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China’s children are its secret weapon in the global AI arms race

Updated: April 19, 2018 at 10:15 am EST  See Comments

Late on the night of October 4, 1957, Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was at a reception at the Mariinsky Palace, in Kiev, Ukraine, when an aide called him to the telephone. The Soviet leader was gone a few minutes. When he reappeared at the reception, his son Sergei later recalled, Khrushchev’s face shone with triumph. “I can tell you some very pleasant and important news,” he told the assembled bureaucrats. “A little while ago, an artificial satellite of the Earth was launched.” From its remote Kazakh launchpad, Sputnik 1 had lifted into the night sky, blasting the Soviet Union into a decisive lead in the Cold War space race.

News of the launch spread quickly. In the US, awestruck citizens wandered out into their backyards to catch a glimpse of the mysterious orb soaring high above them in the cosmos. Soon the public mood shifted to anger – then fear. Not since Pearl Harbour had their mighty nation experienced defeat. If the Soviets could win the space race, what might they do next?

Keen to avert a crisis, President Eisenhower downplayed Sputnik’s significance. But, behind the scenes, he leapt into action. By mid-1958 Eisenhower announced the launch of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known today as Nasa), along with a National Defense and Education Act to improve science and technology education in US schools. Eisenhower recognised that the battle for the future no longer depended on territorial dominance. Instead, victory would be achieved by pushing at the frontiers of the human mind.

Sixty years later, Chinese President Xi Jinping experienced his own Sputnik moment. This time it wasn’t caused by a rocket lifting off into the stratosphere, but a game of Go – won by an AI. For Xi, the defeat of the Korean Lee Sedol by DeepMind’s Alpha Go made it clear that artificial intelligence would define the 21st century as the space race had defined the 20th.
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The event carried an extra symbolism for the Chinese leader. Go, an ancient Chinese game, had been mastered by an AI belonging to an Anglo-American company. As a recent Oxford University report confirmed, despite China’s many technological advances, in this new cyberspace race, the West had the lead.

Xi knew he had to act. Within twelve months he revealed his plan to make China a science and technology superpower. By 2030 the country would lead the world in AI, with a sector worth $150 billion. How? By teaching a generation of young Chinese to be the best computer scientists in the world.

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