AMY WEBB ; LEADING EDGE
(@amywebb) is an
author and futurist
and the founder of
the Future Today
Institute, a leading forecasting and
iving in China in the
A.I. isn’t just another tech trend. Within a decade, all tech-
early 2000s changed
my perspective. I saw
firsthand that the
good at copying but
bad at innovating—was simply wrong. While many were focused
on the low prices of Chinese imports and those eerily similar
Chinese knocko;s of beloved Western gadgets and appliances,
it was clear to me, from meeting companies like Baidu and
Huawei, that something tectonic was happening. China, it turns
out, was building a global artificial intelligence empire, and
seeding the tech ecosystem of the future.
nologies—from everyday business to genomic editing—will
in some way touch A.I. Today, China is poised to become its
undisputed global leader, and that will a;ect every business.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has made tremendous
strides in many fields, but especially in A.I. Businesses and
government have collaborated on a sweeping plan to make
China the world’s primary A.I. innovation center by 2030, and
it’s already making serious progress toward that goal. That plan
is unlikely to be repealed by a new government; this March,
China abolished Xi’s term limits and will e;ectively allow him
to remain in power for life.
That gives China an incredible advantage over the West. It
also gives three of China’s biggest companies—Baidu, Alibaba,
and Tencent—superpowers. Collectively, they’re known as
the BAT, and they’re all part of that well-capitalized, highly
organized A.I. plan. The BAT are important to you even if
you’ve never used them and don’t do any business in China.
That’s because the BAT are now well established in Seattle
If you still think of China as a country that
and around San Francisco, and are investing significantly in
U.S. startups. That’s attractive to those startups because a BAT
deal typically means entrée into the lucrative Chinese market,
which can otherwise be impossible to penetrate. Take Zoloz,
the Kansas City, Missouri–based face-recognition startup
bought by China’s Ant Financial for an estimated $100 million
in 2016. It became a core component of the Alipay payment
service, and thus immediately gained access to hundreds of
millions of users—without having to contend with strict Euro-
pean privacy laws or the threat of privacy lawsuits in the U.S.
Getting a foothold in the Chinese market is a dream for any
business. But keep in mind that, in the age of A.I., businesses
that can use machine and deep learning techniques to mine,
refine, and make products from data culled from all areas of
operation—from customer service to employee productivity—
will gain a big edge. And access to the Chinese market for U.S.
startups comes at a steep price: their business data. With that,
and the data from China’s almost 1. 4 billion citizens, the BAT
could soon command what’s perhaps our most valuable
resource—human data—without the privacy and security
restrictions common in much of the rest of the world. In other
words: If data is the new oil, China is the new OPEC. It will
soon wield tremendous influence in global digital commerce,
autonomous vehicles, and a renewed race to outer space.
It’s true that China has failed at times to deliver on simi-
larly bold investments. (The development of China’s high-
speed-train network had a history of death and catastrophe.)
That may be why we haven’t taken Chinese A.I. startups,
researchers, and government initiatives as seriously as we
should. While we shouldn’t expect—or want—the U.S. govern-
ment to model China’s example and dictate A.I.’s future, pub-
lic and private sectors should coordinate on educating leaders
about A.I. and writing policy that helps A.I. businesses thrive.
The Chinese proverb “;;;;p; roughly translates to
“Forewarned is forearmed.” Now that you know what’s coming,
reframe your thinking of China as the world’s factory. Be wiser
about entering partnerships. Above all, get up to speed on what
A.I. is and isn’t, and the impacts it will have on your company.
Why China Is Takıng the Lead in A.I.
copies rather than innovates—think again. L