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Trade war

US trails China in engineers, SoftBank executive Claure says

Lack of AI talent is 'number one concern' in battle for tech supremacy

SoftBank Group Chief Operating Officer and Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure testifies at the U.S. Congress in February.    © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. lags behind China in science and engineering graduates, threatening to set America back in AI, SoftBank Group Chief Operating Officer Marcelo Claure said Tuesday.

"My No. 1 concern [with] artificial intelligence in the U.S. is the lack of engineers that we are producing in comparison to other countries like China," said Claure, former CEO and current executive chairman of American telecommunications carrier Sprint, on the second day of a three-day summit promoting foreign investment in the U.S.

"We do produce the best engineers in the world ... but we don't produce enough," he said. "And that is going to hurt us in the future."

Claure's remarks spotlighted the importance of talent in what many see as a tech war between the world's largest two economies.

China produced nearly 4.7 million recent graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, more than eight times as many as the U.S., show figures in the 2016 edition of the World Economic Forum's Human Capital Report. China's population is roughly four times as large as America's.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals also study abroad in the U.S., but recent trade disputes have made such personnel exchanges sensitive as well. On the American side, the State Department reportedly shortened last year the duration of visas issued to Chinese nationals seeking to study here. The Chinese Ministry of Education warned just last week of visa issues related to studying in the U.S.

In 2017, Beijing revealed ambitions to catch up with the U.S. in AI by 2020 and dominate to field by 2030. The Education Ministry this year gave 35 universities the green light to create undergraduate AI majors as Beijing charges toward its goal.

Influential research on AI increasingly comes from China, suggests a March analysis by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The country will overtake the U.S. in the most-cited 50% of papers this year, the 10% most-cited papers next year and the top 1% by 2025 should current trends continue, the study said.

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