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Comparing China’s and EU’s Artificial Intelligence Strategies

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Today, the global economy stands in front of the next stage of socio-technological development. The Fourth Industrial Revolution’s emphasis on the inter-connectivity between the physical, digital and biological worlds engages the most disruptive technologies such as advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering that are the subject of the global rivalry between the world economic powers. AI, in particular, has been considered as the most promising technology that may revolutionize the world economy. Therefore, getting ahead in the AI sector is crucially important for the comprehensive national power in the 21st century.

China, building upon its most comprehensive Industry 4.0 strategy ‘Made in China 2025’, took a similar step in the field of AI and launched its ‘Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan’ in 2017. China’s plan can be considered as the most comprehensive national AI strategy, with initiatives and goals ranging from increased R&D, talent development, industrialization, education, through setting regulations, standards and ethical norms, and touching up also on security issues such as smart security. 

At the same time, global economic powers such as the European Union also joined ‘the race’ for world supremacy in AI; the European Commission developed its own AI strategy that broadly deals with legal, ethical, socio-economic and, most importantly, technological aspects of the future AI development. Its aim is to increase EU’s research and industrial capacity for AI development.   

China’s Next Generation AI Development Plan    

In July 2017, the Chinese government launched ‘Plan for the Development of New Generation Artificial Intelligence’ which sets the goal to make China the world leader in AI by 2030. It has been endorsed by Xi Jinping who claimed that ‘being at the forefront in AI technology is critical to the future of global military and economic power competition’.

China outlined a three-step strategy in order to achieve the following goals: (a) by 2020, build a competitive position in AI on the global market and keep pace with implementation of the leading AI technologies); (b) by 2025, achieve breakthrough in the AI theory and its application in the economy; world-leading AI should be applied in various sectors such as smart manufacturing, national defense or smart healthcare and the value of AI-related industries should reach 5 trillion RMB; (c) by 2030, having achieved the most advanced level in the AI theory, applications and technologies, China should become the global center for AI economy and the AI-related technologies.

At the current stage, China has been implementing its first Three-Year Action Plan to Promote the Development of New Generation AI Industry. The main goal is to equalize China’s AI capacities with its major competitors by 2020. The three-year plan concentrates on four major objectives.   

Firstly, the Chinese AI business industry has to develop a particular range of intelligent and networked products such as vehicles, identification systems and service robots. Secondly, the industry must put an effort into the development of AI support system, where neural network chips and intelligent sensors will have to be produced with the use of China’s technologies. Going further, the third task is to improve the level of intelligent manufacturing. Last but not least, within three years, China wants to increase access to the industry training resources, enhance AI application in cyber-security and invest in standard testing. Important role is given to industrial partnerships created between the government and national tech companies to develop R&D capacities in specific fields of AI.

EU’s AI Strategy – What Can Be Done?    

The European Union has also joined the race to become a major player in the field of AI. In April 2018, the European Commission issued an official document that defines a coordinated European approach to artificial intelligence. This approach is based on three pillars: (a) ‘being ahead of technological developments and encouraging uptake by the public and private sectors; (b) preparing for socio-economic changes brought about by AI; (c) ensuring an appropriate ethical and legal framework. Worth noting is the fact that the Commission will increase its annual budget for AI by 70% under the already functioning Horizon 2020 program. In the period between 2018 and 2020, it will reach €1.5 billion. On the EU’s agenda, we may distinguish a few major goals, such as support for the development of an AI-on-demand platform or AI applications in key sectors.

However, the agenda set by the Commission represents only a small fraction of individual member states’ investments in the AI industry. In comparison to the Chinese AI plan, which is centralized and supervised by the Chinese government, EU member states are instead working on their own national AI strategies, with different sets of goals and ways of implementation. To be able to compete with economic powers such as China, it is necessary to fully implement the objectives of the coordinated action plan and come up with even more ambitious goals.

The first area that requires joint actions to improve cooperation between member states is access to available data. The size of China’s population and its economy create an incentive towards cloud computing and data storage. Because of the huge amounts of data, the artificial intelligence industry can be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world. To make EU equally competitive, all member states should work on increased accessibility to data.

At the same time, the overall investment in AI in the EU is low and fragmented. That is why all the EU member states should commit to increased investments in research and innovation in AI to reach at least €20 billion until 2020. By 2030, the AI industry in China is projected to be worth $150 billion, and the AI-enabled industries more than €1.2 trillion. China has already started effectively capitalizing on its investments in AI. In the last few years, China published more AI patents than the UK, France, and Germany combined, and the trend is ongoing.   

It is also necessary to focus on the relationship between the Chinese government and national tech companies that together cooperate in developing R&D capacities in the field of AI. Few months after launching the strategy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology decided to create ‘The Artificial Intelligence National Team’ that would partner with the Chinese government in the acceleration of the country’s efforts towards global AI leadership. Among the 15 national AI champions, companies like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, or Huawei have been designated to work on the specific areas of AI. This kind of close relationship between the Chinese government and business can be perceived as an undoubted competitive advantage of the Chinese strategy. The incapability of the EU to compete in this respect effectively may force the member states to create alternative solutions. One of them could be improved pan-EU AI clusters collaboration.

Ethical Issues Abound

Last but not least, it is also worth to mention that the EU’s human-centric AI approach has been a cornerstone of the common European policy. In December 2018, European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) released ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI. The EU puts focus on adherence to the fundamental ethical principles of “respect for human autonomy, prevention of harm, fairness and accountability.”

On the other hand, until very recently, China was widely perceived as the country that in general ignored ethical issues in AI. It seems that China has been trying – at least on paper – to catch up. Last year, Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (CAAI) was tasked with drawing up AI ethics guidelines in compliance with the global trends. The main objective of the Professional Committee for AI Ethics is to find the most suitable preventive measures for the risks that these technologies might bring. The group of experts among several sectors focuses on AI in senior care, self-driving vehicles and AI in medicine. However, while the move to consider ethics in AI development may seem reassuring, Beijing’s application of technologies like facial recognition to instill a vast surveillance regime in Xinjiang and enable human rights abuses show the discrepancies with reality.

China, with its comprehensive, centralized and heavily incentivized strategy has already been achieving visible progress on the way to leadership on AI. In order to compete effectively, the EU must consolidate individual member states’ efforts through the implementation of a ‘coordinated action plan’ that will create European data spaces, bolster European AI public–private partnerships and, most importantly, maximize investments in the industry. At the same time, the EU should strive to promote its human-centric AI ethical standards globally and engage China in order to facilitate ethical application of AI technologies.

Written by

Wojciech Adamczyk


Wojciech Adamczyk is a recent Master's graduate from Chinese Studies at King's College London. He currently cooperates with Poland Asia Research Centre (CSPA) and The Polish Forum of Young Diplomats