in foreign countries and send their kids to school their? It's not as if the American upper class are purchasing houses in Beijing for their kids.


The United States was once seen as uncultured, unrefined, and frankly quite weak by most of Western Europe until the late 1800's. And in many respects it was. Now the US is the richest country in the world, and is where wealthy non-Americans send their children and make land investments.

My point is that trajectory is more relevant to these discussions than current state of affairs. The quality of life of the average Chinese citizen (and more so the upper-middle class Chinese citizen) has increased DRAMATICALLY in the last 40 years. So when people talk about China's potential, they aren't talking about the situation in the next 5 or 10 years. They're talking about who is going exert massive international influence in the next 50 years. So you're right, most westerners aren't buying speculative property in Beijing (despite the fact that housing in central Beijing is nearly as expensive as New York City), but I'd wager there's a good chance of that changing in the next 50 years.


I think a missing piece of the puzzle is: It’s not clear to me that my property rights would be respected, should I be able to buy property in China (which, as a foreigner, I can’t do anyway, the government only leases it to you at best).

Western countries have a much better record in this regard.


While you’re technically correct about the government leasing property, in practice buying the rights to land for residential use is in practice effectively the same as buying the land. There are a lot of things like that in China, where the system is nominally socialist, but in practice things are just as capitalistic (if not more so) as they are in western countries.


This hasn’t been tested yet. There was a huge scandal in Wenzhou when the local government was going to charge market prices for renewing leases there (their property market started earlier with shorter leases before 70 years was settled on nationally). The central government had to step in and make the leases turn over automatically, because the precedent set in Wenzhou could tank markets nationwide.

I bet China eventually scraps the lease system and replaces it with a universal property tax, which would solve the other problem of keeping local governments funded long term (right now they just make money on sales), while naturally deprecating the property on a yearly basis, and also making pure speculation much more difficult.

But who can say. If china switches to a property tax system (not just the nominal one easily gamed in shanghai and chongqing today), it would break a lot of buying assumptions.


That’s well and good, but my point remains: There simply isn’t enough long run evidence of predictable outcomes.

I have some confidence of this if I purchase property in a Western jurisdiction, but in China the situation is a bit more fluid. I have zero leverage and have no doubt I would get trampled if convenient.

This is the perception they have to overcome, and to be honest, I don’t think they care to; do they really need or want my capital invested in China, especially in property?

Signals from ruling class appear to indicate otherwise.


Well, unless you include air pollution, then quality of life isn’t better, especially in Beijing.

Also, even if housing forsake prices in Beijing are at New York levels, rents are just at Wichita levels. No foreigner is going to buy into that level of crazy, especially when buying property in china accords them no residency benefits (they will never get hukou, heck, green cards basically don’t exist).


Permanent residency is available for investors and people employed there. You’re right, it’s not unconditional. Property rights, in practice, are generally respected as in western countries, although there are some notable counter examples.

I think pollution in China will likely be a non issue in 10-20 years or so. Pittsburg used to be like Beijing, but as the National economy shifted away from industries causing pollution, it disappeared entirely. China is in the midst of this process.


I lived and worked in china for 9 years and never came close to qualifying for a green card. Comparing Beijing today to Pittsburg 50 years ago doesn’t really help the current tech market where skilled people are moving out of Beijing for life quality of life reasons (e.g. they have kids who have developed asthma). You also have to pay talent much more to live in Beijing to offset its pollution problems (and to those who say it isn’t that bad, you haven’t lived through winter yet).

We were told in 2010 that the government would solve China’s pollution problem probably by 2015, 2020 at the latest. Ya, well, that isn’t going to come to pass.


interesting perspective, thanks


China is "great" in some aspects and not great in others. The one party system allows the government to make decisive decisions and act with the backing of tax dollars. Look at the high speed rail system. It pretty much went from non existent to one of the world's best rail systems in a matter of years. It's the same with this AI initiative.

Why are rich parents sending their kids to the US? There's a shortage of jobs for college graduates in China and many parents are hoping that a degree from a western college will give them a better chance at finding a job either in the US or China.

