China urges AI elites to unite in ‘global village’
Heavyweights in artificial intelligence gather in Shanghai to look at technologies promising to revolutionise everything from health care to driving to policing.
Artificial intelligence needs to be viewed as an economic game-changer, whose benefits can be shared and potential problems solved globally, Chinese vice-premiere Liu He told a gathering of AI elites in Shanghai on Monday.
His conciliatory speech was delivered amid a mounting US-China trade war and heated rhetoric from China-wary US President Donald Trump.
But the highly influential Chinese leader urged major AI players to see beyond traditional national borders.
“As members of a global village, I hope countries can show inclusive understanding and respect to each other, deal with the double-sword technologies can bring, and embrace AI together,” said Liu, who has been China’s top trade negotiator in the US-China trade war and is also on the country’s technology development committee.
China is developing AI in an “open environment” and encourages companies across the world to actively get involved in the “immense market” and form intensive collaborations at the corporate and research institute level, he added.
Attendees included Baidu co-founder and entrepreneur Robin Li Yanhong, Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma Yun, and Tencent Holdings chairman Pony Ma Huateng. Also attending the event was Lei Jun, the chief executive of high-flying smartphone maker Xiaomi.
From the US were Google vice-president Jay Yagnik, vice-president of Amazon Web Services Swami Sivasubramanian, and executive vice-president of Microsoft AI and Research Group Harry Shrum. Amazon and Microsoft announced they would open research branches in Shanghai.
China is already attracting 70 per cent of the US$39.5 billion raised worldwide for AI investments.
Betting big on the core technology behind an array of cutting-edge applications from autonomous driving to facial recognition, China’s State Council last July laid out a three-step road map for AI supremacy. It included the goals of building a domestic AI industry worth about US$150 billion and to make the country an “innovation centre for AI” by 2030.
But amid ongoing friction with the US, the country has cooled some of its rhetoric around its AI ambitions.
President Xi Jinping issued a statement at the conference saying that China is willing to develop AI and share knowledge with other countries.
“It requires deepened collaboration and open dialogue among countries to deal with new subjects such as legislation, security, employment and governance,” Xi said in his statement.
Other speakers echoed Liu’s theme that AI is big enough for more than one dominant country.
“The Pacific Ocean is big enough to fit into AI from both China and the US,” said Tang Xiao’ou, co-founder of Chinese AI unicorn SenseTime and professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, alluding to tensions between the world’s two largest economies.
“Instead of making one country great again, we can tackle a much more difficult task,” he said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Instead of a stand-alone sector, he said he expects AI to merge with all industries, as an empowering rather than a destructive force.
Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post, said data and services will be at the centre of manufacturing in the future.
“AI will transform the way we perceive and think of the world,” Ma said.
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Tech leaders Ma of Tencent and Lei of Xiaomi predicted that the future will include humans connecting increasingly with devices and services.
“The initial response from users [of Xiaomi smart assistant] is beyond our expectation,” said Lei. “We found children playing with them as toys, while the elderly were using them when no one is at home to kill time, even when it may not be very smart at first.”
Li of Baidu said ethics standards are emerging for the AI world.
“They cover four principles: safety first, an equal chance to access technologies, education and nurturing of mankind, and more possibilities and freedom,” he said.
The conference is co-organised by the country’s top economic planning and technology brain pool, including the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.