WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
AI is, arguably, as transformational technology as the internet, and China wants to play its role in helping shape and lead the global standards for the technology.
Academics, government experts and industry researchers converged in Beijing last November to discuss, what they called at the time, AI policy issues, and the resulting document which was recently published in Chinese shows the country’s experts are thinking in detail about the technology’s potential impact. Together with the Chinese government’s strategic plan for AI, the document is enlightening in the fact that it shows that China, among other things, is planning on playing a key role in helping set the technical standards for AI going forward.
Furthermore, the document states that all Chinese companies would be required to adhere to these standards, and as the technology spreads globally this could help China influence the technology’s course and direction of development. Indeed, big Chinese companies including Tencent and Alibaba are already busy wiring AI into the fabric of their cloud offerings and services, many of which are already being sold throughout Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, and it’s these tendrils that will help ensure China is in prime position to input into and influence AI decision making.
“[The Chinese government] sees standardisation not only as a way to provide competitiveness for their companies, but also as a way to go from being a follower to setting the pace,” says Jeffrey Ding, a student at the University of Oxford who translated the report. The Chinese government’s plan also cites the way US standards bodies have influenced the development of the internet since its inception and it looks very much like they want to avoid a repeat with AI.
China’s booming AI industry and massive government investment have, naturally, raised fears in the US and elsewhere that the nation will overtake international rivals in what’s being regarded as one of humanities most important technologies, and while, in truth, both the US and China set to benefit from AI it’s likely that the new document will also help set the stage for some good old fashioned rivalry as the two juxtaposition with each other throughout the coming years.
“I think this is the first technology area where China has a real chance to set the rules of the game,” says Ding.
Ding has also published “Deciphering China’s AI Dream,” a detailed analysis of the Chinese government’s grand AI plan, which was issued last December. An English version of the plan was produced at the time, but it contains fewer details than the original. Ding’s analysis shows the plan is more complicated and nuanced than many previously presumed.
The discussions in November involved representatives from Tencent, one of China’s biggest tech companies with a prominent AI research effort, and from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a research institute under the purview of the government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Topics discussed in November included other national AI plans, like the one produced by the Obama administration, practical applications of AI, emerging research areas, privacy challenges, bias, and autonomous weapons.
The discussion of privacy is especially revealing. The document analyses the privacy approaches taken by different countries and it describes evolving attitudes and policies in China. A law passed by the National People’s Congress in 2016, for example, provides some rules for companies’ use of personal data, while on the other hand the government has been willing to share personal information such as ID photos with its local tech giants which are increasingly being used to support nationwide surveillance and social scoring systems such as China’s new Social Credit Scoring system.
Most striking, though, Ding’s analysis shows that China’s emerging AI industry is thinking carefully about how to make the most of the technology.
“The most interesting thing is the depth of thinking, the breadth of thinking, from policy makers, research institutes, and tech companies,” Ding says, “it vastly exceeds what I expected going in.”