China and the UK should be partners in the AI revolution

A technology revolution is sweeping the world, and countries that most effectively seize the opportunities it creates will undoubtedly dominate the 21st century. As the race to harness artificial intelligence heats up, it’s vitally important that the UK drives the agenda alongside the US and China.

With world-class research institutions, a creative entrepreneurial culture, and some of the hottest AI companies in the world producing breakthroughs of global significance, the UK is well-positioned to continue to play a leading role on the world stage. According to a recent UK Government report, it’s the £630 billion question.

As such, during my visit to some of the UK’s top universities this week, I have two clear aims. First, as a technology investor I hope the trip will help me unearth the most talented AI entrepreneurs and ideas. Second, as a long-time tech executive who has spent 35 years thinking about AI at firms such as Apple, Microsoft and Google, I’ll be calling for much closer alignment between the UK’s AI ecosystem and the massive opportunity China presents as a market.

When the UK’s top AI company, Deepmind, beat the world champion at the ancient board game Go using its AlphaGo programme in 2016 — a decade sooner than expected — for people in China this represented much more than just a milestone of computer science. As hundreds of millions tuned in to watch the AlphaGo matches live, something far more profound was taking place. In ancient China, Go represented a sacred game. It was one of the four art forms to be mastered by any Chinese scholar. To be a master at Go, was to be both smart and noble. A master in life.

As a result, the crushing defeat at the hands of a “machine” was as significant a cultural awakening for China as I can remember. The ensuing AI frenzy that has unfolded in recent years has been remarkable.

The snowballing combination of Chinese investors, entrepreneurs and politicians will give China a big advantage as it ramps up AI investment, research and innovation. The Chinese government wants the country to be the centre of global innovation in AI by 2030.

If the UK is to keep its position as a leading research hub for AI it will need increasingly to build bridges with counterparts in China. The number of China’s hyper-engaged users and vast oceans of data mean the market is ripe to harness the cutting-edge research happening in the UK.

Combining the UK’s advantages in academia, scientific rigour and innovation with China’s huge market will generate untold economic and societal advances on both sides. The challenge for the UK will be to look east and find the courage to collaborate.

Dr Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures

Originally published at on January 17, 2018.

Written by

AI Expert, CEO of Sinovation Ventures (创新工场), founding President of Google China, Author of “AI Superpowers”

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