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2020-06-01 1 ENGLISH REPORTS
This special report assesses the challenges that China is facing in developing its artificial intelligence (AI) industry due to unprecedented US technology export restrictions. A central proposition is that China’s achievements in AI lack a robust foundation in leading-edge AI chips, and thus the country is vulnerable to externally imposed supply disruptions. Success in AI requires mastery of data, algorithms and computing power, which, in turn, is determined by the performance of AI chips. Increasing computing power that is costeffective and energy-saving is the indispensable third component of this magic AI triangle. Research on China’s AI strategy has emphasized China’s huge data sets as a primary advantage. It was assumed that China could always purchase the necessary AI chips from global semiconductor industry leaders. Until recently, AI applications run by leading-edge major Chinese technology firms were powered by foreign chips, mostly designed by a small group of top US semiconductor firms. The outbreak of the technology war, however, is disrupting China’s access to advanced AI chips from the United States.1 Drawing on field research conducted in 2019, this report contributes to the literature by addressing China’s arguably most immediate and difficult AI challenges: → How to ensure that the country’s AI developers, implementers and users have secure access to specialized semiconductors that are needed for training an algorithm and for conducting inference with an already trained algorithm?
In the face of US technology restrictions, what realistic options does China have to substitute AI chip imports from the United States through local design and fabrication or through imports from other non-US sources? The report highlights China’s challenge of competing in AI, and contrasts America’s and China’s different AI development trajectories. Starting much later than the United States, Chinese universities and public research institutes have 1 As this report goes to press, the rapid spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), first identified in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, is further decoupling China from international trade and technology flows. conducted a significant amount of AI research (some of it at the frontier), but knowledge exchange with industry remains limited. Drawing on deep integration with America’s AI innovation system, Chinese AI firms, in turn, have focused primarily on capturing the booming domestic mass markets for AI applications, investing too little in AI research. To find out what is happening today in China’s AI chip design, capabilities and challenges are assessed, both for the large players (Huawei, Alibaba and Baidu) and for a small group of AI chip “unicorns.” The report concludes with implications for China’s future AI chip development.
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