All the Pieces Matter: China’s AI Dream

Written by Jeffrey Ding.

Marked by the State Council’s release of a national artificial intelligence development plan (AIDP) in July 2017, China’s aggressive pursuit of AI has generated excitement about the prospects of spurring technological innovation, as well as fears of the application of AI in surveillance and military domains.

Deciphering China’s AI dream requires understanding the messy combination of two subjects, China and AI, both of which are already difficult enough to comprehend on their own. This article takes understanding how China is cultivating AI as a starting point to unlock the larger implications of China’s AI development. It is organized into three sections: (1) Context – China’s AI strategy in the context of its past science and technology plans; (2) Components and capabilities – Key features of China’s AI strategy to the drivers of AI potential (e.g. accessibility of data, talented AI experts) and China’s comparative advantages in boosting AI development; (3) Consequences – The potential implications of China’s AI dream for issues of AI safety, national security, economic development, and social governance.

While the AIDP was a key milestone in signalling a national-level focus on AI, local governments and Chinese companies were already engaging in subnational planning on AI. For instance, a month before the State Council’s report, the Tianjin city government had announced a USD 5 billion fund to support the AI industry. When compiled together, the 2020 benchmarks from twelve provinces and cities for the gross output of their respective core AI industries (RMB 429 billion) far exceeds the target of 150 billion RMB in the national AIDP. In this light, the AIDP represents the culmination of accelerated local and national-level policy support for AI development in the past few years, as AI is now one of a limited number of government priorities in key, long-term plans related to science and technology and has backing from substantive funding measures – two key elements not present in past government support for AI.

Chinese government support for AI development, emphasis on indigenous innovation, and prioritization of frontier technologies trace back to February 2006, when the State Council issued a “National Medium- and Long-Term Plan (MLP) for the Development of Science and Technology (2006-2020).” At that time, the MLP was China’s most ambitious science and technology plan ever released. It allocated long-term funding for science research, estimated at RMB 500 billion (USD 75 billion), and launched sixteen national megaprojects for developing vanguard science and technology. The designation of “Artificial Intelligence 2.0” as a megaproject follows the framework set by the MLP. The context surrounding China’s AI push matters: government support of AI is rooted in past science and technology plans that emphasize the potential for emerging technologies to reduce China’s dependence on foreign countries in the innovation realm, and local governments and competing bureaucratic entities are all staking out their own interests in China’s AI dream.

In analysing the components and capabilities of China’s AI development, the key features of China’s AI strategy must be linked to four drivers in the development of AI: (1) hardware in the form of chips for training and executing AI algorithms, (2) data as an input for AI algorithms, (3) research and algorithm development, and (4) the commercial AI ecosystem. Structuring the analysis by driver helps ground discussions of China’s AI dream in tangible spectrums, which is especially needed since AI is a concept that means many different things to different people.

Key features of China’s AI push include: a strong degree of state support and intervention, an emphasis on the transfer of both technology and talent, and investment in long-term, whole-of-society measures. Adopting a “catch-up” approach in the hardware driver, China has supported national champions like Cambricon with substantial funding and encouraged domestic companies to acquire chip technology through overseas deals. Access to large quantities of data is an important driver for AI systems. Since Chinese consumers are more likely to make many of their daily transactions on a stable portfolio of platforms, Chinese tech companies have access to deeper profiles of users than their Western counterparts. However, the view that China’s AI development will race ahead due to relatively lax privacy protections on user data should be tempered given the promulgation of a new data protection law. In algorithm development, China is actively recruiting and cultivating talented researchers.

The AIDP outlines a two-pronged “gathering” and “training” approach. National-level and local-level talent programs are gathering AI researchers to work in China, while China’s tech giants have set up their own overseas AI institutes to recruit foreign talent. The training plank takes a long-term view of growing AI talent through constructing an AI academic discipline and creating pilot AI institutes. Finally, the Chinese government is starting to take a more active role in funding AI ventures, helping grow the fourth driver of AI development – the commercial AI ecosystem. Disbursing funds through “government guidance funds” set up by local governments and state-owned companies, the government has invested more than USD 1 billion on domestic start-ups, with much of the investment shifting toward healthcare and AI as the priority areas in the last two years.At the same time, the central government is exploring methods, including through the establishment of party committees and “special management shares,” to exert more influence over large tech companies. It remains to be seen whether China’s approach to developing AI will be successful, but it is certainly an effort that is comprehensive in its scope.

What are the potential implications of China’s AI dream for issues of AI safety and ethics, national security, economic development, and social governance? It must be emphasised that Chinese thinking on these issues is becoming more diversified and substantive. Though it is too early for firm conclusions about the long-term trajectory of China’s AI development, it is useful to highlight the key areas of debate in each of these issues. One group of Chinese actors is increasingly engaged with issues of AI safety and ethics. A new book authored by Tencent’s Research Institute includes a chapter in which the authors discuss the Asilomar AI Principles in detail and call for “strong regulations” and “controlling spells” for AI. A wide range of Chinese AI researchers are also involved with translating the IEEE’s Ethically Aligned Design report, as part of the Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. However, other Chinese AI thought leaders dismiss calls for regulation and philosophizing.

Since military applications of AI could provide a decisive strategic advantage in international security, the degree to which China’s approach to military AI represents a revolution in military affairs is an important question to study. The level of civil-military integration will be a critical factor in keeping track of this question. In addition, economic gain is the primary, immediate driving force behind China’s development of AI. Per multiple reports, of all economies worldwide, China’s has the most to gain from AI technologies, since AI systems could enable China to improve its productivity levels and meet GDP targets. China’s adoption of AI technologies could also have implications for its mode of social governance. Per the AIDP, AI will play an “irreplaceable” role in maintaining social stability, an aim reflected in local-level integrations of AI across a broad range of public services, including judicial services, medical care, and public security. Two key areas to watch are growing concerns about privacy and the willingness of private companies to participate in various social credit systems.

Undoubtedly, the relevance of AI to China’s core interests and China’s receptiveness to issues of AI ethics and safety will have global consequences. China’s AI strategy could spark military competition over a new strategic technology. China’s AI dream could also affect who sits at the centre of the international economic order. In the social governance realm, China’s AI development could provide a model of “robust authoritarianism” that might appeal to other nations. At the same time, China could also beneficially contribute to peaceful governance and ethical norms for AI technologies. A clear-eyed assessment of its AI strategy is essential to deciphering how China will realize its AI dream.

Jeffrey Ding studied Economics, Political Science, and Chinese, and served as the VP of the student body at the University of Iowa. At Oxford, he is pursuing a M.Phil in International Relations as a Rhodes Scholar. His most recent paper is ‘Deciphering China’s AI Dream: The context, components, capabilities, and consequences of China’s strategy to lead the world in AI.’ Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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