Asia, recent, Science / Tech

Understanding China’s Confucian Edge in the Global AI Race

The American fugitive Edward Snowden triggered the West’s current (and ongoing) wave of concern over data privacy six years ago, when he revealed details about secret U.S. government programs that collect information on U.S. citizens. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of disclosures about how personal information is collected and shared, alarming the public and laying the groundwork for restrictive new laws, regulations and corporate policies.

But the situation is different outside of the Western world—especially in China, which seems set to monetize its citizens’ seemingly nonchalant (or, more probably, fatalistic) attitude toward data collection. In China, even the most pervasive and invasive forms of data collection raise few eyebrows. As a result, China now stands poised to lead the world in the development of artificial-intelligence technologies, which rely, for their machine-learning algorithms, on vast quantities of accessible data. Developing AI in China has become akin to pumping oil in Saudi Arabia.

This advantage will have enormous economic significance in coming years. Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin ominously proclaimed that whichever country leads in AI will become “the ruler of the world.” While that may be something of an overstatement, AI applications are rippling through every technological sector—from our phones and our cars to factories and weapon systems. In time, these new technologies will transform the global economic and military balance of power.

In some ways, China’s AI advantage might be traced to Confucius, whose fifth-century BC philosophy still informs the Chinese worldview, including its devotion to a strong social hierarchy. By discouraging individualism and encouraging the preservation of a strong central authority, this worldview has allowed the government a virtual carte blanche in the collection and use of data. And while Chinese citizens may grouse about controls on civil liberties, they accept those controls with a docility that surprises Western observers. How much all of this is determined by cultural forces that pre-date communism, and how much it is the product of sheer repression, remains a subject of debate. But except for a thin veneer of Western-facing intellectuals, China’s citizens largely accede to a level of surveillance and control that Westerners would regard as positively Orwellian. The Chinese government tracks everyone from birth, in part through a police-station file that holds everything from records of marriages and divorces to secret reports on political activity.

China’s edge in the implementation of data-driven artificial intelligence is owed in part to its vast population, which generates more data than any other country, and its creation of a STEM-focused educational system, which is churning out high numbers of AI engineers, many of whom are being channeled into jobs through a well-funded national AI strategy. In the United States and other Western countries, whole branches of technology—such as AI-powered self-driving cars—can be stalled based on one or two high-profile setbacks that stir up consumer fears or class-action law suits. In China, by contrast, the government and the citizenry are much more willing to let technology lead policy if the overall effect is seen as a boon to the country as a whole.

China’s central government is building a new smart city, Xiongan, at an estimated cost of US$380-billion, for 3-million residents. The city is incorporating the latest-data collection systems in its infrastructure, and will include roadways—some underground—dedicated to self-driving vehicles. Regional governments are following suit. Zhejiang province has announced plans to build a smart superhighway for autonomous vehicles that will allow speeds up to 30 percent higher than regular roads, while reducing fatalities.

China’s most comprehensive data-driven project, called Sharp Eyes, will tie networks of closed-circuit cameras together and feed live video into AI systems that can recognize faces, spot anomalous behavior and track individuals in real time. Pilot systems have been deployed across the country and already are credited with drops in crime. The central government’s stated aim is to eventually extend the surveillance from cities to towns and villages and even the countryside, putting as much as 90 percent of the population under constant supervision.

Citizens will be encouraged to watch surveillance feeds through their television sets and smartphones to augment machine-learning analysis—an extension of the Communist Party neighborhood committees that keep watch on the comings and goings of residents. In pilot programs so far, such community engagement has been enthusiastically embraced. The government is, in effect, crowdsourcing the job of Big Brother.

Another project will link various behavioral data, from financial transactions to social media posts, with the country’s national ID cards, to create what has been called a social credit score that can be used to punish or reward citizens. Private companies are helping, collecting oceans of data that are available to researchers and the government alike. Nearly 800 million Chinese use the tech giant Tencent’s smartphone app WeChat to pay for goods and services—everything from vegetables at outdoor markets to airplane tickets to foot massages—in the process generating a flood of mobile-payment data that can be mined for specific individual preferences or broad demographic trends.

In many cases, China has been able to apply advanced technology to relatively backward segments of its economy in a way that would face entrenched resistance in more developed countries. Together with Alibaba’s Alipay system, for instance, WeChat “has turned Chinese cities into the first cashless environments since the days of the barter economy,” writes Kaifu Lee, a thought leader on AI in China. (As a contrasting thought experiment, just try telling Americans that they’re no longer allowed to use cash.) In 2017, iResearch Consulting Group, a market research company in China, estimated that Chinese mobile payment spending outnumbered that in the United States by a ratio of 50 to 1. For 2017, total transactions on China’s mobile payment platforms reportedly surpassed US$17 trillion—greater than China’s GDP.

