April 12, 2016      

Artificial intelligence is storming onto the world stage. In 2015, the global AI market was valued at $127 billion, and it is expected to hit $165 billion in 2016. Between 2014 and 2022, the global AI market is expected to grow by more than 25%, with the Asia-Pacific region leading this growth.

Dozens of countries are part of this global AI race. But each country is pursuing AI for different reasons and in different ways. Two of the biggest drivers are national security and economic competitiveness. Let’s explore some examples.

The U.S. leads in AI R&D — for now

The U.S. is the undisputed leader in artificial intelligence in academic research, government-supported development, and commercial and public applications. The U.S. government focuses on one area of AI in particular: national security.

Last year, the Pentagon requested $12 billion to $15 billion to develop new technologies to improve America’s military edge. Among them is AI to fuel “autonomous weapons” and deep-learning machines.

At the same time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on multiple AI projects.

One project is called “Eyeriss.” It’s a small microchip that can fit into a smartphone and supposedly has AI equal to the human brain. The microchip has 168 cores, compared with the four-core processors found in most phones. DARPA want to use this in drones and robots operating on the battlefield.

A second DARPA project involves using AI to create new jamming frequencies in real time for fighter jets. Currently, these frequencies are created “manually.”

Recently, DARPA launched a “Grand Challenge” to create an artificial intelligence that allows radio waves to work together instead of competing with each other for bandwith.

The Pentagon is using IBM Watson to improve the federal procurement process. Watson will be used to purchase new products/services and “break the bureaucracy.” One of the first projects Watson will work on is upgrading the weapon systems on F-35 fighter jets. (Each plane costs about $100 million.)

At the same time, IBM is lending its supercomputing capabilities to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is in charge of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Among other tasks, the lab will use IBM’s supercomputer to explore reductions in the number of nuclear weapons in circulation globally.

AI is so core to U.S. defense strategy that it represents the foundation of what the Pentagon calls the “Third Offset Strategy.” The Pentagon has created these strategies to improve America’s defensive capabilities over the decades.

The first offset strategy revolved around tactical nuclear weapons, and the second looked at GPS to guide bombs. The third offset strategy is based on machine learning and other advanced technologies.

AlphaGo plays human Go champion.

Google DeepMind defeated AlphaGo, drawing South Korean attention to AI.

South Korea invests almost $1B in AI

South Korea sees AI as a crucial sector to compete in the future global economy. In March 2016, the South Korean government announced close to $1 billion in funding for AI over the next five years — a 55 percent increase.

The AI investment was prompted by Google Inc.’s DeepMind AI beating AlphaGo. In response to the defeat, the South Korean president highlighted how, as a society, South Korea is “lucky” to learn about AI before it’s too late. She called AI the “fourth industrial revolution.”

This is a new focus, not just by South Korea but also in many countries, on using new technologies to boost their economies. It was the major theme of the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF).

For South Korea, this latest industrial revolution means a blend of different technologies. Alongside AI, South Korea is also looking to automation to compete. In 2015, the South Korean government signed a contract with Samsung to develop robots that replace Chinese labor.

South Korea is said to be two to three years behind other nations in AI, but its government has already taken steps to close the gap. The Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) has poured $89 million into an AI project called “Exobrain.” The goal? Beat IBM Watson.

Another project called DeepView has been in development since 2014 to analyze real-time images.

Alongside the government steps, South Korea’s businesses are investing in AI. In one report, Samsung was listed as the fourth-largest AI investor in the world. The company is “actively looking for M&A [mergers and acquisitions] of all sorts in the software area,” a Samsung executive vice president recently told Bloomberg.

Through its Samsung Ventures arm, the company has already invested in at least six AI startups: MindMeld, Vicarious, Idibon, Reactor Labs, Automated Insights, and Maluuba.

In Australia, Samsung is testing the “Holy Smart Home Platform” to improve at-home care for seniors.

China Supports AI Competition

China’s artificial intelligence strategy is a blend of the South Korean and U.S. approaches. The government needs AI to grow its economic clout globally and to ensure national security at home.

Beijing-based Horizon Robotics Inc. (a spinoff of the Institute of Deep Learning) has created “AI on a chip.”

These microprocessors come with some intelligence built into them, allowing objects such as appliances to operate and communicate in brand-new ways, even without the Internet. Horizon Robotics plans to launch this commercially in 2017.

China’s AI strategy has been gaining momentum for decades. As far back as the 1960s, universities in China were researching AI, and in the 1970s, these schools created courses to explore related theories and concepts.

Baidu's Minwa supercomputer

Baidu has suggested that AI can predict civil unrest.

Last year, Dell Inc. invested $125 billion into China’s artificial intelligence sector, while Microsoft has more than 200 researchers there working on “next-generation technologies,” including AI.

In terms of national security, artificial intelligence gives China an important tool: population control. Baidu Inc. has released an academic paper that outlines using AI combined with Baidu Maps to “predict” when “dangerous crowds” will form. In turn, law-enforcement authorities can use this data.

The Chinese government is working on intelligent software to give citizens a “credit score” based on their digital activity. People who make comments opposing the government or who engage in other disruptive behavior will have a lower score.

AI in Japan, India, and the U.A.E.

Three other countries are also taking steps with artificial intelligence for national security and/or economic competitiveness. Like South Korea, Japan is looking to artificial intelligence to fuel a new industrial revolution.

In the past two years, the Japanese government has unveiled its “New Robot Strategy.” The plan revolves around using robotics and automation in almost every part of the economy, largely relying on AI and big data.

In May 2015, the Japanese government created the Artificial Intelligence Research Center. It also launched the Advanced Integrated Intelligence Platform Project.

India has been involved in AI since at least the 1980s. In 1986, the Indian government launched the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), which conducts research and development for the military.

In 2013, CAIR’s Netra project captured keywords, Internet calls, e-mail, and more in real time to improve security and combat terrorism.

In 2014, the United Arab Emirates launched an international council to explore the uses of robotics and AI. In the past two years, the U.A.E. has awarded a $1 million prize as part of its AI and Robotics Award for Good competition. Can the small nation diversify its economy by developing new technologies?

National security and economic competitiveness remain the key drivers for a handful of countries.

But the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and India are not the only players in this new AI battlefield, where advances in AI are becoming as important as a nation’s exports or foreign reserves.

Other emerging players in AI include Russia, the U.K., and Israel. However, their AI advances revolve around something else: “soft power,” which we’ll explore in my next article.