AI image: I-HLS

The names of the two computer scientists in this report have been changed, but their stories are true.

Much has been written about China’s numerical advantage in science and engineering. China awarded 1.38 million engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2020. The comparable American number is 197,000 (144,000 in engineering and 54,000 in computer science), or just one-seventh of China’s total.

This is a daunting disparity. But our story has to do with quality rather than quantity, with the creative handful of top graduates who are most likely to innovate.

Two years ago, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Harvard political scientist Graham Allison warned: “Most Americans assume that their country’s lead in advanced technologies is unassailable. And many in the US national-security community insist that China can never be more than a “near-peer competitor” in AI. In fact, China is already a full-spectrum peer competitor in terms of both commercial and national-security AI applications. China is not just trying to master AI; it is mastering AI.”

China is pulling ahead of the United States in AI, the definitive technology of the economic revolution now underway, because it directs its top talent toward the frontier of science – while America’s brightest graduates chase the low-hanging fruit of Internet applications. These two vignettes help explain why this is happening.

1: A Chinese choice

The newly minted Chinese computer science PhD pondered two documents on his computer screen. One was a job offer from China’s Space and Exploration Agency. The second was another offer from Shenzhen AI Innovation Corporation. He had just finished his doctorate in computer engineering with a specialty in AI-based imagine recognition at China’s most prestigious scientific school

Dr Wong, as we will call him,  is about five feet five tall.  Thick glasses with black frames give him an owlish appearance, marked by the fatigue of the sixteen-hour days and seven-day weeks he spent finishing his dissertation. He was one of the top students in his undergraduate and graduate classes, especially in mathematics.

Like many of his classmates, Wong’s family has modest means and his parents sacrificed for his education. The average Chinese family spends the equivalent of a year’s income on tutoring, but Wong’s parents had done even more.  They are proud of his achievements,  and he considers how to show his gratitude.

Once he makes some money, he will buy them an apartment, close to one he hopes to buy for himself. He dreams of a wife and children, and that will require more money. Chinese homes are expensive, but the high-tech elite has unprecedented earning potential. Wong is luckier than most of his generation. A fifth of Chinese his age without college degrees lack jobs.

The two job offers embodied the Wong family’s future happiness. A message came with the space agency’s proposal: Dr Wong could contribute to China’s global leadership in space exploration, and his expertise in image recognition could be used for military and commercial applications.

He would live and work in the old Silk Road city of Xi’an, one of China’s Four Great Ancient capitals, famous for its terra cotta warriors and now a metropolis of 12 million. The history mattered less to Dr Wong than his family ties to the town. The Space Agency would house him in a 90-square-meter apartment—nearly 1,000 square feet, big enough for a wife. The house would become his after he worked for the organization for five years.

His initial salary would be 55,000 yuan (about $8,200) a  month, nearly ten times the average salary in Xian, and he would be exempt from conscription into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As a government employee, he would be entitled to an attractive retirement plan by his late 50s.

And his parents would be proud of a son who worked for the Chinese military’s top scientific institution. China’s space program barely existed a decade ago, but in 2019 its robotic spacecraft Chang’e 4 made the first-ever landing on the dark side of the moon. China’s ambitions in space are boundless, and that appealed to the young man who had worked his way up to the ranks of the scientific elite.

Chang’e 4 on the dark side of the moon. Photo: Creative Commons

Another job offer would take him to  Shenzhen, a fishing village just a generation ago and now China’s answer to Silicon Valley. He would join an entrepreneurial startup applying AI to virtual reality headsets. Invented in the US, the technology is one that Chinese companies hope to dominate in a few years.

The Shenzhen job paid 50,000 yuan a month, plus low-interest loans to buy an apartment in one of the world’s priciest housing markets. He also could live gratis in a company dormitory. It involved a 14-hour workday – Wong knew no other kind of day. And he would have stock in the startup, which might make him rich or leave him penniless. He wasn’t averse to taking risks.

China’s military and aerospace efforts are a favored venue for its brightest graduates. Most are concentrated in central cities like Xi’an or western cities like the 60-million twin megalopolis of Chengdu and Chongqing, newly built behemoths crossed by six-lane thoroughfares and studded with new skyscrapers, where an apartment sells for a sixth of the price of one in Shenzhen or Shanghai.

Like most Chinese, Dr Wong knows his history – or, rather, a history of China’s long suffering at the hands of European imperialists and Japanese invaders. He grew up watching movies about heroic, tragic Chinese heroes defending their homeland against Japanese invaders or fighting American soldiers in Korea.

Every trade restriction and every public pronouncement by an American politician about China’s challenge to the United States is amplified by the Chinese media, as an exhortation to young Chinese to redouble their efforts to surpass the US in technology. When China’s government denounces American efforts to suppress China’s development, by denying access to technology or restricting its trade, Dr Wong is indignant, as are most Chinese.

His parents grew up in extreme poverty, and his grandparents lived through the terrible hunger of the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s. How dare the rich Americans envy the Chinese who have worked so hard for a modest degree of prosperity, he thinks. Dr Wong is proud of China’s achievements and mindful of the sacrifices that his parents’ generation made to ensure China’s prosperity. He can’t imagine how China might threaten America, but fears America’s threats to China. 