In his recent book, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, Lee notes that “data from mobile payments is currently generating the richest maps of consumer activity the world has ever known, far exceeding the data from traditional credit-card purchases or online activity captured by E-commerce players like Amazon or platforms like Google and Yelp.” That data is what gives China its AI edge. “More data leads to better products, which in turn attract more users, who generate more data that further improves the product,” writes Lee. While Western consumers increasingly demand control of their data, Chinese consumers have stood by as this information is mainlined into the world’s most advanced machine-learning-powered economic models.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that AI will add US$15.7 trillion to global GDP by 2030, with China laying claim to nearly half of that. North America, by contrast, will get less than a quarter. It’s hard to know what Mao would have thought about these numbers. But Confucius, I think, would be every bit as pleased as he would be amazed.

 

Craig S. Smith, an award-winning correspondent for the New York Times, is CEO of Eye-On.ai

Featured image: AI researchers at the University of Zurich, photographed in 2013. 

36 Comments

  1. Malcolm Beaton says

    Thank goodness China has never been an Imperial power so that these scary powers of population manipulation will stay in house
    (I don’t forget overseas Chinese who will be at risk)
    Our saviour will be that this sort of behaviour kills the creativity of the citizens
    We will only escape the dominance of this totalitarian structure with new and better ideas-hopefully and probably we will!

    • david of Kirkland says

      The problem is that some will always want to use data against you. If they could just amass the information for the common good, and not use it to direct state powers against individuals, it would be a good idea.
      After all, science works on data. So to improve human lives over time, we’ll need data about people. Sadly, tyrants inside far too many minds will use that data to punish some, to marginalize others, to choose for you.

    • ga gamba says

      Thank goodness China has never been an Imperial power so that these scary powers of population manipulation will stay in house

      I presume this is sarcasm.

      Our saviour will be that this sort of behaviour kills the creativity of the citizens

      More young people than ever are embracing creativity killing socialism, so, please, have a plan to resurrect the saviour.

      I’m not trying to discourage optimism, but I think real plans needs to devised and operations executed to thwart their dalliance so it doesn’t become a full-blown love affair. It’s being done under the cloak of environmentalism and the diversity, inclusivity, and equity (DIE) ideology.

    • Andy Espersen says

      There are degrees of “totalitarian structures”. If a huge majority of people gladly put up with it, it cannot be too bad – and will last. Who knows, perhaps this Chinese type of communism will succeed – we shall find out over the next couple of generations. They may get the last laugh. I think the Chinese are doing marvelously well at present. And I think our western democracies aren’t up to expectations in most of the countries where practiced.

      As always : the proof of a pudding is in the eating.

      • Alexander James Simmons says

        for one they are brainwashed, and two there’s not much of a choice for what they can put up with. I think communism is evil and you are a jackboot licking faggot cheering a country that puts muslims in concentration camps among a myriad of other tyrannical things

  2. Does Craig Smith ADMIRE the repression he describes? Does he want the US and other countries to copy it? He certainly proposes no way to oppose it.

    Foreign authoritarianism has always impressed some Americans who find our democracy too messy and rough-edged. Fascism and Marxism in turn entranced American intellectuals who categorically insisted Democracy was dated and doomed and produced reams of statistics to prove it.

    China’s self-drive cars may indeed run on time, like Hitler’s trains. The robotic Neo-Confucianism Mr. Smith imagines sounds intimidating in a Science-Fiction way, but so did Fascism and Communism. We should not be overly impressed but should also beware of any attempt to insinuate such authoritarianism into our society or those of our friends and allies. Our reaction should be MORE individualism, not less.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Yet you likely agree that data and information wants to be free and shared. Do you want private silos of science, engineering, finance, healthcare, language or culture?
      Data about individuals doesn’t have to suppress individuals; it’s tyrants who would use such data to target adversaries or create classes of “low life” based on it that is the concern, and it’s rather human nature when combined with power.
      But you can control power with rights and open laws that go with all that data collection. If the data collected is open, then even tyrants begin to have a hard time creating their misery in private.
      The idea of individual privacy may not make sense in a modern economy that is moving aggressively towards greater computation and analysis.

      • No, I do not believe data and information wants to be free. How can data and information ‘want’ anything? Neither do I want ‘private silos’.

