The Moon, Artificial Intelligence, & U.S.-China Relations


By: The Editorial Board of SINOTALKS® / On: May 15, 2024

The Moon, Artificial Intelligence, & U.S.-China Relations
Image: Irina Pechkareva, A Space with the Moon (

China’s ongoing mission to collect rocks and soil from the far side of the Moon marks another milestone in the country’s space exploration despite its exclusion from U.S. space projects.  This accomplishment should make U.S. policymakers ponder whether adopting a similar exclusionary approach will help or hurt the United States’s efforts to secure the lead in the U.S.-China AI race.  More importantly, the potential catastrophic consequences of AI manipulation demand a better approach that focuses on generating benefits at a global level, rather than devolving into a simple win-lose race between two international powers.

China’s Exploration of the Moon

In early May, China launched the Chang’e-6 lunar probe to undertake an unprecedented mission: China is seeking to be the first country in human history to bring back samples from the four-billion-year-old South Pole-Aitken Basin located on the far side of the Moon.

Chang’e-6’s mission is part of China’s ambitious space program.  Four years ago, the Chang’e-5, another lunar probe in a series named after the Chinese Moon goddess, Chang’e, collected two-billion-year-old lunar samples.  This success made China the third country in the world to collect lunar samples—after the United States and the Soviet Union, which brought back three-billion-year-old samples decades ago.  The samples from the Chang’e-5 help scientists inside and outside China develop new insight into the Moon’s evolution because, according to a U.S. scientist who has reviewed the samples, these lunar rocks “represent a window into a very different era of lunar magmatism”.

“To support future lunar research and exploration, China recently published the world’s first high-definition lunar geologic atlas, […].”

To support future lunar research and exploration, China recently published the world’s first high-definition lunar geologic atlas, which, one scientist explains, “is of great significance for studying the evolution of the [M]oon, selecting the site for a future lunar research station, and utilizing lunar resources.  It can also help us better understand the Earth and other planets in the solar system, such as Mars”.  The atlas promises to be extremely useful to China, as the country has already planned to organize two missions to the south pole of the Moon by 2028 and a mission to Mars within the next decade.

Excluding China or the United States?

How China has managed to accomplish these feats is quite a mystery.  What is clear, however, is that the exclusion of China from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”)’s projects has not stopped China from reaching milestones in its own space exploration.

The United States began excluding China from U.S. space projects in 2011, when Congress passed a law banning NASA from using government funds to “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of [this law]”.  This prohibition is reflected in NASA’s “Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences” announcement, which generally welcomes proposals submitted by “organizations of every type, domestic and foreign, Government and private, for-profit, and not-for-profit”, “without restriction on teaming arrangements, other than with China”.

It is worth noting that the U.S. exclusion meant to weaken China’s space-related technological advancement seems to have backfired, in the sense that U.S. scientists are not able to seek valuable research opportunities presented by Chinese space missions.  For example, apart from its own mission, the Chang’e-6 also carries Moon-studying payloads supported by France, Italy, and Sweden to facilitate these countries’ research.

The U.S.-China AI Race & the Exclusionary Approach

The tremendous potential of AI models has triggered rapid development of these models and related competition among countries.  The competition between the United States and China is particularly fierce, to the extent that U.S. lawmakers are reportedly planning to impose various restrictions to prevent China from having access to U.S. AI models and talent in this field.

China’s ability to clear the United States’s seemingly insurmountable hurdle to continue its space journey should prompt one to question whether these AI-related restrictions would really hinder China’s development in the AI space.

“The U.S. restrictions are unlikely to be effective for two other reasons.”

The U.S. restrictions are unlikely to be effective for two other reasons.  First, China is strongly determined to have homegrown AI models, largely because Chinese leaders are concerned about how information embedded in foreign AI models could affect the country’s narratives of different topics.  In light of such sentiments expressed by Chinese leaders, more than 40 homegrown AI models have been approved to be rolled out in the Chinese market.

Second, China’s AI talent must not be underestimated.  In a post shared via a public LinkedIn group named SINOTALKS® Global Business & Development Network, James Noh observes, based on data from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (“CSET”), that “China leads the U.S. as a top producer of research in more than half of AI’s hottest fields”.  Because CSET only considers English research papers (i.e., it excludes papers published in other languages such as Chinese), Mr. Noh points out that China is sure to have more AI research papers than the number reported by CSET.  With respect to highly cited AI research papers (i.e., those with quality insights), the top 10 institutions producing the greatest numbers of these papers are all located in China and the United States, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences taking the lead among all institutions, while Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Zhejiang University are ranked 3rd, 8th, and 9th, respectively.

A Better Approach

AI manipulation, if not stopped soon enough, is likely to spread quickly to affect every person’s life and every corporation’s operation.  The magnitude of the problem and the potential catastrophic consequences demand inclusion, rather than exclusion, to engage stakeholders around the world in a collaboration-building process to address the problematic practice.

With their leading positions in the development of AI and their commitment to have high-level dialogues on AI, both the United States and China could and should lead this collaboration-building process to focus on finding solutions to problems such as AI manipulation while optimizing the technology to generate benefits at a global level.  At the very least, the following two topics are worth exploring:

  • AI & Developing Economies

According to a study reported by the World Bank, a team of researchers has designed a quantitative method to help identify effective “ways for developed and developing countries to leverage AI specialization to diversify their sources of comparative advantage”.  This is particularly useful to developing countries as these countries can then “achieve faster, more sustainable growth”.  For example, the research team’s findings related to Mexico specifically suggest that the country should focus on investing in “robot automation” to “strengthen the fabrication of metal products” and in “FinTech related to booking and payment systems” to “allow Mexico to maintain its edge in travel services”.

  • AI & Samples from the Moon

Earlier this year, an article published in Nature, the leading multidisciplinary science journal, describes an unexpected study jointly conducted by researchers from the United States and China.  SINOTALKS® reported on this development:

The teams jointly created the first functional graphene semiconductor in the world.  Semiconductors made from graphene are expected to be speedier than those made from silicone and are, therefore, capable of supporting the development of more advanced electronic devices.

The expanded use of generative AI needs to be supported by faster and more capable semiconductors.  This need pushes innovators to find new materials such as graphene.  Exploration of the Moon seeks in part to help the world deepen understanding of lunar resources, which might be useful in important ways, including the production of powerful semiconductors.

As the United States and China have already experienced groundbreaking success in creating the first functional graphene semiconductor, they should have a sufficient foundation to jointly—and also engage scientists from other countries to—study samples brought back from the Moon to identify materials that could be even more effective than graphene.  A step in this direction, if taken by the United States and China, is likely to be a leap in both the advancement of AI technology and the improvement of U.S.-China relations.