Tech Tent: China's AI ambitions

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Image source, Science Photo Library

On this week's Tech Tent we hear why China's determination to be a leading player in artificial intelligence could lead to tensions with the United States.

We have two other reports on this week's programme. In a compelling interview with Jane Wakefield, YouTube star Chrissy Chambers talks about her court battle against a former boyfriend who uploaded explicit videos featuring her to a pornography website. Her victory is being seen as a key moment in the battle against the internet scourge known as revenge porn.

And in a report from Rahul Tandon in Kolkata, we find out why India's new Aadhaar biometric identity card scheme has become mired in controversy. For millions of people who have struggled to open a bank account or get access to government services without proof of identity, it has proved life-changing. But now reports of a data leak, with individuals' personal details put up for sale, have undermined public confidence in the scheme.

Just as in China, there's that trade-off between convenience and privacy. But, in the case of the Aadhaar card, Indian campaigners say citizens are getting a poor bargain.

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Tech trade-off

It's hard to think of anyone better qualified to comment on China's AI ambitions than Kai Fu Lee. Born in Taiwan, he was educated in the US and worked as a scientist for both Apple and Microsoft before running Google's China operation. These days he's a Beijing-based venture capitalist investing in Chinese artificial intelligence research.

He tells Tech Tent that China is still behind the United States in areas like autonomous vehicles but is catching up fast - and a more relaxed attitude to regulation may help. He thinks the Chinese government may be less concerned than others about issues such as insurance liability - "cutting through that debate can accelerate the launch of the products".

We have seen China make rapid progress in facial recognition, technology which has caused all sorts of controversy in other countries where privacy is a greater concern. Dr Lee says privacy is always a trade-off with users willing to sacrifice it if they get enough in return: "Chinese consumers are more willing to trade privacy for safety or convenience."

But as the competition over the future of technology hots up there are signs of tension between China and the United States - it's thought that US lawmakers warned mobile operators against allowing Huawei smartphones into the American market.

"That event does not bode well for US tech companies going to China or Chinese companies going to the United States," says Mr Lee, He tells us that as a globalist he is worried by growing protectionism and nationalism, particularly from the Trump administration, which he thinks is causing the world to contract: "I think there is going to be increasing expectation of country alliance and allegiance by both Chinese and American companies."

So far, the trade war between the US and China that many feared when Donald Trump was elected has failed to materialise, But maybe the battle over AI could provide the spark.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
On AI, China is catching up with the US very quickly, said Mr Lee