China has a big edge on the rest of the world when it comes to AI and data analysis. Photo: AFP/Peter Steffen/DPA

Some wars are won by attrition with roughly similar casualties on both sides. Others are unequal contests in which superiority in technology or organization leaves the losing side with most of the casualties.

Ancient battles with edged weapons, in which the side that turns and runs takes most of the damage, reflect superior organization.

Modern battles with unequal outcomes mostly reflect superior technology – Prussia’s breech-loading cannon in 1870, Japan’s long-range naval artillery in 1905 or Israel’s avionics advantage in 1982.

But the superior organization also achieved unequal outcomes in modern warfare, for example, Germany in 1940, Japan in Singapore in 1942 and Israel in 1967.


China has won what probably will be recorded as the decisive battle for hegemony with the United States over Covid-19, employing a combination of superior organization and technology. China, South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated the effectiveness of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies using artificial intelligence and big data.

Germany and Japan, which did not employ electronic contact tracing or apply AI to the analysis of patterns of contagion, did almost as well in controlling the disease with conventional public health methods.

Unlike China, Taiwan and South Korea, though, Germany and Japan have not succeeded in returning economic and civic life to normal.

No one expected, or planned for, this battle. Indeed, when it began neither side saw it as a battle. Nor is China the only winner: All of East Asia displayed more or less the same prowess in suppressing the pandemic, along with Germany, the sole winner among the major Western economies.

The United States and most of Western Europe continued to struggle. China seized the opportunity to conduct a vast national experiment in the application of artificial intelligence, and dozens of startup companies are developing the applicable technologies.

Asia Times was the first news organization to report China’s high-tech approach to virus control (“China Suppressed Covid-19 with AI and big data,” March 3, 2020). More details since have become available on China’s use of artificial intelligence for epidemic control, including a report from the Chinese government research institute CAICT, translated by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

An August 2020 report by CSET’s Emily Weinstein states: “The current global pandemic has given China a chance to amplify its efforts to apply artificial intelligence across the public and private spheres. Chinese companies are developing and retooling AI systems for control and prevention.”

China’s economy is expanding while the rest of the industrial world’s economies will shrink during 2020. As the International Monetary Fund summarizes the situation in its October 2020 World Economic Outlook:

During May and June, as many economies tentatively reopened from the Great Lockdown, the global economy started to climb from the depths to which it had plunged in April. But with the pandemic spreading and accelerating in places, many countries slowed reopening, and some are reinstating partial lockdowns. While the swift recovery in China has surprised on the upside, the global economy’s long ascent back to pre-pandemic levels of activity remains prone to setbacks.

Not only did the Asians suppress the first wave of infections with minimal death rates, they have also proven themselves resilient in the face of the recent second wave which in most Western countries have regained or surpassed the peak Covid-19 case rates of the spring and early summer.

Reported US coronavirus cases have climbed back to their April-May peak, and the death rate remains stubbornly high at about 700 per day, or an annual rate of more than 200,000 per year. The infection rate in the UK is twice the previous peak, and four times the previous peak in France. But the second wave barely has fluttered through East Asia.

Georgetown’s Emily Weinstein notes in her summary of Chinese government reports:

Xi Jinping has made artificial intelligence a primary focus of China’s innovation and high-tech development since 2012. Policies released under his leadership touch on various aspects of AI, from military applications to manufacturing, ecological preservation and healthcare. High-level guiding policies like the 2017 “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” call for increased AI usage in the development of intelligent medical care and health and elder care systems.

The emergence of Covid-19 in December 2019 has amplified these efforts, as Chinese companies of all sizes across AI-related sectors have developed and retooled AI systems for epidemic control and prevention. The State Council’s June 2020 White Paper, entitled “Fighting Covid-19: China in Action,” states that China has “fully utilized” artificial intelligence to not only research, analyze, and forecast Covid-19 trends and developments, but also to track infected persons, identify risk groups and facilitate the resumption of normal business operations.

Other Asian countries are adopting China’s technology. Japan’s economic ministry reports that 350 smart-city projects are underway in 40 cities in Southeast and South Asia.

Japan is studying Chinese smartphone apps and data analysis for possible inclusion in these projects. Tencent and Alibaba both introduced smartphone apps early in 2020 that identify individuals at high risk of Covid-19 exposure.

The use of smartphone apps has been reported widely in the West, but far more sophisticated technology is now commercially available in China.

The Chinese think tank report translated by Georgetown’s CSET observes that the Chinese tech startup Airdoc “uses intelligent devices, including retinal scanners and AI sensors, to assess employees’ vascular condition, body temperature, heart rate, breathing, and other data, alongside data on employees’ recent behavior, to quickly and effectively review the risks of employees returning to work.”

Airdoc was formed in 2015 “by core technology product teams from top companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Sina, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, etc,” according to the company’s website.

Another Chinese startup, Beijing SEEMMO Technology, “developed THOR, an intelligent temperature measurement and early warning system that employs high-precision body temperature cameras alongside intelligent facial detection, target tracking and facial recognition algorithms to “automatically take and record the temperatures of people at all access monitoring points, without contact or sensation.”

The company “claims that the system can take the temperatures of 100 people per minute, and that it is already being deployed in communities, parks, campuses, subways, bus stations, airports, and other crowded public areas.”

Beijing Infervision Technology, the Chinese think tank adds, “developed software that can look for symptoms and features associated with Covid-19 in CT scans. Infervision’s algorithm can allegedly spot characteristics of Covid-19, as distinct from other respiratory infections, in lung images. The software has been deployed to 34 hospitals across China.”

Rapid deployment of diagnostic technology and the use of AI to detect patterns and identify likely clusters of infection explains why Asian countries suppressed the pandemic with a far lower rate of testing than the US or the United Kingdom. The US has tested more than a third of its population to date, while the UK has tested more than 42%.

Japan has tested only 2% of its population, Taiwan about 4% and South Korea 5%. China reports that it tested 11% of its population. Contact tracing and analysis of the results focus testing on likely areas of infection.

When you don’t know what you are looking for – as in the US and Britain – you have to test everywhere.

AI applications in East Asia helped control Covid-19, but Covid-19 also provided a vast laboratory to develop and refine AI applications.

The Chinese never let a good crisis go to waste and Covid-19 provided a launchpad for China’s data scientists and entrepreneurs. The Covid-19 crisis may well denote China’s ascent to leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Artificial Intelligence, after all, requires teaching computers – which are inherently stupid – to identify markers of differentiation. The quality of the analysis depends on the size of the dataset.

Computer science could have not have devised a more useful dataset for the development of AI than the propagation of the Covid-19 virus. The exercise requires sophisticated real-time management of datasets involving impossibly large numbers of individual observations, and the ability to correlate locational, medical and demographic data with population sampling through forensic tests.

AI helped control the pandemic, but the pandemic gave Chinese AI an unprecedented push forward. The West hasn’t even begun to address the problem. And that is the most troubling observation of all.