Artificial Intelligence, News, Technology

China’s turn towards AI ethics

Anna Wall

Amie Haven, Journalist

China could be opening the door to economic opportunities and political change with the adoption of European ethics for AI tech.

China’s bid to be the leading powerhouse of AI technology took a surprising turn when the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence (BAAI) announced its Beijing AI Principles. The statement released in May 2019 sets out details for the appropriate research, development, use, and governance of AI for the benefit of all humankind. This surprising turn has got educated thinkers wondering if this is a point of change for China and a sign that the surveillance state may be ready to alter its ways.

Backed by the Beijing municipal government, the BAAI states in its AI Principles that “Human privacy, dignity, freedom, autonomy, and rights should be sufficiently respected.” This statement has raised some eyebrows since China has a reputation for the control and surveillance of its people. In July 2019, the Guardian reported that a surveillance app was being used to scan the emails, texts, contacts, and browsing history of people as they crossed the border between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan. Also in July 2019, Google said it had stopped working on a censored search engine for China after revisiting the idea since its withdrawal of the censored search engine in 2010. China is a large and potentially profitable market for Google, but the company’s principles of “don’t be evil” preclude the intentional censorship of their search engine. If China adopts a more ethical stance and reduces the monitoring of civilians, Google may end up taking advantage of this lucrative market after all.

However, it would be unwise to get ahead of ourselves here. In relation to the protection of privacy, dignity, freedom, autonomy, and rights the term “sufficiently respected” is used. It is not clear who gets to decide what is sufficient when it comes to respecting certain rights and values. China may be borrowing terms from the European Commission’s Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI but that doesn’t mean they will be used in quite the same way. 

The Beijing AI Principles sets out China’s wish not to get caught up in a “malicious AI race”. China is aware of its need to operate within the global AI ecosystem, as the country still lags behind the U.S. in key areas like the production of AI-enabled semiconductor chips and the development of fundamental AI theories. Recognising the need to integrate in order to participate globally means that there is reason to be optimistic. China may be willing to make changes to the way it governs if it means being a force to be reckoned with in the global AI ecosystem. 

AI technology has been heralded as a key factor in the future of economic growth. AI’s potential to make us more mobile, revolutionise healthcare, and reform the workplace means that countries are keen to be the front runners with this technology. Although China is a communist state, the country has moved from a centrally planned economy to a market-based economy and is excelling in terms of economic growth. According to the World Bank, “China has been the largest single contributor to world growth since the global financial crisis of 2008.” 

China is an undeniable force to be reckoned with. The Beijing AI Principles show an awareness of the need to protect certain rights and values during the research, development, use, and governance of AI. If China can deftly manage the country’s trade war with the U.S., there may be room to start a real conversation about shared values and the development of a balanced and fair global AI ecosystem.

China’s willingness to commit to some basic AI principles is reassuring. Globally shared principles that prioritise AI technology for the good of all – whilst mitigating risks and harm – should go some way to building a solid sense of trust in this new technology.

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