As for buying property. The biggest reason is probably diversification and the fact that the Chinese see property as a good investment. Housing prices in China have sky rocketed and many Chinese families have more than one house that they just leave around with no one living in them. Just like how stock investors invest in foreign stocks, Chinese landowners are diversifying their property.

Foreign investors don't want to buy property in China probably because of the pollution problem and the fact that they think that the housing market there is a huge bubble.


The college entrance exam is too brutal for many, and China lacks that many top universities as US


there was a time when the U.S. had a leader who declared a bipartisan mission to do something great and worthy of the effort and the U.S. accomplished that mission: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuW4oGKzVKc -- fast forward to ~7:40minutes for most relevant

AI is the new moon shot of our time but its rally cries are emanating by leaders of U.S corporations for the maximization of profit of their shareholders where as in China they are emanating by the leaders of the state for reasons far exceeding short-term economic gains


Sorry, my questions might reflect that I don't know much about China / Chinese culture. I'm curious about compensation. Can Chinese AI researchers earn equally well in China as abroad? Or are they going to suffer from brain drain eventually? How does the Communist Party / society deal with large pay gaps? Are Chinese companies with AI departments looking for international talent that's not at the uppermost level?


Yes. China pays well, not just for AI researchers, but specialized tech talent in general. They attract workers from Taiwan, Korea, Japan for the better paycheck accordingly, where tech workers aren’t valued as much.


Pro tip for folks looking to take a job with a Chinese company: this will prevent you from jumping to some jobs in the US. The defense sector will want you to be not employed by the Chinese for at least a year before letting you work on defense-related jobs (yes, they will audit your employer).


Well, if you marry a Chinese, you can also kiss your security clearance goodbye. I don’t think it matters to most of outside the DC/Virginia area.


There's a fair amount of DoD contract work being done all over the country.


Scientists like Ng ought to consider the repercussions of their actions when they decide to aid Chinese companies, and by extension, the Chinese govt with cutting edge research. They are basically collaborating with the enemy that stands against pretty much everything that the west granted them (scientists like Ng who were born here and given the opportunities).


We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15569238 and marked it off-topic.


? What exactly did the west grant them? They're catching up after decades of communism, and creeping towards becoming a dictatorship for Xi. That will likely negatively impact their growth far more than the actions (or inactions) of the West.


It’s not that China’s economic growth is bad for the west (I think that’s good on its own terms); it’s that tyranny is bad for us all. Helping to entrench it is very short-sighted. There has never been a modern AI-assisted tyranny before, for one thing, and we don’t know how stable that might become. It’s reckless to expect it to just fall apart like the Soviet Union, especially since the rulers consciously learned from that history.


Ng was born and educated in the west. That's the point I'm making.


...and that’s an irrelevant point.


Does this mean we should all stop using Chinese products like most of the phones made in the USA?


Well, Americans probably should stop using cell phones made in China. The lack of domestic manufacturing capability seems to really put Americans at China's mercy.


This comment breaks the HN guidelines, which ask you precisely not to do this, i.e. take threads in generic and inflammatory directions.

We're not interested in ideological battle or flamewars here, and certainly not nationalistic ones.

Edit: since you've done this repeatedly, I've banned this account.


I believe that your pro-western nationalism is evil, because this dualism fails to see the nuance, that american corporatism is just as bad as Chinese state socialism. I up-voted you, however, because you stated your opinion in the open, rather than simply implying it. I'd far rather people like you be open in their belief that this is some sort of situation where one country wins and the other loses.

I, however, believe that whoever wins this battle will be wealthy and powerful. Who-ever wins the race is the enemy. Not just the Chinese, but anyone who attains singularity is the enemy of the rest of humanity.

Even if that AI is open-source, unless there is a clear way for every person to have some level of control over the hardware that it runs on, the AI becomes the enemy of all people who will be disenfranchised by it.


This phrasing was really blunt and came off a bit rude. But there is a point there that shouldn't be written off. As far as choosing who the biggest and most powerful entity on the planet is, would you rather have one with more or less respect for the rights of individuals?

