This week, Chinese scientists and engineers released a code of ethics for artificial intelligence that might signal a willingness from Beijing to rethink how it uses the technology. And while China’s government is widely criticized for using AI as a way to monitor citizens, the newly published guidelines seem remarkably similar to ethical frameworks laid out by Western companies and governments.
The Beijing AI Principles were recently announced by the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence (BAAI), an organization backed by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the Beijing municipal government. They spell out guiding principles for research and development in AI, including that “human privacy, dignity, freedom, autonomy, and rights should be sufficiently respected.”
While it would be easy to dismiss talk of privacy and individual freedoms as disingenuous, it signals a surprising willingness to discuss such issues within Chinese policy circles. The code was developed in collaboration with the most prominent and important technical organizations and tech companies working on AI in China, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, the Institute of Automation and Institute of Computing Technology within the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the country’s big three tech firms: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
It is, of course, a critical moment for Chinese-American relations, especially with regard to emerging technologies. Alarmed by China’s progress in areas like AI and 5G, the Trump administration has used the levers of global trade to attack and in some cases cripple key Chinese tech firms. The telecommunications giant Huawei, for example, has been targeted with export and import controls that threaten to undermine its business. The approach is creating mistrust and divisions that threaten to create new fault lines in the tech world, which came of age in the era of globalization and has come to rely on the economic openness that has accompanied it.
Despite the ongoing trade war between the two countries, some Western experts have been trying to build bridges. This week, the World Economic Forum announced its own AI principles, developed in collaboration with academics, business leaders, and policymakers from the US, China, and other countries. One of the co-chairs of the WEF’s new AI council is Kai-Fu Lee, a prominent AI investor based in Beijing, who previously helped establish both Microsoft’s and Google’s outposts in China. Lee says the WEF group discussed the fact that the Chinese principles seem very similar to those developed by Western countries and companies. “This makes us quite optimistic,” he says.