China's push to lead in AI

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When it comes to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, China’s government is focused not only on having them, but also on predicting future pitfalls -- and leveraging that foresight into cyber-superpower status.

“China’s perspective on AI development and planning specifically addresses that there are going to be some risks,” Graham Webster, the lecturer and Senior Fellow at Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, said during an Oct. 17 panel discussion hosted by the non-partisan think tank New America in Washington, D.C. At the government planning level, he said, China specifically addresses potential social, economic and security downsides, and their effects on the country’s overall cyber strategy.

There is a "push to get Chinese researchers and industry to lead in the world while also recognizing … that the government would like to remain able to successfully supervise and control these things,” Webster said. In other words, the technology must be “safe, reliable, and controllable.”

When it comes to regulating future technology, “the United States is not figuring out what to do yet,” he said. “We have emerging risks from AI, we have emerging ethical problems. At least at the planning level, the Chinese government is saying that there needs to be research on … civil and criminal responsibility, the protection of privacy and property, information security, traceability, accountability -- these are the types of things that are already programmed in.” That planning, he added, will be "backed by a lot of resources."

China’s cyber strategy, which centers around its massive cybersecurity law that took effect June 1 and includes an AI-specific development plan released in July, covers everything from strengthening resistance to vulnerabilities to media control to economic growth and a reduced dependence on foreign technology, Paul Triolo, the geo-technology practice head for the Eurasia Group, said during the panel. 

“Without cybersecurity there is no national security,” he said, quoting President Xi Jinping. The goal, Triolo asserted, is to make China a cyber-superpower and place it on par with the U.S.

For example, China created the Central Cybersecurity Intra-modernization Leading Group and the Cyberspace Administration of China in 2014 to spearhead the country’s cyber policies. And Triolo said the new cybersecurity law is part of an intense rollout of institutions and standards aimed at giving the country more of a say in cyber norms and capabilities.

“One of the thrusts of the new leading group and the office was to help change the facts on the ground,” he said, referring to the perception that the U.S. established the internet and primarily set the rules for its governance. The new push is intended to “give China more of a right to speak in global fora,” he said.

Another reason for China's redoubled focus on risks and vulnerabilities is to be able to predict and mitigate damage, such as in the global WannaCry ransomware attack.

Paul said China's cybersecurity action plan for international cooperation, released earlier this year, suggests China may have been “hit much harder by WannaCry than may have been reported or acknowledged in the media."

"I think there’s a growing belief in the Chinese system that there’s an opportunity here given the continued threat of similar, unpredictable, global outbreaks of ransomware and other malware,” and that this may be the time to “push for something at the global level like sharing cyber intelligence on ransomware.”

Webster, meanwhile, stressed that China's focus on future tech is not just about having it, but about about gaining military leverage from it.

“It’s not just about leading the AI industry,” he said. “There is a common concern on how technology is used from the perspective of the Chinese government. And they describe it specifically: They would like to see both advances in industry and advances in governance.”

That means providing improved public services and surveillance capabilities. It also means that AI produced by domestic startups and companies could then be militarized at the Chinese government’s request.

“There’s a specific note in [China’s AI development plan] that there’s a need for civil-military integration,” Webster said. “In the AI field, that means if corporate developers are developing an AI technology, there may be some interest in figuring out how to leverage that for military capabilities and other hard national security interests.”

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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