Data-intensive Innovation and the State: Evidence from Facial Recognition AI Firms in China
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Data-intensive technologies such as AI may reshape the modern world. We propose that two features of data interact to shape innovation in data-intensive economies: first, states are key collectors and repositories of data; second, data is a non-rival input in innovation. We document the importance of state-collected data for innovation using comprehensive data on Chinese facial recognition AI firms and government contracts. Firms produce more commercial software and patents, particularly data-intensive ones, after receiving government public security contracts. Moreover, effects are largest when contracts provide more data. We then build a directed technical change model to study the state's role in three applications: autocracies demanding AI for surveillance purposes, data-driven industrial policy, and data regulation due to privacy concerns. When the degree of non-rivalry is as strong as our empirical evidence suggests, the state's collection and processing of data can shape the direction of innovation and growth of data-intensive economies.