NSF Report shows US-China AI rivalry sharpening

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The National Science Foundation’s State of U.S. Science and Engineering documents Chinese leadership in AI patents, and U.S. leadership says workforce is the solution.

China is outpacing the United States in the registration of international patents and the production of science and engineering publications, according to the National Science Foundation's State of Science and Engineering 2024 report

NSF's biennial report focuses on the mathematics and sciences landscape in the U.S., but also presents data on international competition in emerging technology leadership, and shows that China and the U.S. are without question the global leaders in science and engineering fields.

The report found that China is the top overall producer of  science and engineering publications and international patents, as well as boasting the greatest knowledge-and technology-intensive  manufacturing output globally. KTI manufacturing exports specifically refer to exports from chemical products, pharmaceuticals, computer and electronic products, and more.

In contrast, the U.S. has a greater share of highly-cited science and engineering research publications, and remains a world leader in KTI services. China and the U.S. are the largest producers of artificial intelligence research. 

“International comparisons of AI-related patenting indicate the extent to which inventors across the world are developing intellectual property of potential commercial value that relies on AI, including AI capabilities developed via published AI research,” the report reads. “After a period of slow growth in the early 21st century, AI patenting has expanded rapidly in the past several

Years — most prominently in China.”

Following China and the U.S.’s leadership in AI patents, the NSF and co authoring National Science Board found that South Korea and Japan also boast a strong AI patent ecosystem. 

The U.S. still leads in basic research and development, with $806 billion in gross domestic expenditures from 2021, Daniel Reed, Chair of the National Science Board, said during a White House press briefing on Wednesday. 

Reed said that the remediating steps the U.S. need to take to secure the country’s position as a global leader in science and technology innovation hinge on the workforce.

“What enables discovery and innovation? We all know the answer to this: it's people,” Reed said. “It's educated talent. Those are the transformative forces that drive our future and on which the US R&D enterprise rests.”

To improve the U.S. workforce, Reed advocated robust support for the cultivation of a domestic workforce fluent in mathematics and science fields as well as facilitating the continued influx of international students. 

The Biden administration is prioritizing funding for emerging technologies in its fiscal year 2025 budget request. The request includes  $729 million for AI research and development at the NSF, and $310 million for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s AI Forward initiative. Overall funding at NSF is ticking up 3% under the budget request. DARPA funding is on the decline, but funding for computer science efforts is trending up. Similarly, overall funding at the National Institute for Standards and Technology is down in the budget request, but the administration is seeking to reprogram funds to support efforts in AI and quantum sciences.