By Jonathan Vanian
April 9, 2019

Chinese tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are rapidly improving their artificial intelligence, challenging current U.S. tech leaders like Google and Amazon.

China’s so-called BAT companies, as New York University business professor and futurist Amy Webb calls them in her latest book, The Big Nine, get a big boost from their government’s funding and tech-friendly policies. Government support has helped embed the BAT companies’ technologies across China, in everything from mobile messaging and e-commerce, to digital payments and health care.

In an interview with Fortune, Webb contrasted the relationship between China’s government and that country’s A.I. titans with their U.S counterparts and the Trump Administration. In short, the gap is huge—and it could have profound implications for the U.S. economy.

The White House and Pentagon have “very little understanding of what A.I. actually is and how it actually works,” Webb says, mincing few words. This hamstrings the U.S. government from implementing A.I. policies similar to China’s that are aimed at creating a skilled workforce.

In China, some grade school children are taught A.I.’s fundamentals. In the U.S., well, not so much.

Meanwhile, some U.S. tech workers are at war with their government, exemplified by Google’s employees protesting the search giant’s military contracts that involve A.I. The tensions, Webb says, make it more difficult for the U.S. government to harness the best A.I. technology.

Her remedy is for U.S. tech companies to be more transparent about their government work. The more secretive they are the more they breed distrust.

At the same time, U.S. political leaders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren increasingly criticize the tech industry while accusing them of potential anti-trust violations. It’s a sharp contrast to China, where corporations and government work together, including on luring back U.S. educated Chinese techies to work for Chinese companies.

In China, “nobody is going to be using their political campaigns to point fingers to garner votes,” Webb says.

Eventually, she expects China to ingrain itself more into the economies of other countries, giving its BAT companies greater business access. Italy’s recent decision to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, intended to spread Chinese infrastructure and products worldwide, foreshadows things to come.

For example, China could encourage developing countries to adopt aspects of its A.I.-powered social credit system, a controversial approach to giving individual citizens the equivalent of Yelp scores that factor into everything from getting loans to being able to travel. It may not be this year or the next year, Webb says, but perhaps 10 years from now, eventually weakening the U.S. government and the influence of U.S. tech companies worldwide.

“I think democracy is at stake—I’m not joking,” Webb says. “I think our way of living is at stake and the future of how we do business globally is at stake.”

Jonathan Vanian
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

 

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