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China leads in the race to create smart cities

AI City Challenge // Illustration by Kate Walker

China leads in the race to create smart cities


Future. For the first time in the competition’s history, China swept every category of the AI City Challenge, showing how the country’s steep investment in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, have helped it pull away from the pack. If the U.S. hopes to stay ahead and keep privacy at the forefront of AI, it may need to invest way more in research and development, while also becoming the thought leader in how to use that tech.

Bright AI, Big City
Four years ago, an organization of top researchers, academics, and executives created the AI City Challenge to spur on the development of a smart city. This year, China blew away the competition of over 40 countries.

  • Chinese companies or universities took first and second place in all five of the challenge’s main competitions.
  • Alibaba, Baidu, and ByteDance were three of the biggest winners.

The victories make sense since nearly every Chinese city has a smart city pilot program and currently has half of the smart cities in existence, with the country heavily invested in AI, 5G, and surveillance networks.

It’s China’s investment in surveillance networks — particularly the idea of being able to track any person or vehicle at any time in real-time — that really has analysts worried. AI, like any tool, can be used for both good and bad… but  it could be dangerously powerful in the hands of a country that is known for restricting its citizens’ freedoms and doesn’t believe in the idea of privacy.

China’s AI dominance is a key reason why the U.S. government has passed bipartisan legislation (the Competition and Innovation Act) to keep up. Mobility21 executive director Stan Caldwell said that China spends twice as much as the U.S. on research and development of emerging technologies (in relation to each country’s GDP). In this case, the one who spends the most, wins the most.