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China’s AI designs on superpower status

China’s AI designs on superpower status
Beijing business district skyline

China has set itself the challenge of being the world’s primary AI innovation centre by 2030. Jeffrey Ding, who leads the Governance of AI Program's research on China at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, runs the algorithm and reveals why China believes this ambitious plan is within reach.

Is there an international definition of AI to which China subscribes?

AI is a malleable term that means many different things to different people. China has outlined a distinction between ‘core AI’ and ‘AI-related’ industries. For Chinese policymakers, core AI refers to companies innovating in an industry-agnostic part of the AI architecture – for example, key technologies such as facial recognition systems – whereas AI-related industries include parts of the AI pipeline focused on applications in specific industries, such as applying that facial recognition technology to the financial security industry.

How does the Chinese government support AI development in China?

There are a variety of mechanisms outlined in China’s AI plan, but the key point to emphasise is that the Chinese government’s approach to supporting AI is not defined by its top-down and monolithic nature. Instead, while the central government does play an important guiding role, bureaucratic agencies, private companies and local governments are all providing support for the AI ecosystem. 

One example is government guidance funds. In partnership with private venture capital funds, the Chinese government disburses funds through local government and state-owned companies toward areas of priority, which include AI. 

How is China headhunting talent to drive its AI ambitions?

This is taking place through two mechanisms: government-sponsored talent plans and headhunting initiatives at private companies, with the latter taking on more significance for China’s AI ambitions. China’s big three tech giants (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) have all set up their own overseas AI institutes to recruit world-leading talents from outside of China. This can be seen as China’s attempt to reverse an immense brain drain that has been occurring in science and technology fields, in which many of the best and brightest Chinese scientists go abroad for graduate school and work.

The best-case scenario is that China’s AI development contributes to the beneficial and peaceful development and use of AI technologies, and the entire world is able to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities presented by AI advances

What was the significance of Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo victory over champion Lee Sedol?

Two Chinese professors who consulted on the State Council’s AI plan described AlphaGo’s victory as a ‘Sputnik moment’ – a wake-up call that prompted immediate reconsideration among government officials of China’s AI strategy.

What does China have to gain economically from AI?

Research from PwC in 2017 estimated that out of all the countries in the world, China had the most to gain from technologies, forecasting a potential 26% boost in GDP attributable to benefits from AI. Given that China is facing an ageing population and changing demographics, increased automation could enable China to improve its productivity levels and still meet GDP targets.

In what areas of AI innovation is China leading the world?

By certain metrics, China is leading in terms of its immense quantity of AI research, as measured by AI-related patents and articles on deep learning. Still, when measuring research by citation impact and influence, China still lags behind both the US and UK.

What is the current thinking around AI ethics in China?

There are a variety of perspectives on AI safety and ethics in the Chinese AI community. These range from discussions of the technical reliability of certain AI systems, to considerations of new threats to privacy posed by AI-enabled algorithms, and even longer-term considerations of the risks of superintelligence. Still, there are some areas, such as how AI-boosted surveillance threatens civil liberties, that are not discussed openly. 

How is the UK connecting with China in developing AI technologies?

There are a lot of links between the UK and China in the field of AI. Chinese AI policymakers view the UK as a global leader in ethical standards for robotics and AI systems. Last September, a China-Britain AI summit took place in London that highlighted reasons why China and the UK could potentially be natural partners in the AI sector. For instance, the UK is one of the leaders in cutting-edge niche-sector technology in the AI field, whereas China’s AI sector can offer access to an enormous market, more financing, and greater commercialisation pipelines. 

Is AI a political issue around the world?

The Governance of AI Program at the Future of Humanity Institute certainly thinks so. Our work focuses on the political challenges arising from AI systems, whose long-term impacts may be as profound as the industrial revolution. These include: global political dimensions of AI-induced unemployment and inequality, risks and dynamics of international AI races, and similar dynamics in related emerging technologies like nanotechnology and biotechnology. 

What are the best and worst case scenarios for China, AI and the rest of the world?

The best-case scenario is that China’s AI development contributes to the beneficial and peaceful development and use of AI technologies, and the entire world is able to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities presented by AI advances, including in the fields of medicine and health, transportation, energy, education, science, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. The worst-case scenario is a world in which China’s AI development detracts from the safe and peaceful development of AI technologies. This could usher in a plethora of risks including extreme inequality marked by an oligopolistic global market structure, reinforced totalitarianism, shifts and volatility in national power, strategic instability, and an AI race that sacrifices safety and other values.

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