Consider an A.I.-powered product like fully autonomous vehicles. Technology companies in both countries are still feverishly chasing the dream of the large-scale deployment of cars that drive themselves far better than any human could. Who wins this race is likely to depend on whether the main obstacle turns out to be a matter of core technology or simply execution details. If it’s technical — major improvements in core algorithms — then the advantage goes to the United States. If it’s implementation — smart infrastructure or policy adaptation — then the advantage goes to China.
At this point, we don’t know which it will be, but we do know that each country can improve its odds of success by learning from the other’s strengths. Chinese researchers, start-ups and A.I. companies should let their imaginations run a little wilder, placing long-term bets that give them a chance of breaking new ground rather than playing catch-up. At the same time, American companies should embrace the less glamorous business of relentlessly developing variations on a proven concept. And American policymakers could move away from a hands-off stance toward A.I., looking instead to actively adapt the nation’s physical structures and public institutions to better mesh with new technology.