Could blacklisting China's AI champions backfire?

BBC Technology 08 Oct 2019 12:36
By Leo Kelion Technology desk editor
AI brainsImage copyright Getty Images

Just over two years ago, China announced an audacious plan to overtake the US and lead the "world in AI [artificial intelligence] technology and applications by 2030".

It is already widely regarded to have overtaken the EU in many aspects.

But now its plans may be knocked off course by the US restricting certain Chinese companies from buying technologies developed or manufactured in the States.

Washington's justification is that the organisations involved have made products used to commit human rights abuses against China's Muslim ethnic minorities.

But it is notable that those on its blacklist include many of China's official "national AI champions", among them:

  • Megvii - an image recognition software developer sometimes referred to as being the world's most valuable AI start-up

That is, in part, because they are reliant on US-based know-how.

Image copyright Reuters

But perhaps most crucially, the blacklisting threatens to cut off the supply of computer chips and other components that Hikvision requires to build its surveillance cameras, and the others need to train their algorithms.

The US is the undisputed leader in semiconductors.

This dependence has not gone unnoticed.

Image copyright Megvii

"For decades, building indigenous Chinese chips has been an aspiration of the government," Matt Sheehan, author of The Transpacific Experiment - a book about China and the US's tech ties - told the BBC.

"That doesn't mean they'll succeed at it any time soon. This is one of the most complex engineering tasks out there, one that often requires decades of accumulated in-house knowledge and experience.

AI chip designers

Number of firms (June 2019)

Source: Center for Data Innovation

Xiaomi has also said it is working on a similar product.

American firms are not standing still, but one Washington-based think tank warns the US should not consider its lead to be unassailable.

"Nonetheless, China's development of well-funded AI chip start-ups and advancements in chip design indicate it may be able to close at least some of the gap."

It added that the EU was a "laggard" in this field by comparison.

All this matters because AI-driven technologies have the potential to make companies more productive, citizens better-educated and healthier - and also armies better equipped to wage wars.

"It reduces the ability of the United States government to put diplomatic and economic pressure on China and... it increases the technological capabilities available to China's military and intelligence community.

Putting the brakes on China's AI champions may serve the US's own national security and foreign policy interest in the short term.

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