The world is in the grip of an unprecedented AI arms race, with the US and China surging ahead in a contest that could reshape our societies from the ground up, new data reveals.
More than 10,000 artificial intelligence (AI) companies have been founded since 2015, attracting private funding of $37 billion, and thousands of extra programmers have been drafted onto AI projects globally in the last three years as demand for the technology soars, a new index by Tortoise Intelligence shows.
AI technology simulates human intelligence to process information faster than conventional computers – often by learning from its mistakes. It has the potential to transform multiple industries from healthcare to finance, but has also been used to covertly monitor populations, develop deadly weaponry and transform the labour market.
Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, and Sir Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, have both warned about the dangers of such “thinking machines”. In 2018 Musk said that AI was more dangerous than nuclear weapons and called for global regulation: “It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential.” Hawking, who died last year, warned in 2014 that AI could “spell the end of the human race”.
To investigate this shift, the Global AI Index by Tortoise Intelligence has ranked 54 countries based on their AI capabilities, measuring performance across 150 indicators including research, coding platforms, investment and government spending. For the first time, it discloses the huge acceleration of AI across the globe as the technology becomes a new battleground for influence and power.
Since the Canadian government issued the first national AI strategy in 2017, at least 30 more countries have followed suit, our data shows. The number of AI companies has doubled in four years, with almost 20,000 now developing technologies ranging from self-driving cars to medical algorithms capable of detecting disease. Total investment in AI firms last year topped $26 billion – up from $7 billion in 2015 – according to Crunchbase, a business information platform.
On Github, the world’s biggest open source development platform, the number of Chinese contributions to AI code rose from 150 per year in 2015 to 13,000 per year today. Those from Americans rose from 7,000 to 42,000.
Tortoise Intelligence has developed the Index to further understanding among policy makers, entrepreneurs and the public of a new technology that some suggest is a breakthrough as remarkable as the discovery of electricity. “AI is one of the most important things humanity is working on,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said last year. “It holds the potential for some of the biggest advances we are going to see.”
Over 12 months, we measured 54 countries across seven key indicators: talent; infrastructure; operating environment; research; development; government strategy; and commercial ventures. Each indicator was weighted for importance after consultation with experts across the field.
The AI Index: key findings
- The US is the undisputed leader in AI development, the Index shows. The western superpower scored almost twice as highly as second-placed China, thanks to the quality of its research, talent and private funding. America was ahead on the majority of key metrics – and by a significant margin. However, on current growth experts predict China will overtake the US in just five to 10 years.
- China is the fastest growing AI country, our Index finds, overtaking the UK on metrics ranging from code contributions to research papers in the past two years. Last year, 85 per cent of all facial recognition patents were filed in China, as the communist country tightened its grip on the controversial technology. Beijing has already been condemned for using facial recognition to track and profile ethnic Muslims in its western region.
- Britain is in third place thanks to a vibrant AI talent pool and an excellent academic reputation. This country has spawned hugely successful AI companies such as DeepMind, a startup founded in 2010 which was bought by Google four years later for $500 million. Britain has been held back, however, by one of the slowest patent application process in any of the 51 countries. Other countries are snapping at its heels.
Other findings include:
- Despite playing a starring role in the space race and the nuclear arms race, Russia is a small player in the AI revolution, our data suggests. The country only comes 30th out of 54 nations, pushed down by its failure to attract top talent, and by a lack of research. Anxious to catch up, President Vladimir Putin announced last year a new centre for artificial intelligence hosted at the Moscow Institute for Physics and Technologies.
- Smaller countries – such as Israel, Ireland, New Zealand and Finland – have developed vibrant AI economies thanks to flexible visa requirements and positive government intervention. Israel’s Mobileye Vision Technology, which provides technology for autonomous vehicles, was purchased in 2017 by Intel for $15.3 billion.
- More than $35 billion has been publicly earmarked by governments to spend on AI development over the next decade, with $22 billion promised by China alone. Many more billions may have been allocated secretly through defence departments which are not made public.
- Countries are using AI in very different ways. Russia and Israel are among the countries focusing AI development on military applications. Japan, by contrast, is predominantly using the technology to cope with its ageing population.
Multiple nations have expanded their AI capabilities as ministers realise that attracting top AI talent and research is dependent on government-led investment.
This month, the government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil announced the creation of eight new AI labs, with one working in direct partnership with the Brazilian army. “Since we came to the government, this has been among the priority plans to improve the country’s capacity for AI,” the country’s science minister said.
Nigeria is pushing out AI initiatives too, announcing a new agency for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, while Slovenia have announced an International AI Research Centre in partnership with Unesco. Last month, Hungary’s Minister for Innovation and Technology announced the establishment of the Centre of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence.
“We are facing a widespread deployment of artificial intelligence in business and government,” Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN human rights chief, told us. “It’s important that we make this transition in a democratic, transparent and fair way. That’s what makes information underpinning the Global AI Index so vital – it gives us a basis for comparison, and highlights the areas where this is really working, and where more can be done.”
In India, thousands of citizens have enrolled in AI-based MOOCs – or “massive open online courses” – signalling a democratisation of education around computing. In terms of talent, India comes third overall. But the country ranks only 13th on investment and on other factors such as infrastructure, operating environment and research, it lies in the bottom half.
Choices made by national governments around AI policy will shape societies for years to come, experts predict. The global AI arms race is just heating up.