Because, so far in human history, individual rights-based political formulations are the only ones that prevent arbitrary atrocities from being perpetrated on citizens. Yes, American corporatism is brutal. American corporatism bounded by American democracy, imperfect as it is, is still vast leagues better (read: safer for global population) than nationalist authoritarian dictatorship. No matter how technocratically efficient that dictatorship has been in recent decades.

In short, if you're worried about singularities, aren't you worried about the priorities and command structure of the entities most likely to achieve it? About what options they consider to be "on the table"?


Of course I am worried about the command structure of the entities most likely to acheive singularity, but this is all the more reason to fight against a nationalist, McCarthyist, "you traitor!" attitude which would lead America, in its competition with China, away from its liberal ideals and towards a more efficient command structure such as fascism or national corporatism.


I always find the phrase on the back on the dollar bill oddly satisfying in these types of conversations about singularity/utopia: "out of many, one".


The nice thing about american "corporatism" is that if one "corporate culture" is bad, if you are able, you can leave. Thats a fairly simple & straightforward nuance for me. As far as "people like you..." statement, you literally just described a situation where theres a battle and someone will win. It'll just end up in some kind of singularity? Did you mean to lump yourself in implicitly with the group you just accused this person of "being in"? "Pro-western nationalism" lol


China started selling U.S. bonds and plans to create a Yuan-oil exchange market and is building a massive army to defend it. I wish good things are coming out, but U.S. leadership won't just stand watching China taking over the power over world leadership (conflicts are already happening in North Korea). While I respect all the amazing hard working scientists, and the developments, I fear that the biggest problem now is the currency war that can lead to WWIII.


This is honestly one of the better posts I've seen on HN. I never really thought about this, and I agree 100%


Thb, most of the interesting work I've seen has come out of Silicon Valley. What breakthroughs have come from China?


Due to the language barrier, there is a lot of interesting work that we will never "see".

For example I was randomly looking through text recognition competition results and found out Tencent has an AI lab that took first place: http://rrc.cvc.uab.es/?ch=1&com=evaluation&task=4.

But I was unable to find any information about them. They have github repos with thousands of stars but the community is entirely in chinese: https://github.com/Tencent/ncnn/issues


I believe TenCent AI Lab is based in Silicon Valley.


According to its recruit page (http://ai.tencent.com/ailab/recruit.html), they have researchers in US and Shenzhen, China.


>Thb, most of the interesting work I've seen has come out of Silicon Valley.

Like, social websites and apps?

>What breakthroughs have come from China?

Like tons of actual innovations in hardware, screens, storage, materials science, manufacturing methods, robotics, biology, and other fields?


Baidu & Deep Speech?

That was actually developed in Silicon Valley though, as that's where Baidu's AI lab is.


Most 'breakthroughs' in AI have come from Canada, not Silicon Valley.


Canada is definitely underappreciated, but you might be overstating it a bit...

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jpmorganchase/2017/10/04/chicag...


Off the top of my head, didn't ResNet come out of MSRA?


Yes. ResNet was CVPR paper of the year last year. This year DenseNet has a first author from Tsinghua University (Dr. Zhuang Liu). I feel like the importance of China in machine learning is very hard to dispute these days. At least they are open about it, which is good for scientific development worldwide.


The article says that China is investing heavily in AI now, in reaction to the breakthroughs happening elsewhere. It suggests that breakthroughs over the next decade will be coming from China.


Can you give some examples of these interesting work?


The one posted yesterday from OpenAI. Hierarchical learning. Also, DeepMind's relational NN. I can dig up others from memor after caffiene.

DeepMind is at Google which is a Silicon Valley co.

True about Canada, but salaries in Canada do not support retention of talent, so most end up in SV in the long run or get acquired by SV companies.


(DeepMind is part of the Alphabet group, true, but is based in London, with some research people in Canada and some applied people in California.)


Much of the interesting work is done by Chinese nationals, many of whom feel the startup field in the US is slanted towards white people, so they go back to China and take their knowledge with them.

