China Calls for Borderless Research to Promote AI Development

(Bloomberg) -- A little more than a year ago, China released an aggressive plan to become the world’s leading artificial intelligence player. But with its technological dependence on the U.S. laid bare, it’s now promoting a softer approach, calling for all nations to join hands to develop the technology.

Chinese leaders, including Vice Premier Liu He, joined business mogul Jack Ma and executives from Google at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai to support a borderless approach to AI research. Liu called for foreign investment in the country and pledged to foster “an environment of free thinking” to support development.

The tone struck by Liu is a far cry from the aggressive plan issued by the State Council last year with the aim of China becoming the world leader in AI by 2030, in part through government support. While his comments contained few specifics, the softer approach comes after Shenzhen-based ZTE Corp. was crippled by U.S. penalties and as trade tensions between the nations build.

“We’re hoping that all countries, as members of the global village, will be inclusive and support each other so that we can respond to the double-edged sword effect of new technologies,” Liu told attendees through a translator. “AI represents a new era. Cross-national and cross-discipline cooperation is inevitable.”

The comments echoed those of President Xi Jinping, who said in a letter to the conference that China was willing to share the benefits of AI with other countries.

The summit was used by several U.S. companies to show off their dedication to developing AI in China. Microsoft Research Asia and Amazon Web Services both announced new labs in Shanghai, while Google’s Jay Yagnik showed off slides of the company’s AI activities in the country. The search giant, a unit of Alphabet Inc., is a key sponsor of the event.

Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai was invited to the conference but declined to attend. The company’s Beijing research center and its plans to release search products in China that conform to the country’s censorship laws have faced a strong backlash from U.S. lawmakers.

Some of the most strident comments at the summit came from leaders of China’s two biggest technology companies. Ma Huateng, chairman of Tencent Holdings Ltd., cited Google’s launch of Chinese research centers as proof that the country needed a global approach to AI.

Jack Ma, the chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., said China’s rules, systems and way of thinking needs to be reformed, including how its industries and regulators adapt to technology.

“Governments should not care whether the taxi industry should be substituted,” Alibaba’s Ma said. “Governments should pay attention to whether road safety is good and if people will be killed in traffic accidents. Whether one industry is substituted by another should be
determined by the market.”

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