China was particularly strong in patents for image processing as it drives development of facial recognition technology. © Reuters
Chinese companies have surged ahead of their U.S. counterparts on a Nikkei ranking of the top 50 patent filers for artificial intelligence over the past three years, expanding their presence in the world's most prominent high-tech battleground.
In the three years between 2016 and 2018, China more than doubled the amount of companies in the top 50 to 19 - up from eight in the previous three-year span.
Meanwhile, the U.S. kept a tight grip on the top three spots, but only had 12 companies in the top 50 - down from 19 in the previous ranking.
The rankings come after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the American AI Initiative last month, a plan to increase research and development in the sector but lacked any specific funding to towards that aim.
IBM led the way for the U.S. with 3,000 applications. Microsoft was second with 1,955 applications and Google rounded out an all-American top three with 1,659.
Internet and tech giant Baidu led all Chinese companies with 1,522 filings, soaring to fourth place up from 11th. Other top Chinese firms included State Grid Corp. in sixth place with 1,173, and Tencent climbed to eighth from 20th with 766.
China's rise has been fueled by a government effort to advance research and development in AI. The country filed more than 30,000 public patents for AI in 2018, a roughly 10-fold jump in five years and about 2.5 times more than the U.S., which it surpassed for the lead in 2015.
By field, China's clout grew in AI patents for e-commerce, data searches and language processing. Filings for image processing technology were particularly strong at 16,000, more than quadruple the filings in the U.S. The country is a leader in facial recognition technology that can match a person's identity from an image of their face caught on video.
About 95% of the patents filed by Chinese companies were submitted to the China National Intellectual Property Administration, but many of them are eyeing overseas filing as well.
Being a relatively new area, patents regarding AI are considered to be easier to obtain than those in other traditional fields, such as biotechnology, which has been subject to many years of research.
Patents are awarded for about 70% of applications across all fields, but that figure raises to more than 90% for a subset of AI known as machine learning.
"The likelihood of being awarded a patent is higher if you apply early," said Hideto Kono, a Japan-based patent attorney with experience handling AI cases. China is actively filing patents to limit other countries' chances, he said.
The World Intellectual Property Organization released its first report on AI patents in January. The U.S. and Japan dominated the industry from 1950 through 2016, but China greatly increased its applications this decade and has surpassed both countries in recent years.
The Nikkei ranking was produced with publicly available data from the American, Chinese, European and Japanese patent offices as well as the WIPO. Research company Patent Result also assisted in the survey.