        Your second paragraph does not seen relevant to either my comment or the article. And individual privacy is a right, not just an idea, and make great sense always and everywhere.

        • David Turnbull says

          Individual privacy is a right? Sorry, but an individual has only the rights that his society gives him.

    • ga gamba says

      He certainly proposes no way to oppose it.

      Given the public’s fixation on safety, to include wolf whistles and male gazing, the Chinese will pitch these cities of the future as hyper safe and female friendly to urban developers who have been told to accommodate these demands.

      You may have your freedom or your safety, but you can’t maximise both concurrently. Though, I won’t be surprised that words will be twisted so that in the minds of many safety somehow means freedom. Hype up fear and then propose the freedom from fear to infringe rights.

      Society has never been as safe as it is presently, yet the way some go on about things you’d think Genghis Khan and his merry marauders toppled the gates and prowl the streets.

  3. Eurocrat says

    Craig S. Smith:

    “Russian president Vladimir Putin ominously proclaimed that whichever country leads in AI will become “the ruler of the world.”…In time, these new technologies will transform the global economic and military balance of power.”

    Two mistakes here, we do not know if the new technologies are really that economically disruptive and, secondly, even if they were, why would anybody put money on state-controlled IT/AI industry over a country that produced IBM, Apple, Intel, Facebook, Amazon and reinvented Apple (to name a few) is beyond me.

    Invoking Putin’s thoughts on the matter is quite indicative – there is a Cold War ring to an attitude that there is a sliver bullet to world dominion, be it nuclear arms, or space programme, or AI.

    There is, however, a silver lining here. We can link the growing abandonment of the free speech as a core western value to the collapse of Soviet Union. In all fairness, one of the reasons free speech was held in such a high regard during the Cold War was due to the fact that it was the way to show how progressive west was compared to communist block. Citizens of western countries, through consequential provision of individual liberties by their governments, were collateral winners of this ideological war. And through China’s orchestrated onslaught on privacy and freedom, activities in the west that look similar, or are similar, will receive more and more criticism.

    In the end, thanks to China, west could go back to its fall-back position of individual freedoms. Thank you, China.

    • “Two mistakes here, we do not know if the new technologies are really that economically disruptive and, secondly, even if they were, why would anybody put money on state-controlled IT/AI industry over a country that produced IBM, Apple, Intel, Facebook, Amazon and reinvented Apple (to name a few) is beyond me.”

      Bingo….

      • Spamozavur says

        You didn’t take into account why China becomes so powerfull at all? Isn’t it because of greedy capitalizm who wants to get more profit thanks to abusing China’s model of slavery and outsource more than 80% of all manufacturing of whatever to it? Now you can answer yourself who will use China’s AI because it will be the cheapest of AIs 😉

    • Brian says

      Our president just signed an executive order instructing all regulatory agencies to report on AI. He specifically mentioned China and AI in his SOTU speech. Trump clearly thinks that AI is an issue (natl security, natl economy, etc). I assume he’s correct since that level of technological disruption would be the most profound in human history.

      Individualism vs collectivism: both have benefits and drawbacks. Eurocrat mentions how innovative and successful our silicone valley companies have been over China’s fascist state. I agree that the West’s individualism allows for innovation and the West’s economic system allows for quick life/death/rebirth through capitalistic Darwinism. China will always be able to steal information, data, and technology, but they will not be able to lead… until AI becomes their leading light.

      AI will quickly provide a totalitarian state with more tools for control and manipulation. This will have a similar effect in the West. People will accept it as the ‘new normal’.

      I am not roses and champagne on AI, but i also believe that AI has the potential to be nearly Utopian (minimizing human and animal suffering). The West’s general public will realize in the next few years that they are behind the ball on AI because of how our system is setup. A few national emergencies will craft new privacy laws to allow for a more Orwellian state to exist…. the politicians just haven’t figured out yet how to craft the story on how ceding our God and constitutional natural rights is good, in the name of ‘women and children’. Until then, enjoy your privacy for it will disappear quickly and most likely without us knowing.

  4. Will China’s continuous income from these monitoring technologies not become exponential? Is it possible that China could become economically independent? Wouldn’t that prove to be a major problem for America who remains in significant Chinese financial debt?
    This worries me actually. There is no telling what kind of information they can accumulate from constant surveillance. This is completely unprecedented and definitely needs attention

  5. Andrew says

    The idea that a collective under authoritarian rule is better at executing X, whatever that may be, is as old as the Ancient Greek. And I do not deny that there is something to it. Never-ending deliberation and a myopic view of the importance of one’s own needs in relation to all other is a sure way to get nowhere as a group or society. But quite often it is not just a question about executing X, but to know what is worthwhile to execute.

