In One Key A.I. Metric, China Pulls Ahead of the U.S.: Talent

When it comes to the artificial intelligence that powers chatbots like ChatGPT, China lags behind the United States. But when it comes to producing the scientists behind a new generation of humanoid technologies, China is pulling ahead.

New research shows that China has by some metrics eclipsed the United States as the biggest producer of A.I. talent, with the country generating almost half the world’s top A.I. researchers. By contrast, about 18 percent come from U.S. undergraduate institutions, according to the study, from MacroPolo, a think tank run by the Paulson Institute, which promotes constructive ties between the United States and China.

The findings show a jump for China, which produced about one-third of the world’s top talent three years earlier. The United States, by contrast, remained mostly the same. The research is based on the backgrounds of researchers whose papers were published at 2022’s Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems. NeurIPS, as it is known, is focused on advances in neural networks, which have anchored recent developments in generative A.I.

The talent imbalance has been building for the better part of a decade. During much of the 2010s, the United States benefited as large numbers of China’s top minds moved to American universities to complete doctoral degrees. A majority of them stayed in the United States. But the research shows that trend has also begun to turn, with growing numbers of Chinese researchers staying in China.

What happens in the next few years could be critical as China and the United States jockey for primacy in A.I. — a technology that can potentially increase productivity, strengthen industries and drive innovation — turning the researchers into one of the most geopolitically important groups in the world.

Generative A.I. has captured the tech industry in Silicon Valley and in China, causing a frenzy in funding and investment. The boom has been led by U.S. tech giants such as Google and start-ups like OpenAI. That could attract China’s researchers, though rising tensions between Beijing and Washington could also deter some, experts said.

(The New York Times has sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement of news content related to A.I. systems.)

China has nurtured so much A.I. talent partly because it invested heavily in A.I. education. Since 2018, the country has added more than 2,000 undergraduate A.I. programs, with more than 300 at its most elite universities, said Damien Ma, the managing director of MacroPolo, though he noted the programs were not heavily focused on the technology that had driven breakthroughs by chatbots like ChatGPT.

“A lot of the programs are about A.I. applications in industry and manufacturing, not so much the generative A.I. stuff that’s come to dominate the American A.I. industry at the moment,” he said.

While the United States has pioneered breakthroughs in A.I., most recently with the uncanny humanlike abilities of chatbots, a significant portion of that work was done by researchers educated in China.

Researchers originally from China now make up 38 percent of the top A.I. researchers working in the United States, with Americans making up 37 percent, according to the research. Three years earlier, those from China made up 27 percent of top talent working in the United States, compared with 31 percent from the United States.

“The data shows just how critical Chinese-born researchers are to the United States for A.I. competitiveness,” said Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies Chinese A.I.

He added that the data seemed to show the United States was still attractive. “We’re the world leader in A.I. because we continue to attract and retain talent from all over the world, but especially China,” he said.

Pieter Abbeel, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of Covariant, an A.I. and robotics start-up, said working alongside large numbers of Chinese researchers was taken for granted inside the leading American companies and universities.

“It’s just a natural state of affairs,” he said.

In the past, U.S. defense officials were not too concerned about A.I. talent flows from China, partly because many of the biggest A.I. projects did not deal with classified data and partly because they reasoned that it was better to have the best minds available. That so much of the leading research in A.I. is published openly also held back worries.

Despite bans introduced by the Trump administration that prohibit entry to the United States for students from some military-linked universities in China and a relative slowdown in the flow of Chinese students into the country during Covid, the research showed large numbers of the most promising A.I. minds continued coming to the United States to study.

But this month, a Chinese citizen who was an engineer at Google was charged with trying to transfer A.I. technology — including critical microchip architecture — to a Beijing-based company that paid him in secret, according to a federal indictment.

The substantial numbers of Chinese A.I. researchers working in the United States now present a conundrum for policymakers, who want to counter Chinese espionage while not discouraging the continued flow of top Chinese computer engineers into the United States, according to experts focused on American competitiveness.

“Chinese scholars are almost leading the way in the A.I. field,” said Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor and researcher of A.I. at Arizona State University. If policymakers try to bar Chinese nationals from research in the United States, he said, they are “shooting themselves in the foot.”

The track record of U.S. policymakers is mixed. A policy by the Trump administration aimed at curbing Chinese industrial espionage and intellectual property theft has since been criticized for errantly prosecuting a number of professors. Such programs, Chinese immigrants said, have encouraged some to stay in China.

For now, the research showed, most Chinese who complete doctorates in the United States stay in the country, helping to make it the global center of the A.I. world. Even so, the U.S. lead has begun to slip, to hosting about 42 percent of the world’s top talent, down from about 59 percent three years ago, according to the research.

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