Despite the ongoing technological decoupling between China and the West, both sides are converging to discuss the threat that runaway artificial intelligence may pose to humanity. Wu Zhaohui, China’s vice minister of Science and Technology, has led a delegation to attend the landmark AI safety summit organized by the U.K. government this week.
A telling indication of China’s stance on AI lies in the selection of representatives sent to the event. Aside from Wu, a group of academics, including Andrew Yao, one of China’s most prominent computer scientists, are on the attendee list, reported Financial Times.
Yao and his group joined Western academics to call for “tighter controls” on AI, warning that the advanced technology poses an “existential risk to humanity” in the coming decades, according to the FT report.
Wu’s remarks, on the other hand, focused on the fairness of accessing advanced AI. “We uphold the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefits. Countries regardless of their size and scale have equal rights to develop and use AI,” the technology vice minister said in a speech at the summit Wednesday.
“We call for global cooperation to share AI knowledge and make AI technologies available to the public on open source terms,” he added.
The minister’s statements appear to be addressing the supply chain obstacles faced by China’s AI companies amid escalating geopolitical tensions. The Biden administration recently closed loopholes in restrictions that bar China from accessing Nvidia’s advanced AI processors, putting roadblocks in the country’s ability to effectively train large language models.
Huge moment to have both Secretary Raimondo of the US and Vice Minister Wu of China speaking about AI safety and governance at the AI Safety Summit pic.twitter.com/Mr2ruDypaq
— Matt Clifford (@matthewclifford) November 1, 2023
The event, which runs from Wednesday to Thursday at Bletchley Park, the top-secret home of the World War II codebreakers, is graced by a lineup of politicians including Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president for Values and Transparency; Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s minister of state for Electronics and Information Technology; Omar Sultan al Olama, UAE Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence; and Bosun Tijani, technology minister in Nigeria.
China’s AI agenda
China’s participation in the event has been a subject of contention in recent weeks. Former British Prime Minister Liz Truss urged her successor Rishi Sunak to rescind the invitation of China to the summit, warning that AI is “a means of state control and a tool for national security” for Beijing.
In an op-ed, China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times fired back, asserting that the U.K. event “has never been devoid of the influence of domestic politics, geopolitics, values and ideologies all along.”
“[Globa]l AI governance lags far behind the speed of technological development,” the op-ed said. “Therefore, the world needs more comprehensive discussions. The UK hosting this global AI safety summit provides an opportunity for such discussions, regardless of any subjective calculations. China has supported the UK’s move with practical actions.”
It’s noteworthy that even within China’s bureaucracies, there are probably divergent priorities regarding the development of AI. As Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested on X: “Several different ministries are angling to lead on Chinese AI governance at home & internationally.”
The two main apparatuses shaping AI governance in China are the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog that has historically focused on policing internet content, and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), which shapes the high-level direction of technological development. After years of participating and funding national programs, MOST recently restructured to focus on coordinating resources to help China achieve technological self-reliance from the West.
Similar dynamics of internal politics are at play in the governance of other young tech sectors in China. Gaming, for instance, is mainly under the purview of CAC, which supervises content and ideologies, and the National Press and Publication Administration, which issues the much-coveted licenses for games to be published in China.