There has been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence (AI) recently. Although it has been there for many years already, a large part of the public only became aware of artificial intelligence at the launch of ChatGPT, the popular chatbot developed by OpenAI and launched in November 2022. People often refer to Western tech giants like Google and Tesla when talking about AI, but China has also been making a lot of progress in AI development during many years.
A historical perspective
China’s involvement in AI dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, focusing mainly on language processing and machine learning. The establishment of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (CAAI) in 1981 showed the country’s commitment to AI research at a very early stage. This continued in the 1990s, when academic institutions and companies also started investing in AI research. Companies like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent (jointly sometimes referred to as ‘BAT’) started making significant contributions to the AI community. Starting from the early 2010s, China’s government put forward AI as one of the key priorities of the future development of the country. And finally, in 2017 China announced its aim to become a global AI leader by 2030 in its thirteenth Five-Year Plan. By 2025, it is projected that the value of the core AI industry in China will be worth 400 billion RMB, with a value of over 5 trillion RMB when accounting for related industries.
The emergence of tech giants
One noteworthy AI achievement was Baidu’s launch of Apollo, an open-source autonomous driving platform. This initiative was pivotal in bringing Chinese autonomous driving technology to global prominence. Similarly, Tencent ventured into language learning and computer vision technologies, which eventually contributed to the development of the WeChat smart assistant and more sophisticated customer service.
In 2019, the application of Artificial Intelligence expanded to various fields such as quantum physics, geography, medical research, smart manufacturing and smart cities. With the emergence of large language models (LLMs), such as GPT, at the beginning of 2020, Chinese researchers began developing their own LLM. Several Chinese companies and academic institutions are actively involved in LLM research, including Baidu’s Ernie. Other famous Chinese tech and AI companies are Huawei, Bytedance, Xiaopeng, SenseTime, Megvii, etc.
In some cases, Chinese AI companies have even surpassed their Western counterparts in certain areas, such as facial recognition technology and e-commerce recommendation systems. China’s AI journey has been impressive, but it is not without challenges and concerns. Some have raised questions about privacy and the ethical use of AI technologies, particularly in surveillance and social credit systems. Furthermore, concerns about the lack of transparency in AI algorithms and data usage practices have been raised.
China is in the midst of rolling out some of the world’s earliest and most detailed regulations governing artificial intelligence (AI). These include measures governing recommendation algorithms—the most omnipresent form of AI deployed on the internet—as well as new rules for synthetically generated images and chatbots. China’s emerging AI governance framework will reshape how the technology is built and deployed within China and internationally, impacting both Chinese technology exports and global AI research networks.
In the West, China’s regulations are often dismissed as irrelevant or seen purely through the lens of a geopolitical competition to write the rules for AI. Instead, these regulations deserve careful study on how they will affect China’s AI trajectory and what they can teach policymakers around the world about regulating the technology.
Please contact the Belgian-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (BCECC) in case you need more information.