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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further decoupled China from international trade and technology flows. 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 cost-effective 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.
Drawing on field research conducted in 2019, this report contributes to the literature by addressing China’s arguably most immediate and difficult AI challenges. The report highlights China’s challenge of competing in AI, and contrasts America’s and China’s different AI development trajectories. 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.