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Who and what will AI serve? US and China give very different answers

Artificial Intelligence is a frighteningly powerful new tool — and weapon. Who and what will it serve? In the U.S., tech giants Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their corporate agendas; in China, the needs of the public and the economy. These two models should be thought through now.

by Jim Carey

Part 4 - AI, the planned economy, and China’s potential path to superiority

While Silicon Valley is doing its best to hyper-exploit workers and avoid state control and regulation at all cost, there is a new model emerging from China, which, instead of manipulating the state, is led by one that lifts millions from poverty each year.

This government is also led by President Xi Jinping, who has had his dictums for the future of China inscribed at the base of the Communist Party’s doctrine as ‘Xi Jinping Thought.’ This new school of thinking (under a president who may now stay in office for life) covers every aspect of Chinese policy from climate change solutions, education, military strategy, and social programs to, of course, technological development.

These advancements are a part of a complete and ongoing overhaul of the Chinese state under Xi, by which he intends to show that China has officially attained world power status. Further facilitating this is the fact that China is also expanding its role on the global stage as the U.S. under Donald Trump recedes.

AI is the perfect demonstration of this difference in priorities when you look at factors like the decreasing U.S. state funding for AI research compared to China’s plan to invest $150 billion by 2030. While this may seem a short timeframe for any nation to truly “win” the race for AI superiority, experts who work in China — such as Kai-Fu Lee, a veteran of Microsoft Research and Google — say this 12-year window may be “too pessimistic” and that China could be the clear leader in AI even sooner (an assessment with which even some U.S. firms agree).

Since some believe that China is already leading in AI, it is worth noting what some of their major projects are. Besides the usual human-like robots, China has also created impressive AI programs, such as one that managed to teach itself enough to receive a medical accreditation.

A major focus of Chinese AI programs is the ways the advancements in technology can aid in the administration of China’s planned economy. China looks to use its advancements in AI to partially or fully run crucial pieces of infrastructure, such as automated oil production lines and seaports. With past Chinese innovations in the planned economic model and this new position as a leader in AI, it now seems that, by integrating this technology, China may avoid some pitfalls that have caught up other countries with large state bureaucracies.

This isn’t to say that Beijing and Silicon Valley are always in competition. Indeed there are some joint projects between U.S. companies like Google and Chinese firms (although these relationships are often tenuous and Google has been kicked out before for not following China’s censorship laws). The fundamental difference between how these companies work in the U.S. and China is that in the U.S. they effectively control the state while in China the state restricts them.

U.S. firms are also distrusted by the Chinese and are often accused of poaching Chinese talent produced by China’s superior STEM education. As stated above, Google has already been kicked out of China for not complying with censorship rules (while still helping U.S. spy agencies), in an attempt to create the appearance that it was making some brave political stand. The difference in this power dynamic is clear: in the U.S., cities beg companies like Amazon to open an office building, while in China we find the CEO of Facebook asking Xi for baby names and requiring his staff to read the Chinese president’s speeches.

This balance of power between capital and the state in China illustrates a manner in which AI can be developed responsibly. Now obviously, China will most likely encounter its own roadblocks as it develops its AI, and of course there is the potential with any new technology like this for misuse or abuse, whether by corporate or state actors. But at least the world now has another viable option and model for the future of AI rather than just that offered by Silicon Valley.

Vladimir Putin was right to say that whoever wins the race for AI will lead the world, but the question that the world should be considering is: What kind of actors should we trust to lead the next great technological leap forward?

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