Future of Artificial Intelligence lies at the heart of Asia


Mariam Javed Asghar

Alan Turing, a genius British mathematician widely regarded as the intellectual father of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, he once said in 1949, when only handful computers existed in the world that, “This is only a foretaste of what is to comeand only the shadow of what is going to be”.

Turing remarks remain true today. Most of the technological promises of future have somehow come true as ‘Internet of Things’(IoT) permeated everyday life.

Consumers eagerly await the next phase in digital revolution; when the autonomy; already acquired for the sky-multi-tasking drones-will reach to land with abundantand easily accessible self-driving electric cars, buses, trucks and autonomous vehicles ferrying people from one place to another.

The digitalization of life and with the advancement of Internet of Things, the small as well as multinational companies along with a number of countries are incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into their IoTapplications. When these IoT and AI are combined, the result is AIoT, Internet of Things devices are the digital nervous system while artificial intelligence is the brain of a system.

When AI and IoT operate together, that means those devices can analyze data and make decisions and act on that data without involvement by humans. AI promise a splendid future, in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that, “The nation that leads in the development of artificial intelligence will become the ruler of the world”.

The debate of AI is dominant by two different school of thoughts, the first fear ‘singularity’, an event in which AI will escape human control and exceeds human intelligence which in fact represent a quite horrifying picture, the other is concerned with disruption of societal web and replacement of humans from almost every sector. While the futurologists and networking pioneers often talk about the marvelous future of AI, Big Earth Data and machine learning promise to revolutionize the world, few ever concerned where the materials-on which new digital world depends-come from or what will happen if the supplies either dry up or the possessor of those materials use it as political weapon. Rare-earths were weaponized byChina in 2010, when Beijing cut off supplies to Japan after Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel near disputed islands and in recent US-China trade war, rare-earths were once again at the table to have leverage over US.Rare earths-a group of 17 metals-are embedded in our digital lives; essential for everything from super-magnets, batteries, actuators, and laptops to weapon, laser and missile systems and China is the leading player at all stage of rare-earths processing. From 1960s to the 1980s, US was the leading producer of rare-earths but now it is the biggest importer and around 80 percent of these supplies are dependent on China.When Deng Xiaoping visited the Inner Mongolian rare earth production area of Baotou in 1987, he made a shrewd prediction: “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earths.”Rare-earths are no less significant in present world than oil and China seized the opportunity and now leading the global rare-earths production.

Despite of addition of new producers in this field, China is still responsible for 60 percent of global production.A major part is exported to Japan which produce fluorinated polyimides, photoresists and hydrogen fluoride (three materials that were targeted in Japan-South Korea dispute in 2019). South Korea, Taiwan and even China then import these manufactured materials from Japan which is responsible for 90% of fluorinated polyimide and photoresists, along with 70% of etching gas worldwide. Japan facilitates the value chainwhich moves from largest semiconductors and chipmakers-Samsung and Sk Hynix in South Korea- to the host countries of global producers of semiconductors foundries; China and Taiwan.Apple, NVIDIA and Qualcomm rely on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) to manufacture the graphics chips. At the end of the day, despite the division of processing among nations, the end product is physically fabricated in Asia.

The region has become a hotspot for semiconductor industry and according to a recent report by DeloitteAI will experience explosive growth, AI semiconductor scene has seen a race not just at the application level, but also at the semiconductor chip level. China has become a source of income for top global semiconductor companies, many of which generate over half of their revenue from China.The Chinese government has launched “Made in China 2025,” a state-led industrial policy that seeks to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing. The plan highlighted 10 priority sectors, which include new-generation information technology; advanced numerical control machine tools and robotics. As part of the plan, the Chinese government seeks to grow its domestic semiconductor industry output to $305 billion by 2030, satisfying 80 percent of domestic demand, prior to this plan, Chinese producers met 29 percent of domestic demand, now the number has reached to 49 percent. China is also helping its Asian neighbors to take a step in the world of AI, for instance the establishment of Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence in Pakistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan have a very fascinating and complex geo-tectonic setting in terms of plate tectonics conceptscomposed of a collage of continental blocks that came together over the past 15 million years and have all major mineral deposits including rare earths but as a matter of fact, most of areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are unexplored to the exact and accurate potentialof these countries is unknown to date.India also has reasonably large resources which accounts for almost 6% of the world’s rare-earth reserves. Google announced in early 2018 that Taiwan would be its biggest Asian R&D hub, along with Google, other leading American companies Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Uber, and Qualcomm have either established AI R&D centers in Taiwan or have future plans to consider this place for expansion. Japan is the monopolist in production of fluorinated polyimides, photoresists and hydrogen fluoride, it is difficult for consumers to entirely avoid Japan.

Rare-earths-the key to high-tech-are not rare in contrast these are present in abundance what makes them rare is the processing facility and currently China is enjoying this global dominance of rare-earth mineral processing, it will take years for American companies to win this race. In US, only three companies have processing plants which are under construction or still stuck at early stages, one is set to open this year at Mountain Pass mine, California, the other won’t be operational until 2022. So, Asian nations will continue to dominate global production of rare-earths for years and hence provide a key to the marvelous world of AI and other technological innovations. The race for technological dominance has changed the battlefield among nation-states, now it relies more on bytes and bits and replaced ‘arms race’ with ‘AI race’. The real danger comes not from AI advancement but the desire to win this race in order to dominate, this perception of race will prompt every nation to rush to deploy AI systems irrespective of their reliability or safety. The real threat will not come from robots but from maniac humans in charge.