Baidu becomes first Chinese firm to join AI supergroup

Search engine Baidu has become the first Chinese company to be part of a US-led consortium on the ethics of artificial intelligence.

Baidu becomes first Chinese firm to join AI supergroup

The move is significant given the rising tension between Chinese and Western approaches to AI technology, particularly in terms of how it can be leveraged for state surveillance.

The Partnership on AI (PAI) develops ethical guidelines on AI research, and encompasses more than 70 academic institutes, civil groups and companies – including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google.

Up to now, however, there has been a distinct lack of Chinese partners – a weakness given Xi Jinping’s ambitions to turn the country into an AI world leader by 2025.

“Baidu’s admission represents the beginning of PAI’s entrance into China,” the organisation said in a statement. “We will continue to add new members in China and around the world as we grow, bringing together for-profit companies and civil society organisations.”

Baidu is sometimes referred to as the ‘Google of China’, and like the US company it has branched out of internet search into areas ranging from autonomous cars to cloud computing. It is behind Apollo; China’s largest open-source autonomous driving platform, as well as DuerOS, a voice enabled digital assistant.  

“As AI technology keeps advancing and the application of AI expands, we recognise the importance of joining the global discussion around the future of AI,” said Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu. “Ensuring AI’s safety, fairness and transparency should not be an afterthought but rather highly considered at the onset of every project or system we build.”

China’s challenge to US dominance in AI has rattled Western countries, not only in terms of private-sector funding but also wider questions about military and surveillance uses of AI. Earlier this year, for example, the Chinese firm SenseTime became the world’s most valued AI startup. The company develops facial-recognition technology which is used by, amongst others, the Chinese government.

The move to include Baidu as part of a global consortium on AI ethics can therefore be taken as an attempt to pull China into the fold – encouraging a greater level of transparency around AI research. Baidu will join the PAI’s pre-existing working groups, which the organisation says are intended to develop policies, tools, and principles “that will inform and drive responsible AI development and deployment”.

“The growth and scope of work on AI in China is extensive, and any conversation about the future of AI that does not involve China is an incomplete conversation,” said Terah Lyons, Executive Director of the Partnership on AI.

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