    This is where the analogy of data with oil is unfortunate. Data is not just a natural resource that is extracted, sold, burnt and readily turned into power. There is a creative element to data creation, and a goal of how to apply it matters to its creation and management.

    It is fair to argue that China in this regard has made enormous gains, and their focus on science and engineering learning is impressive. Confucius, and his emphasis on the status of the teacher, may be the cultural influence here, but it is much more indirect than as the source of blind obedience to authority.

    The article raises a few important points about how Chinese society and culture may be more conducive to certain aspects of AI. An even greater contrast would be found in comparison with Europe and its challenges to combine ideas of individual dignity with digital technology. To point more or less exclusively to the authoritarian qualities of China as the source of its advantage, however, is incomplete at best, and likely counterproductive.

    • david of Kirkland says

      It’s not just China, that’s for sure. Surveillance, monitoring and data collection are inherent in all societies, whether run by government or private businesses. Gossip used to be king, but computers have changed all that by being able to record it all and analyze it later. We’ll have to figure out how to tame it with rights, just like free speech and democracy can be pure evils without rights to protect the individual against the multitude.

    • Exactly! The Party will waste enormous wealth on useless projects. If states could do things better than free markets why didn’t they under Mao and in the USSR?

    • thrash jazz assassin says

      Well said Andrew. Particularly: “Confucius, and his emphasis on the status of the teacher, maybe the cultural influence here, but it is much more indirect than as the source of blind obedience to authority.” While it may be true that confucian ideals lurk in the Chinese psyche, lending a certain predisposition, it is the blind obedience to authority – the 20th Century inception of which attempted to erase its rich cultural heritage as degenerate and start history again from scratch, and now contradictorily claims that very heritage as a source of its prestige – that predominates. But for many, it is quitely a reluctant obedience; there’s always a tone of cynicism that pervades a lot of online discussion in China that carefully skirts the limits of censorship (I have been a long time resident). There’s a lot of stifled creativity which rankles. With its extreme centralised concentration of power and control, and incessant application of AI to creating a surveillance state, China may fast become a cautionary tale. I will not be surprised at all if some kind of pushback and backlash emerges. Particularly because what guides its pursuit and application of new tech like AI, and its massively over the top infrastructure (vanity) projects ( eg. belt and road, countless ghost cities), is much more ideologically based than it is based on some genuinely valuable use case, or business case. When the economic pain hits, and enough people refuse to swallow the state narrative anymore, things could very suddenly and rapidly spiral out of the CCPs control.

      It’s the very scenario it is afraid of.

  6. The totalitarian CCP governs a population which is 92% Han. Diversity is both nil and not tolerated. Han bigotry towards all others is ever present. One can reasonably wonder about the “export” value of the programs and apps growing out of the data of such a captive, submissive, and uniform “identity” population which tolerates chabuduo to the extent it does. The wide wide world is probably far to diverse for any “China Dream” to engage.

    • Indeed! Communism had an international appeal to intellectuals and others as it was not racially or culturally bound. Fascism was less portable but the Nazis managed to twist it enough to ally with Japan. China’s system is now closer to Fascism than Communism but still allows enough economic freedom to undermine its cultural and political repression.

      • ga gamba says

        … still allows enough economic freedom to undermine its cultural and political repression.

        No, this is untrue. No undermining is allowed. The CCP is a war with a meditation movement that wouldn’t submit to its authority. There are 185,000 state-owned companies in China. The government dominates almost all sectors of the economy, especially those deemed crucial such as banking, energy, transportation, logistics, and communications. We tend to think of harsh measures used to impose control (police thugs kicking in doors, tax audits, etc), and the CCP certainly has these at its disposal, but it also has many softer measures in its hands. If you own a business you’re interacting not only with government authorities, but also state-owned banks, state-owned logistics systems, state-owned communications, etc. Any one of these can pull the rug right out from under you – your adverts may be denied, your loan application refused, cargo lost or stuck in customs while it rots, etc. Good luck getting redress through the courts.

        The Chinese live life embraced by a boa constrictor that chooses how much to squeeze. Try to breathe free and you’ll feel it.

  7. I am sorry but this article is….weak.
    There is no valid ‘premise’ to/in this piece, as there has been no where an argument proposed supporting the beneficence of AI re; the myriads of objectives…who for example says a cashless society is better than a cash society? AI is a …utility, nothing more.

