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China and the US Battling for AI Dominance

China and the US Battling for AI Dominance

In the intricate tapestry of online discussions within Chinese social media throughout 2023, one event stands out as profoundly significant – the meteoric rise of ChatGPT. While officially launched by the US-based OpenAI in late 2022, it wasn't until the dawn of 2023 that its unprecedented growth garnered substantial attention in China. This comes at a time when the Chinese government fervently aspires to secure global AI leadership by 2030.

Over the preceding decade, the Chinese focus on AI within society and digital culture has undergone a remarkable evolution. Post the seismic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the deployment of AI in schools, office complexes, and factories has surged at an unprecedented pace.

AI facial recognition now permeates diverse facets of public security and payment technology. The integration of smart glasses and helmets has streamlined tasks for workers, and intelligent robots have seamlessly woven themselves into the fabric of China's service industry, gracing malls, restaurants, and banks with their presence.

Lagging in the Global AI Era?

In the unfolding narrative of the tech race, characterized by the symbolic struggle between the eagle and the dragon, ChatGPT emerged as a disruptor, introducing a climactic twist to the anticipated storyline. However, this shift was not without its challenges for China. The endeavor to launch alternative models took months, revealing a discernible lag in comparison to their Western counterparts. 

Even the Minister of Science and Technology conceded that China's chatbots were grappling in the face of formidable competition from the United States, leaving Chinese internet users perplexed. This puzzlement arose against the backdrop of China's ambitious goal to dominate the AI era.

Various experts and bloggers have proffered divergent explanations for this delay. Some argued that China's tech startups, inherently geared towards rapid applications, tended to sideline extensive research and development. Others pointed to the intricate nature of the Chinese language, positing it as a factor complicating language model training. Yet, a prevailing consensus emerged – the confluence of stringent political sensitivities and a closely monitored online environment in China constituted formidable obstacles to the development of ChatGPT-like platforms.

The climax of this narrative unfolded in the summer of 2023 when Chinese authorities introduced pivotal regulations governing generative AI. Mandating alignment with the "core values of socialism," these regulations prohibited AI-generated content from undermining state authority, harming national unity, or disseminating false information. In a prescriptive move, AI service providers were tasked with averting excessive user dependency on their services.

Insights into the ChatGPT Conundrum

Within the realm of expert opinions and the blogosphere, diverse perspectives emerged regarding China's delayed entry into the ChatGPT arena. Some contended that Chinese tech start-ups, inherently inclined towards rapid applications, prioritized speed over extensive research and development, thereby missing the initial ChatGPT launch. Others attributed the lag to the intricate nature of language model training in China, shaped by the richness and complexity of the language.

However, a prevailing consensus crystallized around the notion that the formidable barriers were rooted in political sensitivities and the intricacies of the Chinese online environment. Despite this regulatory landscape, numerous Chinese tech companies ventured into launching their own chatbots. 

However, their attempts to compete with ChatGPT, inaccessible within the mainland, proved Herculean amidst the multitude of restrictions imposed by the state. Notably, even posing straightforward questions about Chinese leadership to Baidu's Ernie chatbot could trigger an immediate shutdown of the conversation, highlighting the tightrope these platforms navigate.

In the ensuing autumn, a seismic incident shook the Chinese AI landscape. iFlytek, a prominent AI company, experienced a sharp decline in shares after one of its AI tablets, designed to assist students in homework, generated an essay critical of Mao Zedong. This incident not only resulted in punitive measures against iFlyTek staff but also served as a stern warning to all players in the AI field. It underscored the imperative for AI models to operate within the meticulous guidelines and regulations of China's strictly governed cyberspace.

Yet, amidst these challenges and regulatory interventions, it would be premature to deduce that China's AI revolution is losing momentum. The narrative is far from a denouement; instead, it presents a complex interplay of innovation, regulatory constraints, and the dynamic resilience of China's tech ecosystem. 

From Deepfakes to Virtual Livestreamers

In the vast tapestry of Chinese society, AI developments permeate across various demographics, transcending party affiliations, age groups, and urban-rural divides. The influence of AI is particularly pronounced in China's digital economy, where AI-powered social media live streaming apps and e-commerce platforms play a transformative role.

The advent of new AI technology has ushered in a novel era where business owners can procure deepfake influencers to tirelessly represent and sell for them around the clock. This innovation has unleashed unprecedented opportunities for small Chinese entrepreneurs, with the popularity of deepfakes skyrocketing on e-commerce streaming platforms throughout 2023.

These new digital employees extend beyond merely answering customer queries; they possess the ability to gauge emotions, recognizing smiles and adapting responses accordingly. An illustrative example is a digital avatar named employee of the year at a Chinese real estate developer, showcasing the integration of AI into diverse sectors.

Baidu, a tech giant, has unveiled an ambitious plan to bolster rural economic development by enabling 100,000 Chinese farmers to showcase and sell their products internationally through virtual livestreamers.

Concurrently, Chinese authorities are collaborating with major tech companies to enhance the appeal and accessibility of Communist Party messages. The People's Daily, the state newspaper, has introduced a virtual presenter, exemplifying the fusion of technology and political communication.

However, against this backdrop of technological advancements, the success of ChatGPT prompts a crucial shift in perspective. It underscores the need to move away from the conventional narrative of an "AI race" between the West and China and instead directs attention to their divergent approaches.

East vs. West: Unraveling the Philosophical Tapestry of AI

China's approach emphasizes a delicate equilibrium between economic growth and political stability. The central government's meticulous control over digital developments prioritizes concepts such as cyber sovereignty, collective support, "national harmony," and the perpetuation of power within the party.

In stark contrast, the West champions AI applications that accentuate individualism, personal autonomy, decentralization, and globalization. This divergence sparks debates over the intricate balance between individual rights and broader societal interests, marking a distinctive characteristic of the Western approach.

The denouement of this narrative lies not in the competition between nations but in the nuanced exploration of the varied philosophies underpinning AI development. As China and the West chart their unique courses, the future of AI unfolds as a dynamic interplay between technological evolution and societal values, shaping the contours of a global AI landscape.

The utilization of AI in the West and China unfolds along distinct trajectories, recognizing that what proves effective in one market may not seamlessly translate to the other. The emergence of ChatGPT serves as a compelling illustration of the divergent paths undertaken by the eagle and the dragon, each entrenched in its race along distinct tracks. Rather than viewing this divergence through a lens of competition and geopolitical implications, there exists a profound opportunity to glean insights from both approaches.

Md Motasim Billa

Md Motasim Billa


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