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Google Is Already Late to China’s AI Revolution

Sitting on a stage in Wuzhen, China, a historic city up the river from Shanghai, Google chairman Eric Schmidt described what he called “the age of intelligence.”

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But he wasn’t talking about human intelligence. He meant machine intelligence. He trumpeted the rise of deep neural networks and other techniques that allow machines to learn tasks largely on their own, either by finding patterns in vast amounts of data or through their own trial and error. At Google, using a sweeping software tool called TensorFlow, engineers have built deep learning systems that can identify faces and objects in photos, recognize commands spoken into smartphones, and translate one language into another. Schmidt called this the biggest technological change of his lifetime.

Then he mentioned China’s three largest internet companies: Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba. All three, he said, could benefit from TensorFlow, which Google open sourced about 18 months ago, sharing it with the world at large. “All of them would be better off if they used TensorFlow,” Schmidt said of the Chinese internet giants. He said the software could predict what people want to purchase, help target ads, and even decide who should a get line of credit. “They can use TensorFlow to study the patterns of their business. They can use this technology to serve their customers faster.”

Delivered amidst the week-long Go match between Chinese grandmaster Ke Jie and AlphaGo, a seminal machine created by Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence lab, Schmidt’s words were not hyperbole. Deep learning and related technologies are fundamentally changing the way Google works, and they will change so many other companies—even entire industries—over the next several years. The trouble is that Schmidt undersells how far these technologies have already spread beyond the walls of Google. The age of intelligence has moved ahead much farther than he admits—especially in China.

Schmidt’s words accurately described the enormous power of modern neural networks. And they showed the enormity of Google’s progress and ambition in this area. But if you read between the lines, they also showed the limits of the company’s ambitions—namely: China. Though many in the West paint the deep learning revolution as a phenomenon driven by the big US internet companies, China is hardly far behind.

AI—Not Just American

Chinese companies like Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba are already using these same technologies, as are US giants like Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. Google took an early lead, mainly because it bought up so much of the key talent. But many others have embraced deep learning in big ways, including the largest internet companies in China. “It’s easy to fall into the old stereotype—the copy-to-China stereotype, that China is so far behind and they’re just importing everything—but that’s out of date,” says Adam Coates, the American-born AI researcher who now oversees Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI lab.

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