China pushes ahead with its own vision of an AI-enhanced future


China sees great potential for artificial intelligence— in everything from local public services to warfare.

China has ambitious plans for AI. According to a report from IDC late last year, it's expected to more than double its investment in the technology to nearly $27 billion by 2026, accounting for 8.9% of global AI investments.

During 2021, China produced about one-third of AI journal papers and AI citations worldwide, according to McKinsey, and Stanford University’s AI Index has ranked it among the top three countries for global AI vibrancy.

Much of this effort, of course, is aimed at dominating the rapidly-expanding international market for AI products and tools. But the country also has domestic projects of its own.

Pilot zones

In 2019, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology set up a series of AI pilot zones in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hefei, Shenzhen, Tianjin, and Deqing County.

Shenzhen, for example, is planning the use of AI across public services and city government, with applications covering everything from street sweeping robots to image recognition and video analysis⁠ — to be used for fire control and construction safety, according to the plan.

At the same time, the country is currently engaged in a big push to develop its own large language models (LLMs), with nearly 80 launched over the last three years, according to a report by state-run research institutes.

However, LLMs represent something of a quandary for China, in terms of state control. The government recently proposed restrictions on their use, banning generative AI that “subverts government power and authority or questions national unity.”

And this desire to control citizens shows up in some of the country's other AI projects too.

China's flagship surveillance program, Sharp Eyes, kicked off in 2016, aiming for 100% coverage of the country's public spaces by 2020. It's unclear whether or not that goal was reached, but there are believed to be more than 500 million surveillance cameras already in place around the country.

Faces and irises are scanned at banks and shopping malls, as well as at widespread ID checkpoints, and compared with a biometric database that also includes fingerprints, blood samples, voice prints, and DNA.

AI and facial recognition are being used to monitor the ethnic Uighur population in particular, with one patent application describing a system that uses the technologies to determine whether a person is Uighur or not.

In a related project, one software engineer told the BBC two years ago that China was testing an emotion-recognition AI on Uighurs designed as an improvement on lie-detector tests. The system, he said, could detect and analyse tiny changes in facial expressions and skin pores to establish a person's state of mind.

And in a now-deleted post on social media platform Weibo, researchers claimed that the system could be used to analyze whether people were responding correctly to political education.

It could, they said, “ascertain the levels of concentration, recognition and mastery of ideological and political education so as to better understand its effectiveness,” and “further solidify their determination to be grateful to the party, listen to the party and follow the party.”

But China is also looking to deploy AI for activities beyond its own borders, with a warning from FBI director Christopher Wray to a World Economic Forum panel earlier this year.

"The Chinese government has a bigger hacking program than any other nation in the world," he said.

"And their AI program is not constrained by the rule of law, and is built on top of massive troves of intellectual property and sensitive data that they've stolen over the years and that will be used, unless checked, to advance that same hacking program."

Similarly, China has been found to be employing AI for the purposes of disinformation, with fake accounts pushing pro-China narratives online. Earlier this year, indeed, it was found to be using deepfake 'news anchors' to promote China and denigrate the US.

AI warfare

But perhaps most alarming of all China's AI programs is the fact that it's believed to be investing in military applications.

Information is, naturally, thin on the ground, but the Brookings Institute think tank recently investigated the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF), and concluded that China is set on applying AI to its military missions to try and overcome US superiority in the Indo-Pacific.

It's believed to be using AI to process information from sources including unmanned systems, satellites and undersea sensors surrounding China for the purposes of surveillance and military planning.

And the country is also pouring money into intelligent or autonomous vehicles for warfare, including “intelligent self-flying machinery,” and swarms of drones.

Such vehicles can be used for reconnaissance and surveillance and electronic jamming — as well, of course, as to provide actual firepower in the form of autonomous weapons.

According to the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Chinese experts believe that AI will improve detection, targeting, and strikes against military targets.

All in all, China's use of AI appears to be going in the opposite direction to most of the world, where debate is about how to limit infringements of security and privacy, rather than the reverse. The US is currently hoping to restrict China's AI capabilities by cracking down on chip exports. Whether this is successful remains to be seen.


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