China Can Quickly Catch Up to US AI, Says Venture Veteran

China can match the US in artificial intelligence thanks to the expertise of companies from Alibaba to Baidu, joining a global tech transformation that will dwarf the mobile revolution, according to industry pioneer Kai-Fu Lee.

American companies like Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. have the clear lead now, but much as it did in the early days of the internet, China will catch up through quick iteration from its private sector, said Lee. The bestselling author on AI, who founded Sinovation Ventures more than a decade ago, has been at the heart of China’s growing adoption of the technology and backed some of its biggest startups in the field like Megvii and Meitu.

Firms around the world are rushing to show off their latest AI creations since OpenAI Inc.’s ChatGPT demonstrated the technology’s potential to a wider audience. Baidu Inc. is set to unveil on Thursday its own ChatGPT rival that will be China’s most significant entry in the race with the US to stake out the nascent arena. Lee called the Beijing firm China’s obvious frontrunner in this field, though it will be far from alone.

“The US continues to be the world’s breakthrough innovator,” the 61-year-old VC founder said from his office in Beijing in his first interview with foreign media since the end of Covid restrictions. But China’s internet giants like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. are “all building large models on par with OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google.”

Lee’s 2018 book “AI Superpowers” was an early exploration of the rising conflict between the US and China in the technology industry, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each country. He published “AI 2041” two years ago with science fiction writer Chen Qiufan to imagine what the technology was capable of decades into the future.