China's Dilemma In Race For AI Dominance: Speed v. Control
The remarkable power of ChatGPT on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence took Beijing by surprise. As China rolls out its own version, it remains to be seen how the country will balance the need for control with technological development and innovation
One thing is certain, it won't be Russia, because instead of pursuing this path, it has engaged in an old-fashioned war in the Ukrainian trenches: it got lost along the way.
China, on the other hand, understood the message from its long time friend and ally Putin. In 2015, Beijing placed artificial intelligence (AI) in its "China 2025" plan, which set out the technologies in which the country aspired to become a world leader.
The investments were considerable — more than 20 billion euros, and the 25 members of the Communist Party of China's Politburo, or executive committee, even devoted an entire day of study to AI in 2018.
However, China was caught off guard by the ChatGPT tornado. Despite repeatedly telling itself that America is in decline and that its time has come, it was in the U.S. that this technological breakthrough was conceived, not in the Chinese equivalents of Silicon Valley, in Shenzhen or in the suburbs of Beijing.
In just a few weeks, Chinese companies have also released ChatGPT-like software. Just yesterday, the giant Alibaba announced the launch of a service called "Tongyi Qianwen", which means "the truth through a thousand questions." Other Chinese tech giants, such as search engine Baidu or facial recognition specialist SenseTime, have also announced their own AI projects.
Yet, since this is China we are talking about, it's not that simple. Yesterday, the administration issued its regulation of the sector, a sign that this eruption of conversational software is disrupting the well-established order of Chinese digital technology.
Tongyi Qianwen preview is displayed on a smartphone backdropped by Alibaba Group logo.
Andre M. Chang via Zuma
Weight of Beijing politics
The Chinese administration requires the prior validation of all these new services as well as the identification of all their users with their real names. What makes this even more complex is that it requires these services to promote "socialist values" and not convey information that would threaten the power of the state or incite the division of the nation.
In China, the issue is different.
Could Beijing's insistence on control slow down the development of AI? This has been the key question since the beginning of the digital revolution. Many analysts believed that the desire for permanent control would prevent China from staying in the technological race. This turned out to be inaccurate, and Chinese companies are even leading in several areas.
But AI poses a new problem for Beijing's censors, as demonstrated by the speed at which new regulations were published.
In the West, we wonder how to develop ethical AI that would not reproduce societal biases. In China, the issue is different: how to avoid losing control of information and how to avoid a breach in the absolute social control that Beijing has managed to preserve in 30 years of technological innovation.
Six years after Putin's prophecy, international competition in AI has certainly accelerated against a backdrop of increasing geopolitical tensions. AI has multiple facets and uses — political domination is undoubtedly one of those.
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