Dr Wong made lists of the advantages and disadvantages of the two offers until late in the night. At length, he decided to take the government job with its generous salary, roomy apartment and amenable lifestyle – and give something back to China. His parents, he thought, will be proud of him.

Dr Wong isn’t exceptional. China’s military and aerospace sectors have the pick of the country’s best engineering graduates – and there are a lot to choose from. China graduates six times as many engineers each year as the United States, and a third of its undergraduates major in the field.

It is regarded as an honor to work for the government. Chinese military and aerospace engineers have access to high-performance supercomputers and are working on the latest generation of technologies, with access to advanced semiconductor products. And after working with leading-edge technologies for the Chinese government, they will have their pick of jobs in the private sector.

Stanford University. Photo: Creative Commons

2: US military industry can’t hire top computing talent

Andrew just completed his PhD at Stanford University in a branch of computer science that is also related to AI.

Several venture capitalists and software companies approached Andrew with lucrative offers – for example, enough stock options to give him a fortune of $10 million if his employer succeeds. And he would draw a salary of  $150,000 per year.

Recruiters from US defense and aerospace industries also visited Stanford. They offered competitive starting salaries, but his future earning potential would be less than in Silicon Valley.

What most surprised Andrew was the work itself. The defense projects that he would undertake involved technology older than what he’d learned in his undergraduate classes. Programming technologies within the military and aerospace AI projects were several generations behind the Silicon Valley standard, and Andrew had no interest in obsolete technology.

In many cases, the software technology for new hardware is up to 20 years behind leaders in the US because the engineers that are already employed in the military and aerospace ecosystem are not skilled in the latest generation of AI technologies. To a remarkable extent, the US military depends on Israel for innovation in the field.

One of Andrew’s school friends was Israeli and planned to return there for work.  The level of AI capabilities under development in Israel is ten years or more ahead of what the US military and aerospace companies do. Details of these projects are secret, but the tools applied to them are broadly understood.  

Neither Andrew nor his college friends seriously considered careers in US defense and aerospace industries, which ended up hiring graduates of second and third-tier schools. Andrew went to work for a Big Tech company and didn’t even consider offers from aerospace-defense companies.

Google and other Big Tech companies have first call on top talent. They pay computer science professors to flag their best students for internships. But Big Tech won’t work with the US military, mainly because the woke culture at the tech giants thinks there is something wicked about defense. In 2018 thousands of Google staffers signed a letter to chief executive Sundar Pichai declaring, “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war.”

Tech companies have refused to conduct classified work for the government in such areas as three-dimensional facial recognition, citing fears that the technology might be used for racial profiling. In the meantime, other countries, notably Israel and China, are making rapid advances in three-dimensional facial recognition technology with peacetime applications to logistics and medical imaging.

Another deal-breaker for top American talent is the stolid corporate culture of the defense and aerospace industries. They are hierarchical, and reward seniority and conformity more than they reward innovation. American defense contractors have had little incentive to innovate in the past two decades. They do well selling decades-old systems – the F-35 fighter, the Patriot and Aegis anti-missile systems, the Stinger surface-to-air missile – with incremental rather than fundamental improvements.

Citizenship is another factor; foreigners can’t do classified work, and many top graduates in computer engineering (and roughly four-fifths of recipients of doctorates in the field) are foreign-born. It can take many years to become a citizen.

China has no problem with obsolete legacy systems. It never had the old software to begin with, and has the benefit of the late adopter in starting out with the state of the art. Somewhere between 2025 and 2030, Chinese software will move well ahead of the United States, especially in AI.

China’s ambitions

China this year launched a third aircraft carrier that displaces 80,000 tons, close to the 100,000-ton Ford and Nimitz class of American carriers.  Although the US still can claim to be a decade ahead of China in carriers, China just ten years ago had not built a carrier. It may achieve parity with the United States in the next ten years.

China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, is launched in Shanghai on June 17, 2022. Photo: VCG

China isn’t building carriers to battle with the American navy. It fields more than 1,200 surface-to-ship missiles that can strike maneuvering ships. The limited anti-missile defenses of American carriers can easily be swamped by multiple strikes.

China also has more than 1,000 modern interceptor aircraft and sixty modern diesel-electric submarines. It is developing powerful lasers that can destroy American communications satellites and damage ships. It has hypervelocity glide vehicles against which the United States has no defense. And it is developing its own anti-missile capability.

China is the global leader in 5G communications technology as well as quantum communications. China is also building its own space station and launching 5G communications satellites.

Between 2025 and 2020, China expects a breakout in artificial intelligence applications to a wide range of technology. And driving this effort is an unprecedented flood of talent.

Just 3% of the generation that migrated from farms to factories after 1979 under the Deng Xiaoping reforms had tertiary education. Now 60% of Chinese high school graduates go on to further education.

But the decisive element is not the quantity but the quality: China’s aerospace and military sector hires the most talented engineers. Their American competitors can’t.

Handel Jones is the author of a new book called When AI Rules the World: China, the U.S., and the Race to Control a Smart Planet. David P. Goldman is deputy editor of Asia Times. Follow him on Twitter