ChinAI Jeff Ding’s weekly newsletter reporting on the Chinese AI scene; on the occasion of the newsletter’s first anniversary, Ding has posted a roundup of things about the Chinese AI scene that the rest of the world doesn’t know about, or harbors incorrect beliefs about.
It’s an excellent list, but three points leapt out at me:
1. Most Chinese AI researchers read English and are very up to date on the progress AI researchers are making around the world; few westerners read Chinese and thus practitioners rely on fragmentary evidence from the odd article that appears in translation.
2. Chinese AI’s reputation has been overinflated: part of the problem with fragmentary reporting outside of the Chinese language press is that it gives an unduly rosy picture of the state of Chinese AI. In particular, the story of Chinese AI being supercharged by the massive quantities of data that the Chinese state and Chinese companies have amassed is exaggerated, because these companies are riven by internal divisions that prevent data-sharing among different programs, as different executives seek to maximize their own division’s performance.
3. China has a massive, ongoing AI ethics and human rights debate: this debate includes regulators, whistleblowers, academics, and philosophers.
There are other interesting points (such as the central role that Microsoft has played in incubating the Chinese AI scene, and the active complicity of China’s biggest AI vendors in human rights abuses), but those three points alone were worth the price of admission.
5. Chinese people — including regular netizens, data protection officers, philosophy professors — care about AI-related ethics issues, including privacy. Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that there are no discussions of AI ethics happening in China. It is perfectly reasonable to highlight differences in Chinese notions of AI ethics or the degree to which privacy is important to Chinese consumers, but it is absolutely dehumanizing to say Chinese people don’t care about privacy.
Chinese tech giants clash fight over user privacy violations, as evidenced by Tencent asking the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to intervene in a dispute between Tencent and Huawei on alleged user privacy infringements of the Honor Magic phone. After a yearlong investigation, China’s Shandong Province brought a major case in July of 2018 on infringements of personal information against 57 individuals and 11 big data companies, which revealed a debate over how to interpret a new national personal information protection specification. The Nandu Personal Information Protection Research Center has assessed 1550 websites and apps for the transparency of their privacy policies.
Finally, Chinese thinkers are engaged on broader issues of AI ethics, including the risks of human-level machine intelligence and beyond. Zhao Tingyang, an influential philosopher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has written a long essay on near-term and long-term AI safety issues, including the prospect of superintelligence. Professor Zhihua Zhou, who leads an impressive lab at Nanjing University, argued in an article for the China Computer Federation that even if strong AI is possible, it is something that AI researchers should stay away from.