US research institutes are top-notch, but our casual racism and xenophobia are killing us. Not that the Chinese aren't also racist and xenophobic, but the pendulum of power is definitely swinging back across the Pacific.


I live in a country outside the US (not China) but every time people from the US talk about us they have this same story, which seems to come from US news sources, which is nowhere close to what is actually going on. That makes me wonder, is the same thing going on for China? I keep hearing on HN this same story "China is anti-democratic and anti-innovation, nothing interesting goes on there". But how much of that is actual truth, backed by facts, and how much is just the same story propogated amongst the population, but rarely double checked?


Americans tend to have difficulty believing that others can possibly have different values. Part of the core of American beliefs is that Democracy is the natural state for all nations; and I'm not sure that's entirely true. It feels like there is a tipping point of population size where an individualistic society just tramples over the tragedy of the commons, and collectivist societies introduce controls and social pressures to prevent it.

I expect World War 3 will eventually be fought over these differences; they are just too irreconcilable and eventually the Chinese are going to feel the need to impose some limits on the US -- likely over environmental issues. China will feel the need to "save the planet from US ignorance" once they feel they have the power to do so, and the US will disagree that they have the power, so China will have to prove it militarily.


> Part of the core of American beliefs is that Democracy is the natural state for all nations; and I'm not sure that's entirely true.

And that's funny because if there is something that the US is not it is a democracy. It is at best a partial democracy where votes from different individuals count very different towards the outcome and where there is a huge and concerted effort at the repression of certain groups of voters.


I am always genuinely curious about the statement "Americans tend to have difficulty believing that others can possibly have different values". I always think about the different types of cultures and living situations Americans tend to find themselves in and "around" compared to a country such as China who clearly has a clear set of cultural values and norms. It's almost as if having a value system outside of the norm of the Chinese is deemed inherently contrasting where as in America having a different value system is in part of American "culture". How can americans not be aware of different values when topics like gun control, healthcare, education, etc are freely discussed in the open? Are they not representing different values?


I forget the article I read this in, but basically here in the US there is a large percentage of the population with a "strict father" worldview (i.e. its up to each individual to save themselves so nobody gets a handout), while in China it's much more of a "nurturing parent" worldview (i.e. the most important thing is to take care of everyone rather than to ensure equality).


I think this is a good example, but I have a hard time understanding the "strict father" worldview. When political parties (left + democrats) tend to have agendas around welfare/public "handouts". Hopefully you can see what the nurturing parent value system can give you (as you said in another comment, father-head == dictator). I agree in some sense around the individualism aspect, I don't think however its complete with a "strict father" mentality.


Pretty sure you're talking about George Lakoff[0] and the "strict father : U.S. :: nurturant parent : China" is something you made up in your head.

0: https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lako...


There was another article I read recently that made that connection; but that article did reference George Lakoff.


Those are all topics that America agrees are fine to debate about. There are other ways of being that most Americans would unanimously be against, or merely not even consider.

Americans tend to be insular. A very low percentage of Americans have a passport.

The healthcare debate is actually a good example. It’s entirely uninformed by how systems work elsewhere. As a foreigner it’s baffling to watch.


Not quite sure how WW3 works exactly between nuclear powers. Proxy cyber wars? Dumping US bonds? That is not really military action. Have people just forgot there are thousands of nuclear weapons ready to go at a moments notice?


> Have people just forgot there are thousands of nuclear weapons ready to go at a moments notice?

I don't know if people have forgot about them, but I am pretty sure many - maybe most - have forgotten (or just don't want to contemplate) what kind of damage they can unleash, both immediately and over the long term - should a full global exchange occur.


> I expect World War 3 will eventually be fought over these differences

Only if war from general misery due to overpopulation and ecological collapse doesn't get us first. I hate thinking about the future.


You're under the mistaken impression that people in the U.S. care about what is happening in other countries. At most like 10% care in anything more than a cursory way.


Democracy and Capitalism have worked really well for us, so yes, there is a bias towards these ideas and a desire to share them.


