As you may have heard, the Chinese government is investing quite heavily in artificial intelligence (AI), aiming to become a world leader in the field within the next decade. And some in the U.S. believe it. But if I were advising the PRC government, I would suggest that this may not be the best field for China to focus on. The old tradition of a rote memory approach to learning is still thriving in China. There is no change likely, as it is a cultural issue, not just policy. And rote memory thinking is absolutely antithetical to good AI.
As I write this in China, the emphasis on AI is in evidence in many ways. One that really struck me the other day emerged in my visit to my favorite bookstore in China, Shanghai’s Shucheng (“Book City”). Wonderful place, five or six floors, mostly in Chinese. And there it was, an entire table devoted to AI:
The other side of the table, not pictured, is also completely filled with AI titles.
This put AI on an equal footing with famous programming languages such as C++ and Java, and dwarfed the stock of two or three AI titles I saw on my last visit two years ago.
And yet, my talk about AI at a Chinese university the week before exposed the major cultural obstacle I described above. The hospitality shown me was great, and people asked good questions during the Q&A at the end of the talk. But one of the questions floored me: “How can you be so passionate about your subject matter?” I believe that the questioner, a grad student, was curious about this because he himself lacked such passion. He was there to study this field mainly because of a perceived hot job market. He will learn a few AI methods, but will have no idea as to what they really mean in actual applications. Keen intuitive insight is key in applications, and the rote-memory, learn-some-recipes approach just won’t work well.
This was not an isolated incident by any means, as I have written in detail before. Indeed, even though the professor who invited me does have a genuine interest in the subject, he too wondered about my passion, saying “It’s amazing that you are still so active” (i.e. in spite of my gray hair).
With such a huge population, China does in fact have some people who are not rote-memory oriented, and who are quite creative. Unfortunately, the system does not favor them, and arguably tends to weed them out. The Chinese government is aware of this and wants very much to remedy it, but I don’t think even they realize how deep the cultural roots go on this matter.
So, fear in the U.S. that China is breathing down its neck on AI is misguided. But so is the hoopla on AI itself. What is today regarded as AI is not traditional artificial intelligence in the first place. “AI” today means machine learning, which in turn is hype about old nonparametric statistical prediction methods, applied to modern huge and complex data sets. Highly important and useful, yes, but not new.