The fast-paced adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in China, home to the world's largest internet-using population, should not only validate the immense investment in the nation's AI sector, but should also make the case for China's role in creating global standards for the technology.
In a sign that the nation is swiftly embracing the disruptive new technology, AI-powered face recognition was widely used at the just-concluded first Digital China Summit in Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province. The summit was yet another milestone in AI development after a Go summit last May in the Chinese water town of Wuzhen, East China's Zhejiang Province. At the Go summit, Google's Go-playing AI AlphaGo trounced top-ranked Chinese Go grandmasters, piquing many Chinese people's curiosity about AI.
At the Digital China Summit, many were amazed by the extent to which AI was being applied. At the reception counters for summit participants at Fuzhou's railway station and airport as well as at hotels where they were staying, they didn't need to show their ID cards or other identity documents. They simply needed to look at the face scanners, which could instantly identify them. They could use the same technology to pass through security clearance access points both outside and within the summit venue.
The prevalent use of the technology at the event might help catapult Fuzhou, a city with a history of over 2,200 years, into pole position as one of the country's smartest cities. It could then become a role model to be copied throughout the country, amid the national efforts to develop an AI-powered economy.
In guidelines for AI development released in July 2017, the State Council, China's cabinet, set a goal for the country's core AI industries to be worth 1 trillion yuan ($158.07 billion) by 2030. The figure for all related industries will be 10 trillion yuan, per the guidelines.
This is part of the reason why investors from both home and abroad have so much interest in the country's AI sector. However, something that seems to have been neglected so far and that could be of pivotal importance for China's AI ambitions is that the country needs to turn the advantage of AI adoption into greater influence in setting global AI technology standards.
This is not just about the country's push for AI dominance, although influence in the setting of standards would be a factor in rising to the top of the AI food chain. It also makes sense scientifically to give greater weight to China in the process of setting global standards for AI given its leading role in developing the technology.
Currently, the US still leads in basic AI theory, core algorithms and key hardware for AI, so the US standards have been widely considered the "gold" standard that should be shared by the rest of the world. But with AI technologies being increasingly adopted in China, the default US rules should perhaps no longer be taken for granted.
Zhu Long, chief executive and co-founder of Chinese AI unicorn YITU Technology, said Monday in a speech at the Digital China Summit that the standards that have been set without any participation from top Chinese technology providers are actually biased and inaccurate in scientific terms.
The argument is that the US, with a population of over 300 million people, has developed its standards from tests based on a fraction of its population. This obviously doesn't fit the bill if the user scenario could potentially involve a much greater number of people.
Take face recognition as an example. The difficulty of accurate face identification grows rapidly as the sample size increases and it surely makes sense for face recognition technology that is ever more prevalently used in China to be involved in setting standards for the technology.
In many cases of technological development, China has been forced to play catch-up, with the need to initially reduce the technological gap before having a role in setting global standards. But in the case of AI development, China has made impressive headway in adopting the technology, so it should be a different situation.
There should be a greater awareness among leading Chinese AI firms of the need to focus not just on AI research and applications, but to pursue greater clout in the setting of standards. Likewise, the government should also endorse efforts to lead the global standards for the technology, as part of a broader AI push that could foster innovation in the Chinese economy.