I think it's mainly about perspective. Two people can take the same facts and based on their values, see the story in two different ways.

For example, a medication that has a 70% success rate can be seen as risky or not risky, depending on the person.


That is a good point but China is a dictatorship and a censoring anti-democracy regime. I can't imagine putting up with that either.


Chinese culture values harmony and stability over individualism and total freedom. The actions of the individual glorify the group; and they view "dictators" as more of a "father-like figurehead". They look at the US and see the problems we have (crime, gun control, health care, etc) and can point to their own society and say "well, we solved all of those so our system is better."

Many young Chinese who were educated in the US feel this way, so it's not a generational thing. This is a cultural tradition stretching back many thousands of years. The world view of a person from China is very different than that of an American.

Also, consider that an AI researcher returning to China is likely going to be in the top 1% of society. Dictatorial societies tend to be pretty good for the people at the top. The Chinese startup market is hotter than the US at this point too; and it's basically restricted to people born in a handful of Chinese cities. The Chinese government intentionally stacks the deck to get them to return.


Understandable for Chinese nationals to go back. But for someone like Ng, who was born and educated here, it seems very irresponsible.


You're making an assumption that he didn't feel like China would be a better option for him personally. If he fundamentally disagreed with the direction the US is headed, I wouldn't call it irresponsible at all.

All things considered, the US looks really bad right now internationally. We have vast military power, and our leader is a child elected on a wave of nationalist populism. This has happened before in recent history, and it didn't end well.


He was born in the UK and grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore. That hardly constitutes "growing up in the West"


Not only that, the trend of moving towards leftism in USA, i.e. nation-wide anti-intelligence movement(no-child-left-behind,everyone gets a trophy, merit-based effort is cursed on, AA at universities, each students gets free high-school diploma at CA, removing non-ranking from high schools,etc), basically, USA is shifting from 'equal-opportunity to equal-outcome',fast. That is what China tried for a few decades in the past and it did not work for them at all, and the Chinese origins knew it too well, and they just go back when they see what is going on in US these days.

It seems in China excellence and competition are truly appreciated, from family, school all the way to the government, even though some of them have to use VPN to use Google.

China sets a national goal each five years, education first has always be the first priority for the society, back in USA, we're debating how to borrow more debt, how to make sure people can choose no-gender(neither male or female), how to remove ranking from school because competition there hurt our 18-year-old-KID's self-esteem,etc, what a joke, we're doomed.


Your definition of leftism is a ridiculous. In the article it says that the Chinese government is pouring hundreds of billions of yuan into AI technology. Now thats leftism, and we would be smart to copy it.


USA is moving to the left, China is moving to the right, they swapped, guess who is to win in the long run?

sorry Trump, it is too late to fix, the tipping point has passed.


The Chinese government directing investments in the economy is moving to the right? I don't think you know what left and right mean.


USA directs money all the time too, it is not about how to direct money, it is about 'equal-opportunity' vs 'equal-outcome'. China has plenty of brain power to leverage that investment, as it has been encouraging teens to excel in the education system. While in US, it is eager to remove rankings from school instead these days because it will make some 18-year-old-little-KID depressed, and in CA it just allows everyone gets a high-school diploma for free, see the difference?


The US is, if anything, moving further to the right. The rest of the world is moving to the left. China's decision to abandon absolute equality and move to a less equal system is pragmatic and based on the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships.

I wouldn't call 50% state ownership of most if not all large companies anything but "socialist"; they just found a way to introduce incentives into a socialist system by abandoning the idea that everyone should be a "worker". But wealth redistribution is absolutely at the center of the Chinese system.


This comment breaks the HN guidelines, which ask you precisely not to do this, i.e. take threads in generic and inflammatory directions. The last thing we want on HN is generic flamewars over nationalistic rhetoric.

We've asked you repeatedly not to do things like this, and your comment history doesn't exactly show you using the site as intended. That's not cool. Please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and fix this if you want to keep commenting here.


Still with all these hurt feelings etc, what breakthrough work has come of out of China?




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