Last year on “Singles Day,” a shopping event on November 11 that Alibaba invented, the company sold more than $25 billion worth of merchandise. By contrast, on last year’s Cyber Monday (November 27), the biggest online shopping day in the US, all retailers combined brought in $6.59 billion.
Alibaba is already using AI and machine learning to optimize its supply chain, personalize recommendations, and build products like Tmall Genie, a home device similar to the Amazon Echo. China’s two other tech supergiants, Tencent and Baidu, are likewise pouring money into AI research. The government plans to build an AI industry worth around $150 billion by 2030 and has called on the country’s researchers to dominate the field by then.
Last October Ma announced that his company would spend $15 billion over the next three years on a research institute called the DAMO Academy (“discovery, adventure, momentum, and outlook”), dedicated to fundamental technologies.
China has long since shaken off its reputation for simply copying Western innovations. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), R&D spending in China grew tenfold between 2000 and 2016, rising from $40.8 billion to $412 billion in today’s dollars. The US still spends more—$464 billion in 2016—but its total has increased by only one-third since 2000.
Just a few quotes to get a sense of the scale of the resources that Chinese companies are putting into AI research. With this much R&D (and lack of the regulatory oversight required in other countries) it’s hard to see how the US and Europe can keep up. The article goes into a lot of depth, providing examples of advances in machine learning and other AI-based technologies, as well as the influence of government support on China’s technology industry. Well worth a read if you’re interested in the topic.