China’s AI Ambitions Are Setting the Pace, and Here’s The Lab that Proves it

From Technology Review

Inside the Chinese lab that plans to rewire the world with AI

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.

Alibaba is already China’s biggest R&D spender, forking out $2.6 billion in 2017. DAMO will effectively triple its research budget, to more than $7 billion. That most likely means Alibaba will overtake IBM, Facebook, and Ford and will narrow the gap with the world’s leaders, Amazon and Alphabet, which spent $16.1 billion and $13.9 billion respectively on R&D in 2017.

DAMO will include a portfolio of research groups working on fundamental and emerging technologies including blockchain, computer security, fintech, and quantum computing. But AI is the biggest focus, and it seems like the one with the greatest potential.

DAMO clearly takes inspiration from the great commercial research labs of the 20th century. Liu mentions, for instance, AT&T’s Bell Labs, which conducted fundamental research on materials, electronics, and software, producing breakthroughs including the transistor, the laser, and the charge-coupled device for digital imaging, as well as the UNIX operating system and the programming languages C and C++. Liu says Alibaba is also inspired by the way the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds different teams competing on the same project.


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