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China is playing next-generation leapfrog with the West

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The West is hobbled by blind spots when it comes to China’s ambitions to dominate next-generation technologies like AI, robotics and quantum computing. This leads to bad assumptions — for example, that U.S. military superiority will carry over into the coming era of autonomous warfare.

But experts say its history makes the U.S. uniquely ill suited to navigate this seismic shift.

What's happening: China all but missed out on the West's 20th century technological explosion. But its very lagging position may become a boon as it attempts to leapfrog over the West, experts say.

  • This edge is called a second-mover advantage — "the advantage of being behind," says Gregory C. Allen, of the Center for a New American Security, author of a new report on China's AI ambitions.
  • The U.S. military has long held a lead in both spending and technology — but the physics of inertia threaten to keep it stuck making incremental improvements to the 20th century tech that pushed it to the top.
  • Meanwhile, China is pushing much harder than the U.S. into next-generation tech, like semi-autonomous armed drones, military robots, and AI-powered cybersecurity, Allen says.

"I would underscore the power and strength of muscle memory in the Defense Department," says Mara Karlin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. She goes on:

"It can be very easy to keep doing what we’re doing, especially when it has borne at least some fruits, and profoundly difficult to shift away from our institutionalized, regimented processes."

China has a record of such leapfrogging.

  • In the 1980s, China trailed the West in rolling out copper wire for telephones. But that meant that China took up cell phones far quicker than Europe or the U.S., Denis Simon, an expert on Chinese innovation at Duke University, tells Axios.
  • Decades later, China "completely skipped the credit card era and entered the age of mobile payment," says Joy Ma, a Paulson Institute analyst. The U.S. saw $49 billion in mobile payments in 2017, compared to $13 trillion in China in the first 10 months of that year.

But, but, but: When it comes to the military jump, there's plenty standing in China's way, says William Carter, a tech policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • China struggles with data quality, manufacturing, cybersecurity, and various other essential building blocks, Carter tells Axios.
  • Plus, China's military will resist the disruption to its longstanding power structures that could come with adopting AI.

A fundamental problem is that the U.S. seems to be sitting on its hands while China speeds forward, critics say.

  • "We in the U.S. have an existing set of AI investments but neither at the levels at which we should be investing nor at the speed with which we should be moving," says Wendy R. Anderson, general manager for defense and national security at SparkCognition and former chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
  • "Blaming our slowness on others is part of the problem and simply perpetuates the status quo, which is in the long term both unsustainable and, frankly, undermines our national security."

By the numbers:

  • The biggest American investment in AI research comes from DARPA, which has committed to $2 billion in funding over five years.
  • The contours of China's funding aren't entirely apparent, but what's clear is that Chinese funding is operating on a completely different order of magnitude. Two provincial governments are planning to invest $15 billion each in AI, and more are likely to follow.

Go deeper: The West has a China blind spot

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