3L&3S has been featuring several pieces tracking the developments in AI space. This one is interesting as it involves China’s approach to AI. Challenges around censorship and limited access to semiconductors required for heavy duty data processing remain alongside the Chinese government’s ambition to emerge as a technological superpower. The context for the article is the launch of Ernie, the Chinese equivalent of ChatGPT, an AI powered bot developed by its foremost internet company Baidu.

Ernie bot has some controversial views on science. China’s leading artificial-intelligence (AI) chatbot, which was released to the public on August 31st, reckons that covid-19 originated among American vape users in July 2019; later that year the virus was spread to the Chinese city of Wuhan, via American lobsters. On matters of politics, by contrast, the chatbot is rather quiet. Ernie is confused by questions such as “Who is China’s president?” and will tell you the name of Xi Jinping’s mother, but not those of his siblings. It draws a blank if asked about the drawbacks of socialism. It often attempts to redirect sensitive conversations by saying: “Let’s talk about something else.””

Whilst this may not seem surprising to those familiar with internet censorship in China, the bigger challenge comes from restricted access to semiconductor technology required to power AI:

“Restrictions on the sale “of advanced semiconductors to China imposed by President Joe Biden’s administration are causing the company a world of pain. Almost all of those chips, which most ai builders use to train their models, are produced outside China. Using a larger quantity of lower-powered processors is possible, but expensive.
In Baidu’s case, its ai efforts rely on the Kunlunxin chip. Although it designed the chip itself, production is outsourced to companies like TSMC, a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. America’s restrictions put limits on the types of chip that foreign foundries can sell to Chinese firms, and no domestic supplier has been able to produce such advanced components. Since America’s restrictions were announced, Baidu has been downplaying the importance of the Kunlunxins, which may hint that it is having problems procuring them.

China is trying to catch up in the manufacture of advanced chips. On August 29th Huawei, a maker of telecoms-gear clobbered by American sanctions, began selling a 5g smartphone that, after being dismantled by analysts, appeared to contain unexpectedly advanced Chinese-made silicon (albeit not quite cutting-edge).”

Finally, whilst the Chinese government is currently encouraging companies wanting to exploit the potential of AI, regulatory risks remain:

“Recent experience has made it clear to China’s tech executives that they operate at the pleasure of the government, and that its favour can be quickly withdrawn. Internet companies were hit with several regulatory crackdowns between 2020 and 2022. Another such assault on ai could do great damage to the firms that have invested in the technology, Baidu foremost among them.”

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