  8. Craig WIllms says

    The question is will Chinese AI have a creative bone in it’s non-body?

    The Chinese are not really creators they are copiers. Most of the world changing tech and developments have come from social systems that support individualism. The scientists and inventors and wizards of high tech have come from all over the world – including China – so it’s not the people themselves, it’s got to be the system. This means that the West is feeding China and ignoring their de-humanizing transgressions – no revelation there. So any hand-wringing or concern in the West about Chinese AI has only to look in a mirror to see who is responsible for the monster.

  9. X. Citoyen says

    That data is what gives China its AI edge. “More data leads to better products, which in turn attract more users, who generate more data that further improves the product,” writes Lee.

    The assumption here is that there’s some perfect product or set of products that everyone wants—that human consumer aspirations have a telos that can be uncovered with more data. No telos exists in the realm of material wants. New and unforeseen products come out of nowhere and displace old ones. All this data can only improve the mousetrap, not create a new product, and it’s no good at predicting or solving the rat problem waiting around the corner. I’m not pooh-poohing the wonders of AI, but we also need to remember that the world still works the way it always has.

  10. “It’s hard to know what Mao would have thought about these numbers. But Confucius, I think, would be every bit as pleased as he would be amazed.”

    Most pleased of all would probably be Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, for what is mainland China now but the old authoritarian capitalist Taiwan writ large?

  11. heemz says

    Just wait until the power goes out. They lose millions of people.

  12. Klaus says

    It seems that the author doesn’t know how AI works. No AI application trained with the Chinese data gathered by the government will be useful outside of China.

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  16. Constantin says

    China has the edge of denying privacy to a much larger population sample. Mhm! By the look of it, it will seem that, no matter how large, they are sampling a different population. That may pose a problem for an AI whose entire worldview is based on its input. But what does the author really want? Suppose dictatorship facilitates data collection for AI input. What am I supposed to think about it? Stuff it along with the 17 trillion global GDP! We have seen how much we can trust tech giants with our data and privacy, haven’t we? feed the AI what the citizens are freely willing to share and get a search warrant for the rest!

  17. Cleany says

    I don’t think most people know what “AI” actually is. The term is chucked around undefined like a photo of the emperors clothes.

    The “AI” that is being talked about here, and basically everywhere else is what was previously called a “computer program”. It’s a different take on computer program, but it’s still a computer program. It is not intelligent in any sense of the word, unless you want to pretend it is. Only a transhumanist outlook would ever lead to such a conclusion. This is life not star trek.

    However the still real danger is there and comes from the fact that there is a massive amount of data connected with large bandwidth and many fast processors. The power this danger has is given to it by people through governments, laziness and ignorance.

    Unless people wake up to the real problems of power and responsibility passing to large state or private organisations because of innate selfishness now governed only by a vapid consumerism, coupled with fetished fantasies about technology, the results of this, which are becoming quite clear to those who care, will become vivdly and dreadfully apparent in the next couple of decades.

    Forget “AI”. This is people weilding power over other people, with technology as their instrument.

  18. Bob C says

    This article makes a number of assumptions that should be questioned:

    1. The present system of government in China is invulnerable and permanent. Until 1989 identical assumptions were made about the Soviet Union. Western commentators have always been surprisingly willing to believe the propaganda claims authoritarian governments make about the triumph of their projects. Until recently many of them even swallowed such claims from the government of Venezuela.

    2. “Except for a thin veneer of Western-facing intellectuals, China’s citizens largely accede to a level of surveillance and control that Westerners would regard as positively Orwellian.” This is not Confucianism, it is simply terror. The last time that large numbers of Chinese citizens asked for change they were massacred. There is no reason to suppose that they have stopped wanting change or that they will not seek it again when the opportunity next arises.

    3. AI technology will be successful, and we can look forward to a world of driverless cars, homes that monitor and control their occupants etc. In reality this technology is still embryonic. It is far from clear how, once fully developed, it will remain immune from hacking and sabotage.

    4. ” ‘Data from mobile payments is currently generating the richest maps of consumer activity the world has ever known, far exceeding the data from traditional credit-card purchases or online activity captured by E-commerce players like Amazon or platforms like Google and Yelp.’ That data is what gives China its AI edge.” Data mining is about monitoring and predicting people’s choices. Such data is bound to have less value if it is drawn entirely from a country where personal choices are artificially limited through censorship, fear and oppressive regulation.

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