Chinese students work on the Ares, a humanoid bipedal robot designed by them with funding from a Shanghai investment company, displayed during the World Robot Conference in Beijing on Oct. 21, 2016. China’s goal is to transform the country into a global leader in artificial intelligence in just over a decade. (Ng Han Guan AP)
WASHINGTON – When a Google computer program beat the world’s best player of an ancient Chinese board game last May, it might have seemed like an incremental milestone.
But for some, the success of the program known as AlphaGo marked more than a man vs. machine clash. It set up a broader race between China and the United States over artificial intelligence, a competition that could mold the future of humankind just as the widespread arrival of electricity did in the last century.
The Go tournament took place in Wuzhen, a city of canals that is more than 1,300 years old, a fitting venue for a competition involving the strategy board game Go that has been played for several thousand years. Go is renowned for its complexity, and it is said that there are more variations to the game than there are atoms in the universe.
Perhaps it was a coincidence of timing, but the AlphaGo competition kicked off events that demonstrated China’s resolve to close the gap with — and quickly surpass — the United States in deploying artificial intelligence, or AI. Goals Chinese authorities announced last July are ambitious: Reach parity with the United States by 2020, achieve major breakthroughs by 2025, and “occupy the commanding heights of AI technology by 2030” as the world’s undisputed leader.