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State Media: Disregard for Privacy Will Help China Unseat U.S. as ‘Dominant Force’ in A.I.

Sophia, a humanoid robot, is the main attraction at a conference on artificial intelligence this week but her technology has raised concerns for future human jobs
AFP Fabrice COFFRINI

An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times this week called for a national strategy to displace the United States as the world leader in artificial intelligence technology.

It is a field where China is arguably already Number Two in the world. Although the Chinese paper was uncharacteristically downbeat in laying out the case for America retaining its supremacy for the near future, it also made an ominous case for why China is better prepared to do what it takes to seize and retain the lead.

The Global Times approvingly cites a recent Financial Times (FT) article about China’s surge in spending on A.I. research and its impressive output of scholarly papers on the subject. It should be noted that the Financial Times has published a long string of articles about China threatening to take the lead on A.I., based on research volume, investment, and businesses actually employing A.I. technology in a profitable manner.

The Financial Times article that made China so happy chronicled the explosion of research papers submitted by the Communist nation at the latest Association for the Advancement of A.I. meeting. China went from basically nothing to near-parity with U.S. researchers in ten years.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that China is now in serious competition with the U.S. for dominance in AI. No European nation remotely competes at these volumes and, even taken as a whole, Europe is not really in competition for gold or silver,” FT concluded.

The Global Times cut in with a round of applause for companies like Alibaba and Tencent that are “making hefty bets on A.I.,” but then came the unexpected bucket of cold water on Chinese triumphalism:

It seems, nonetheless, that there’s been too much excitement. A report jointly released by Chinese startup database IT Juzi and Tencent Research Institute in August 2017 revealed that as of the end of June 2017, there were 2,542 AI enterprises worldwide, with the US hosting 41 percent of the total and China second with 23 percent. The report also revealed that China trailed the U.S. in terms of AI-related investment and human resources.

These findings speak for themselves, and they’re a reminder that China can’t jump to the conclusion that it will surpass the U.S. in AI anytime soon.

One of the earlier Financial Times red-alerts about China’s growing dominance of A.I. technology argued that China put more money into A.I. startups than the United States last year, and Chinese companies consumed almost half of the venture capital directed at artificial intelligence, an astounding increase from the 11.3 percent that went China’s way in 2016. The Global Times might be underselling China a bit just to light a fire under Chinese investors and policymakers.

The ominous part of the story is a point both FT and the Global Times agree on: leaving money and scholarly research aside, the big reason to think China will pull ahead is that it can use the data harvested from its gigantic population, plus whatever data it can pinch from foreign sources, while openly expressing no concern for ethics or morality. As the Global Times puts it:

The rapid development of AI in China is in part due to the country’s huge market, large population and fewer privacy concerns among the public, which means it’s easier to collect data. But as the global race for AI intensifies, China may fall behind if it can’t build a powerful talent base that matches its AI ambitions.

Luckily, some leading Chinese universities including the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xidian University and Nanjing University have set up AI technology schools, in an effort to meet the country’s thirst for AI talent. But that’s just one early step on China’s journey to AI dominance.

This comes at a moment when controversy (some would say hysteria) over Facebook’s data mining practices is running red hot. The American public is likely to become even more concerned about its privacy, while the Chinese government will continue to not care the tiniest little bit about the privacy concerns of its citizens.

The danger is worse than China’s authoritarian government disregarding privacy concerns in a mad dash to take the A.I. crown. China will actively desire and nourish the very capabilities that are making the West so apprehensive. Our bugs are their features.

For instance, the Financial Times mentions China’s keen interest in facial recognition technology to advance “the government’s ambitious countrywide surveillance plans.”

That is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Coincidentally, Google A.I. researcher Francois Chollet wrote a Twitter thread on Wednesday warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence technology intersecting with data mining and the use of “digital information consumption as a psychological control vector.” The whole thread is well worth reading, but this passage, in particular, stands out:

In Chollet’s opinion, the reason we are still arguing about pushy ad campaigns, crude bot swarms, and clumsy Silicon Valley censorship instead of full-blown psychological warfare and thought control is that A.I. technology is still lagging behind, but not for much longer. Chollet professes to be frightened of what comes next and concludes by pleading with A.I. researchers to “show some conscience” and refrain from helping Facebook develop its system any further.

Chollet’s nightmare is a dream for authoritarian China. The tyrants of Beijing would read his tweetstorm like an advertisement for a product they would order right now if it were available. China currently employs millions of people to run a censorship engine that is nevertheless slow and clumsy enough to provoke laughter among the oppressed population. Nobody will be laughing once deep-learning systems are running the show.

Which leaves us with a final chilling thought: it is not so much that China is racing against America to take the gold medal in artificial intelligence research. Based on the amount of money spent, data collected, and practical applications envisioned for the technology, it is more like China versus Facebook.

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