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China pushes to bridge hi-tech divide with US

China plans to establish a raft of regional artificial intelligence (AI) “highlands” across the country and related tech platforms, as the world’s second-largest economy ratchets up research and development efforts in this technology amid a global rush to create more ChatGPT-like tools.

Without elaborating, that strategy was presented by Wang Zhigang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology, at the opening of the 7th World Intelligence Conference on Thursday in the northern metropolis of Tianjin. The conference, which promotes AI development and applications, concludes on Sunday.

Wang called on Chinese companies to seize the new opportunities brought by the latest advances in AI technology, echoing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks on leveraging AI developments to modernise the country’s industries during a meeting of the Central Commission for Financial and Economic Affairs on May 5.

Since OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are not available on the mainland, alternative domestic services – all complying with censorship rules and other regulations – have been launched by a number major Chinese tech firms, including Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding, SenseTime and iFlyTek. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

Wang acknowledged that AI development could be a double-edged sword that enhances efficiency in industries, while bringing potential risks.

Still, he told the conference that China has published relevant governance guidance and ethical norms for AI regulation, which clearly show the government’s stance towards responsible tech development.

With that regulatory infrastructure, the minister urged local companies to work with research facilities and educational institutions to pursue advances in AI that can contribute to economic growth and societal progress.

Wang also called for international collaboration to tackle potential challenges in AI development concerning privacy, public security and employment.

China’s accelerated AI development push shows the government’s resolve to close the gap with the US in this field amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, especially on mainland companies’ access to certain advanced technologies.

In his speech at the Tianjin conference, Wang said China’s total expenditure on research and development reached about 3.09 trillion yuan (US$441 billion) last year, accounting for 2.55 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, to rank second globally.

As a result, Wang said China topped the world in certain AI categories last year. These include in terms of number of AI-related patent submissions, publications and citations. China also led the world in terms of computer vision, natural language processing and audio recognition, he said.

Wang, however, indicated a number of challenges to advance China’s AI capabilities, such as in sophisticated algorithms, the lack of quality Chinese-language training and the efficiency of local AI models.

This was not the first time 65-year-old Wang, who took office in March 2018, has drummed up China’s AI development push.

At a press conference on the first day of the annual National People’s Congress in March, Wang suggested that China has some work to do in catching up to the progress made by OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

ChatGPT has advantages in delivering results in real time, which is “very difficult to achieve”, Wang said. For China to achieve the kind of results that OpenAI achieved, he indicated that the country will need to “wait and see”. South China Morning Post

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