Top-place tie by tech groups provides symbol of race between US and China

January 15, 2018 – Financial Times

They have beaten us at chess, Go and co-written a Europop album. Now computers are taking a step into a very human territory: the reading comprehension test, scourge of schoolchildren everywhere.

Alibaba on Monday said its artificial research outperformed mere mortals in a global reading comprehension test that seeks answers to such pressing questions as “what was Nikola Tesla’s ethnicity?” and “how big is the Amazon rainforest?”

Luo Si, chief scientist of natural language processing at Alibaba’s research arm, the Institute of Data Science of Technologies, dubbed the machines’ victory “a milestone”. He said the technology has many uses, from customer service to museum tutorials to medical enquires — some of which are already being handled by chatbots globally.

In the test administered last week, companies subjected their artificial intelligence systems to queries from the Stanford Question Answering Dataset, which assessed reading comprehension. The computers’ answers were compared against average human responses and ranked.

Tying in top place were Microsoft, the US software giant, and Alibaba, the Chinese tech group that began with ecommerce and is — like its peers at home and abroad — ploughing more funds into AI, much of it via its research arm.

While Microsoft and Alibaba won by the slimmest of margins — at accuracy levels a few basis points above humans’ 82.3 per cent in providing exact matches to questions — the tie provided a fitting symbol of the AI arms race being waged by the US and China.

China aims to parlay its vast troves of data, collated from its 1.4bn population including 730m who are online, and deep pockets to overtake the US in creating a $150bn industry that is seen as the next industrial revolution.

AI is already being harnessed in everything from driverless cars to customizing newsfeeds. While China’s drive is being spearheaded by government, it is cultivating homegrown tech giants including Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to leap ahead of the US.