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China trounces US in AI research output and quality

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   3 mins read

Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei among the top 10 companies.

China is the undisputed champion in artificial intelligence research papers, a Nikkei study shows, far surpassing the US in both quantity and quality.

Tencent Holdings, Alibaba Group Holding and Huawei Technologies are among the top 10 companies producing AI research, according to the study. The Chinese contingent is steadily gaining representation in an area dominated by US players.

AI research often leads to real-world applications, and both American and Chinese companies have gone all in on AI research and development. In light of the stark disparities between the two sides, the AI space is gearing up to become a fiercely fought battleground.

Nikkei worked with Dutch scientific publisher Elsevier to review academic and conference papers on AI, using 800 or so AI-associated keywords to narrow down the papers.

Looking at quantity, the number of AI papers exploded from about 25,000 in 2012 to roughly 135,000 in 2021. This mirrors the AI boom that began around 2012, when deep learning came to the fore.

China has consistently stood atop the heap in terms of the volume of papers, the study shows. For 2021, it produced 43,000 papers—roughly twice as many as the US.

The study also gauged the quality of the research by counting how many papers were in the top 10% of citations by other papers.

For 2012, the US led with 629 of these most-cited papers, with China in second place at 425. China later made dramatic progress and eventually overtook the US. in 2019. In 2021, China accounted for 7,401 of the most-cited papers, topping the American tally by 70% or so.

China is poised to continue with this momentum. Under a government plan issued in 2017, it aims to develop next-generation AI and to become the world’s primary AI innovation center by 2030.

The government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences, the nation’s top scientific institution, possesses vast research capabilities. Tsinghua University, a public research university in Beijing, is also an AI hot spot.

The need to accelerate research, development and application of cutting-edge technologies, including AI, was stressed in 2023 economic priorities outlined at this December’s closely watched Central Economic Work Conference, where President Xi Jinping spoke.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said last Wednesday that growing AI and other emerging industries is a key priority for 2023.

US efforts have included a national strategic R&D plan for AI released in 2016, but the country still finds itself behind China in AI research.

American tech giants have dominated the AI research rankings, however, with Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft and IBM as the big three producers over the 10-year period examined. For 2021, six US companies were in the top 10 for most-cited research.

Chinese companies are gaining traction on this front, though. In research output, only one Chinese company made the top 10 for 2012. As late as 2016, American players maintained a big advantage in most-cited research.

But in 2021, Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei and State Grid Corp. of China took four of the top 10 spots in both volume and citations.

As a government-owned power distributor, State Grid also boasts one of the best AI research arms among Chinese corporations. This is made possible by the big data collected from hundreds of millions of smart meters. State Grid is developing technology to predict power demand and to detect problems in the electrical grid.

Baidu, which provides China’s leading search engine, came in at 11th place in both the quantity and quality of AI research. The tech giant is rolling out a fleet of fully self-driving taxis.

Japan has lost ground in the AI domain. The country was ninth in volume of research papers for 2021, sinking from sixth place for 2019. Japan was No. 18 in research quality for 2021. NTT, the top Japanese company for AI research, ranked 17th globally among companies.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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