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27 July


How to balance the personal and public good when using AI?

China plans to become a leader in AI by 2030

Photo: AP

/NOVOSTIVL/ China has been pushing full-steam ahead with applications of artificial intelligence despite a rising chorus of concern in the West over surveillance and the potential for breaches of personal privacy. This article appeared in the South China Morning Post.

The central government sees it as an efficient means of better policing and managing a country of 1,4 billion people, using the ability of AI to gather and process vast amounts of data to solve a raft of social problems, such as petty crime and more equal access to quality healthcare and education services.

What’s more, AI is also expected to create a wave of new, higher skilled, technology-driven jobs.

The effectiveness of AI "use cases" in China also depends to some degree on its geography and demographics, says Xue Lan, a policy expert who is advising China’s science and technology ministry on AI governance. For example, China is a vast land mass with acute differences in population density between urban and rural areas, throwing up some particular problems.

Citing the example of facial recognition and public surveillance, Xue says finding petty criminals such as pickpockets, or small children separated from their parents in a public park in a big city, can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack without the help of advanced camera surveillance technologies.

"Facial recognition does solve quite a big problem in these cases, even though they may not be as prevalent in other countries, so at this point, I’d say let’s not rush to pass judgment on who is right and who is wrong," - said Xue, who is also dean of the Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, in an interview in Guangzhou last month.

The AI governance expert committee was established in February this year with experts from both academia and the AI industry.

Besides Xue, members of the committee include Zeng Yi, deputy director of the Research Centre for Brain-inspired Intelligence at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Kai-fu Lee, former Google China head and veteran technology investor, Yin Qi, chief executive of facial recognition start-up Megvii, and Zhou Bowen, vice-president and head of AI and research at e-commerce operator JD.com.

In June, the expert committee released eight new AI governance principles with the theme of "Developing Responsible AI", aimed at promoting the healthy development of AI technology from research to application and offering a framework to relevant industry associations for detailed standards setting.

The eight principles listed are harmony and friendliness, fairness and justice, inclusivity and sharing, respect for privacy, secure and controllable, shared responsibility, open collaboration and agile governance.

Human rights groups have criticised China for using pervasive surveillance technology to monitor citizens in areas such as Xinjiang, and accused the government of running internment camps for an estimated one million or more Uygurs and other mostly Muslim minorities, which it has sought to characterise as "boarding schools".

Asked about the example of a BBC journalist who was caught seven minutes after having his face scanned as part of an experiment to see how long he could evade capture in Shenzhen, Xue said that stability is a topmost concern in China.

"China is such a big country experiencing a giant transformation, there are great challenges to maintain social stability and protect people’s property and lives," - said Xue, who was a member of another committee who advised on, and reviewed, the central government’s 13th Five-Year Plan on science, technology and innovation.

Balancing individual and social benefits also extends to areas such as the economy - new AI technology may create a lot of new jobs and economic prosperity for some but this has to be weighed against potential job losses for others who may be replaced by machines.

With the transformative power of artificial intelligence being compared by some to the widespread availability of electricity at the turn of the 20th century, new industries will be created and entire sectors swept away.

At stake is trillions of dollars of economic output that the winner will get the lion’s share of, with the crumbs left to the laggards, perhaps never to recover from surrendering the first-mover advantage.

In its "Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan" published two years ago, China laid out plans to ultimately become the world leader in AI by 2030, with a domestic AI industry worth almost $150 billion.