Can China really lead the world in artificial intelligence when it seeks to control thought?

Robert Delaney says China’s State Council has proven it can accomplish great things, but the nation’s ambitions for hi-tech innovation may be undermined by the pursuit of ideological conformity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 2:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 7:11pm

The process by which the Communist Party of China reanoints President Xi Jinping this week might be traditional, but one of his government’s recent initiatives may determine China’s global position in the most cutting edge area of tech innovation.

This year, the State Council announced that China aims to become a global leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, when the total output value of AI industries in the country is targeted to surpass 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.19 trillion).

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No one disputes the potential disruption AI-leveraged applications represent for industries – finance, transport, manufacturing, health care, and the like – generating large amounts of data.

“Tech giants and digital native companies such as Amazon, Apple, Baidu and Google are investing billions of dollars in the various technologies known collectively as artificial intelligence,” a McKinsey Global Institute report said.

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These companies, McKinsey said, “see that the inputs needed to enable AI to finally live up to expectations – powerful computer hardware, increasingly sophisticated algorithmic models, and a vast and fast-growing inventory of data – are in place. Indeed, internal investment by large corporations dominates: we estimate that this amounted to [US]$18 billion to $27 billion in 2016.”

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Nor should anyone doubt State Council priorities. In the early 2000s China’s highest governing body made high-speed railways a priority. A decade later, China’s first bullet trains began rolling, completely changing China’s state of transport. It’s possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing, a 1,300km trip, in less than five hours, while the fastest train from New York to Washington – just a quarter of the distance from China’s financial centre to its capital – takes nearly three hours (and that’s not even mentioning New York’s crumbling Penn Station interchange and suffocating subway system).

Although China embarked on many of its infrastructure initiatives before Xi took power, his tight grip on power has assured completion.

However, one initiative started under Xi might threaten the drive for AI supremacy. The effort to develop “social credit” scores is part of Xi’s wide-ranging drive for ideological unity, even if it’s officially meant to make small business loans and consumer credit more easily available.

Not yet fully implemented – indecision over what to measure and how independent, objective score-keeping can be implemented has delayed the plan – the thinking behind the system still speaks volumes about Xi’s demand for ideological cohesion.

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Government blueprints and media reports suggest rewards and penalties doled out under the social credit system would be based on factors like online interactions, loan repayment records, academic records and even very subjective criteria like filial piety.

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However, throughout history, the world’s most important innovators – from Leonardo da Vinci to Alan Turing and Mark Zuckerberg – were rejects, rule-breakers, drop-outs and others who would certainly not fare well under an accounting of acceptable behaviour.

The US still produces the world’s most valuable patents, despite political gridlock, because the country’s start-up ecosystems are meritocracies divorced from ideology and forgiving of failure when failure is what it takes to arrive at a breakthrough.

Xi’s drive for a return to one-man rule, or close to it, is by itself questionable as a means to ensure stability. Micromanaging thought risks sifting out individuals whose work would bear the fruit of China’s AI ambitions.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York