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  • Intelligent Machines

    China’s leaders are softening their stance on AI

    A year after announcing an aggressive plan to dominate artificial intelligence, China’s vice premier has called for international collaboration.

    China might be at loggerheads with the United States over trade, but it is calling for a friendlier approach to the development of artificial intelligence.

    Speaking at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai this week, China’s vice premier, Liu He, said that AI would depend heavily on international cooperation.

    “We’re hoping that all countries, as members of the global village, will be inclusive and support each other so that we can respond to the double-edged-sword effect of new technologies,” He said through a translator. “AI represents a new era. Cross-national and cross-discipline cooperation is inevitable.”

    President Xi Jinping delivered a similar message in a letter presented at the same conference. Xi said that China would “share results with other countries in the field of artificial intelligence.” He also called for collaboration between nations on AI topics such as ethics, law, governance, and security.

    This new, softer approach to artificial intelligence comes just over a year after the Chinese government announced an ambitious and aggressive AI plan. This blueprint called for Chinese AI researchers to lead the world by 2030, and for domestic companies to build an industry worth more than $150 billion. China’s tech industry has already embraced machine learning and AI at an impressive rate (see “China’s AI awakening”).

    China’s ambitions and progress to date have led to talk of an artificial-intelligence arms race with the US. In fact, the technology is largely a product of collaboration among researchers from around the world.

    In the future, however, the impact of AI could indeed be defined by rivalries between big US and Chinese companies. The influence of China’s tech industry is growing internationally as its companies export AI to other parts of the world through cloud computing services (see “Inside the Chinese lab hoping to rewire the world with AI”).

    A model for national collaboration has yet to be worked out. Algorithms are already widely shared by researchers and tech companies, but the data used to train machine-learning models tends to be jealously guarded.

    The US government is ramping up spending on AI, but the White House has yet to formulate a clear position on technology (see “Here’s how the US should prepare for the age of artificial intelligence”).

    The statements from China’s political leaders may also constitute something of a soft-power play. How the technology spreads to the rest of the world is still very much up for negotiation, and China no doubt wants to guide discussions concerning standards and norms. Such debates could also prove critical and tricky, especially around issues like data privacy and AI-powered surveillance.

    The Chinese government may be especially keen to lead international discussions given the way the US and other countries have defined the norms and standards regarding other technologies, including the Internet.

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