In 2017 Russian president Vladimir Putin said that whoever becomes the world leader in the sphere of artificial intelligence (AI) will become the ruler of the world. Unsurprisingly, given his position (and previous form), his words were widely interpreted by the press as an attempt to draw divisions between nations – in particular, the two AI superpowers, China and the USA. A more benign interpretation could be that he was calling attention to the immense benefits to business and society that AI is predicted to deliver (and in many cases, already is). Rather than talking about nations establishing or maintaining dominance over other nations, he was referring to the emergence of new business and social leaders, with the power to drive change across industry and society. Worryingly, the most likely truth is that he was talking about both.

Those enthusing over AI’s potential to radically disrupt just about every area of industry and the economy are behind the curve – it’s clearly already happening. In my book, I explore more than 50 current use cases involving cognitive, self-learning computer technology. Many of them are in a mature stage of deployment and generating real growth and results. No, we aren’t quite at the stage where we can have an “intelligent” conversation with a machine that is indistinguishable from talking to a living human. And machine intelligence hasn’t yet evolved to become so superior to our own that we face the imminent threat of redundancy.

But technologies such as machine learning and its most recent evolution, deep learning, are making it possible to hand over to machines not just mundane, repetitive work such as production lines but also tasks which require complex analysis and decision making, such as designing buildings or vehicles and diagnosing illness.

This is where the lines between nationalistic rhetoric and enterprising endeavour begin to blur, and the difficulty of understanding the intention behind words like Putin’s becomes apparent. While Silicon Valley leaders may, as the cliché goes, love to talk about “changing the world,” it is politicians who still make the rules that they must play by.

The promise of business AI is that it can drive huge efficiency across the entirety of organisations, by enabling more accurate predictions and lowering the costs associated with “trial and error” design, production, logistics, and marketing operations. This will have an enormous impact on national economies.

If you’re a leader of an advanced world economy, it’s your job to make sure that it’s your own economy and people that are reaping the benefits. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that AI will likely lead to enormously more sophisticated weapons and defence technology, as that’s outside of the scope of what I am writing about here. The economic boost driven by civilian AI applications alone will massively raise the prominence on the world stage of nations that are leaders in the race towards AI.

China may currently lag slightly behind the US when it comes to the development and implementation of new AI technologies – with close to five times the population of the US; it is said to have roughly half the number of AI experts. But it has several advantages that are likely to come into play as the race progresses. Its vast online population means Chinese AI companies potentially have access to much larger pools of user data – the fuel of AI applications. This is further bolstered by the impact of certain cultural differences, including a lowered resistance to intrusions by the state or enterprise on individual privacy.

It also benefits from the large amount of support and licence its AI leaders – Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent – receive from the Chinese state. Allegedly spurred by Google AI subsidiary Deep Mind’s mastery of the ancient Chinese strategy game Go, China nominated the “Big Three” as the nation’s AI champions and stated its intention to become the world leader in AI by 2030.

In the US, the administration led by Donald Trump, and driven by his “America First” economic agenda – has interpreted this link between the Chinese AI industry and the state as, at best, aggressively confrontational and, at worst, a threat to national security.

The inevitable incursion into the AI field by politicians is unlikely to be welcomed by those on either side of the planet who have been responsible for its emergence as a driving force in business. The trend of sharing information and research in the AI space globally via the internet, as well as the steps that have been taken towards building open standards, have played a big part in the technological advances of the past decade.

It’s also unlikely to be welcomed by those who are calling for greater transparency and an end to the “black box problem” of AI. Decisions taken by intelligent machines are sometimes difficult for humans to understand due to the complex analytical processes involved, and the disparate datasets the decisions can be based on. This is considered to be particularly problematic when the decisions are ones that affect human lives, such as whether to pay out on insurance claims, whether or not a claim to welfare entitlement is valid and how to safely navigate autonomous vehicles.

Ultimately, however, it’s worth remembering that if history has taught us anything, it’s that it’s very difficult for even the most stubborn of politicians or global leaders to stand in the way of technological progress. Tensions between east and west may currently be running high, leading to conditions that are less favourable to the development and distribution of breakthrough technologies than they were perhaps five or ten years ago. But progress is continuing to be made, and ultimately public opinion is likely to be the final arbiter on the future of AI – just as it is on the future of politicians.


Bernard Marr is the founder and CEO of Bernard Marr & Co and a business author, futurist, keynote speaker and strategic advisor to companies and governments. He is an expert in artificial intelligence and big data, and has written three books on these topics. Marr advises organisations on strategy, digital transformation and business performance.