China’s massive investment in artificial intelligence has an insidious downside

China’s massive investment in artificial intelligence has an insidious downside
No. 93


China s advantages in AI go beyond government commitment. Because of its sheer size, vibrant online commerce and social networks, and scant privacy protections, the country is awash in data, the lifeblood of deep learning systems. The fact that AI is a young field also works in China s favor, argues Chen Yunji, by encouraging a burgeoning academic effort that has put China within striking distance of the United States, long the leader in AI research. "For traditional scientific fields, Chinese [scientists] have a long way to go to compete with the U.S. or Europe. But for computer science, it s a relatively new thing. Young people can compete. Chinese can compete." In an editorial last week inThe Boston Globe, Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, warned that the United States has at best a 6-month lead over China in AI. "China played no role in launching the AI revolution, but is making breathtaking progress catching up," he wrote.

The fierce global competition in AI has downsides. University computer science departments are hollowing out as companies poach top talent. "Trends come and go, but this is the biggest one I ve ever seena professor can go into industry to make $500,000 to $1 million" a year in the United States or China, says Michael Brown, a computer scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada.

In a more insidious downside, nations are seeking to harness AI advances for surveillance and censorship, and for military purposes. China s military "is funding the development of new AI-driven capabilities" in battlefield decision-making and autonomous weaponry, says Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. In the field of AI in China, she warned in a recent report, "The boundaries between civilian and military research and development tend to become blurred."

The Chinese government has begun using facial scans to identify pedestrians and jaywalkers.


Just as oil fueled the industrial age, data are fueling advances of the AI age. Many practical AI advances are "more about having a large amount of continually refreshed data and good-enough AI researchers who can make use of that data, rather than some brilliant AI theoretician who doesn t have as much data," says computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee, founder of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm here. And China, asThe Economistrecently put it, is "the Saudi Arabia of data."

Every time someone enters a search query into Baidu (China s Google), pays a restaurant tab with WeChat wallet, shops on Taobao (China s Amazon), or catches a ride with Didi (China s Uber), among a plethora of possibilities, those user data can be fed back into algorithms to improve their accuracy. A similar phenomenon is happening in the United States, but China now has 751 million people online, and more than 95% of them access the internet using mobile devices, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. In 2016, Chinese mobile payment transactions totaled $5.5 trillion, about 50 times more than in the United States that year, estimates iResearch, a consulting firm in Shanghai, China.

Baidu, which runs China s dominant search engine, both gathers and exploits much of these data. In parking garages under its futuristic glass-and-steel complex in northern Beijing, cars crowned with LIDAR sensors troll around on test runs for collecting mapping data that will feed Baidu s autonomous driving lab. In the main lobby, staffers faces are scanned to open the security gates. Of China s tech titansBaidu, Alibaba, and TencentBaidu was the first to pour resources into AI. It now employs more than 2000 AI researchers, including staff in California and Seattle, Washington.

A few years ago, Baidu added an AI-powered image search to its mobile app, allowing a user to snap a photo of a piece of merchandise for the search engine to identify, and then look up price and store information.

Early object recognition programs focused on outlines. But many objectsfor example, plates of food in a restauranthave basically the same outline. What s needed is more precise detection of interior patterns, or "textures," says Feng Zhou, a data scientist in Cupertino, California, who heads Baidu s new Fine-Grained Image Recognition Lab. Now, Baidu s AI image search can distinguish between, for instance, a stewed tofu dish called mapo tofu and fried tofu dishes. (A U.S. equivalent might be detecting the difference between oatmeal and rice.) Better algorithms have helped, Zhou says, but so has an abundance of training data uploaded by internet users.

The data deluge is also transforming academia. "When the AI textbooks were written, we didn t have access to that kind of data," Yang says. "About 5 years ago, we decided that classroom education was not sufficient. We needed to have partnerships with industry, because the big technology companies not only have lots and lots of data, but also a variety of data sources and many interesting contexts to apply AI." Today, a group of HKUST professors and Ph.D. students work on AI projects with Tencent, China s social media giant. They have access to data from WeChat, the company s ubiquitous social network, and are developing "intelligent" chat capabilities for everything from customer service to Buddhist spiritual advice.

Such collaborations are vulnerable, however, as China s academic outposts struggle to keep faculty members capable of designing new AI algorithms from decamping to industry. "University students know that AI is a very cool thing, which might also make you rich," Chen Yunji says.

The Chinese government is also drinking from the data firehoseand is honing AI as a tool for staying in power. The State Council s AI road map explicitly acknowledges AI s importance to "significantly elevate the capability and level of social governance, playing an irreplaceable role in effectively maintaining social stability."

Some worry that the government s embrace of AI could further stifle dissent in China. Enhanced technology for recognizing context and images allows for more effective real-time censorship of online communications, according to a report from The Citizen Lab, a research outfit at the University of Toronto. Also at the heart of this debate is facial recognition technology, which is powered by AI algorithms that analyze minute details of a person s face in order to pick it out from among thousands or millions of potential matches.

People in China can now use facial scans to authorize digital payments at some fast food restaurants.


Facial recognition is now used routinely in China for shopping and to access some public services. For example, at a growing number of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in China, customers can authorize digital payment by facial scan. Baidu s facial recognition systems confirm passenger identity at certain airport security gates. Recent AI advances have made it possible to identify individuals not only in up-close still photos, but also in videoa far more complex scientific task.

China s attitude toward such advances contrasts with the U.S. response. When the U.S. Customs and Border Protection last May revealed plans to use facial matching to verify the identities of travelers on select flights leaving the United States, a public debate erupted. In an analysis, Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., warned of the potential for "mission creep": With new AI technologies, "you can subject thousands of people an hour to face recognition when they re walking down the sidewalk without their knowledge, let alone permission or participation."

In China the government is already deploying facial recognition technology in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region in western China where tensions between ethnic groups erupted in deadly riots in 2009. Reporters fromThe Wall Street Journalwho visited the region late last year found surveillance cameras installed every hundred meters or so in several cities, and they noted facial recognition checkpoints at gas stations, shopping centers, mosque entrances, and elsewhere. "This is the kind of thing that makes people in the West have nightmares about AI and society," says Subbarao Kambhampati, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in Palo Alto and a computer scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. In China, he says, "people are either not worried, or not able to have those kinds of conversations."

Even toilet paper in public restrooms is now being dispensed, in limited amounts, after a facial scan.


Kambhampati adds that before 2012 or so, submissions from China to major AI conferences "used to be quite small." At AAAI s annual meeting earlier this week in New Orleans, Louisiana, he says, accepted papers from China nearly equaled those from the United States. "For the longest time, there was a general feeling that China was always second-rate in technology. That may have been true, but it s also changing quite quickly."

The government wants the boom to continue. At the end of 2017, the science ministry issued a 3-year plan to guide AI development, and named several large companies as "national champions" in key fields: for example, Baidu in autonomous driving, and Tencent in computer vision for medical diagnosis. Zha Hongbin, a professor of machine intelligence at Peking University here who consults for the government, says China plans to expand the number of universities offering dedicated machine learning and AI departments.

In the meantime, industry continues to bet heavily on AI. Last October, for instance, Alibaba announced plans to invest $15 billion in research over 3 years to build seven labs in four countries that will focus on quantum computing and AI.

A decade ago, China s best AI researchers might have left for plum jobs in Silicon Valley. Instead, increasing numbers of them are staying at home to lift the nation s AI industry, says Xia Yan, a 30-year-old data scientist who co-founded Momenta, an autonomous driving startup here. "Many of us are choosing to go from an academic background to running a company," Xia says. "We want to see our work in the real world. It s a new era."
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