(iStock)

Humanity may still be years if not decades away from producing sentient artificial intelligence. But with the rise of machine-learning services in our smartphones and other devices, one type of narrow, specialized AI has become all the rage. And the research on this branch of AI is only accelerating.

In fact, as more industries and policymakers awaken to the benefits of machine learning, two countries appear to be pulling away in the research race. The results will probably have significant implications for the future of AI.


(Office of Science and Technology Policy/The White House)

If you're not familiar with the term, “deep learning” is a subset of the overall branch of AI known as machine learning — which basically involves the use of computer algorithms to perform pattern recognition and analysis. It's this type of AI that powers personal digital assistants such as Google Now, for example.

The chart above was published Wednesday by the Obama administration as part of a new strategic plan aimed at spurring U.S. development of artificial intelligence. What's striking about it is that although the United States was an early leader on deep-learning research, China has effectively eclipsed it in terms of the number of papers published annually on the subject. The rate of increase is remarkably steep, reflecting how quickly China's research priorities have shifted.

The quality of China's research is also striking. The chart below narrows the research to include only those papers that were cited at least once by other researchers, an indication that the papers were influential in the field.


(Office of Science and Technology Policy/The White House)

Compared with other countries, the United States and China are spending tremendous research attention on deep learning. But, according to the White House, the United States is not investing nearly enough in basic research.

“Current levels of R&D spending are half to one-quarter of the level of R&D investment that would produce the optimal level of economic growth,” a companion report published this week by the Obama administration finds.

The government is pushing for a major role for itself in AI research, and here's why: Becoming a leader in artificial-intelligence research and development puts the United States in a better position to establish global norms on how AI should be used safely. When AI stands to transform virtually everything including labor, the environment, and the future of warfare and cyberconflict, the United States could be put at a disadvantage if other countries, such as China, get to dictate terms instead.