There has been much discussion and dispute around who will be the winner in the battle for global dominance of artificial intelligence – the US or China. I discussed it in some depth recently.

However, viewing the AI war as being between just nations – most commonly the US and China – is drastically oversimplifying things. In reality, the complicated relationships and partnerships among all the key players involved means the AI battle is more about alliances between platforms than nations.

These days, most products and services are a combination of arts and breakthroughs from all around world. “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China,” sums up the globalised reality.

What’s more, the very entrepreneurs building AI technology often have complicated identities themselves. The majority don’t work with a nationalist vision of their companies. But they often do identify with brands and platforms.

Look at the established tech giants who are also leaders in AI: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba, Tencent, Samsung, and IBM. Most of these companies are building alliances with each other in one way or another – usually through APIs which allow competitors and collaborators connect with their services – so long as they also stand to benefit from it themselves.

According to Kai-Fu Lee, author of AI Superpowers, the big AI giants (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu) are mostly focusing on creating “AI grids”. They then “act as the utility companies, managing the grid and collecting the fees,” he said.

It’s the platform, stupid

Last year, I read Platform Revolution by Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, and Sangeet Paul Choudary, a profound book that changed the way I thought about the tech race. I have since applied that thinking to AI.

As the authors noted, “In recent years, more and more businesses are shifting from the pipeline structure to the platform structure.” Examples include cloud computing and computer services platform Salesforce, which generates 50 per cent of its revenues through APIs, and Expedia, for which the figure is as high as 90 per cent.

Indeed, every tech giant is racing towards a specific goal in the area of AI. It is now about becoming the platform for AI, the new lifeblood technology that is being layered across almost every product and service rather than being offered as a separate module or capability.

The Watson AI assistant, a platform being built by IBM, is being used by companies like The Royal Bank of Scotland, among others, to better engage their customers.

Also read: How artificial intelligence is disrupting education

The reality, of course, is that we cannot easily predict who will win the AI race in the long term. The situation is further complicated by the growing number of impressive AI startups, some of which sprout from nowhere to become frontrunners in their respective industries in just a few years.

According to Lee, startups now have have opportunity to build “highly specific ‘battery-powered’ AI products for each use case,” instead of waiting for the overall AI platforms, or “grids” to take shae.

Don’t miss the AI moon

The point that I want to drive home, though, is that while countries like the US and China – and even the UK, for that matter – hold incredible potential for research and development in tomorrow’s AI technologies, we still ought to think in terms of platforms, not nations, if we really want to understand where the real war for AI dominance is being wrought.

Otherwise, we risk committing a technological faux pas equivalent of that great Zen saying, so well captured by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon: “It is like a finger pointing out to the Moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

While countries, in this analogy, are the fingers pointing, platforms are unmistakably the moon. Just make sure you are not paying attention to the wrong thing!


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