ChinAI 103: On analogies, U.S.-China Relations, race, and falling in love

Plus, Takeaways from the 2020 World AI Conference

Greetings from a land where we are here to keep watch, not to keep

A full plate this week.

  • Appetizer: completed tech neutrality translation.

  • Main course: takeaways from the recent World AI Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, by Caroline Meinhardt.

  • Dessert: Some ramblings on analogies and race in U.S.-China relations. I say some things that people aren’t willing to say out loud at the end, so if you stick with me until the end of the meal, I can promise it’s worth it, but I can’t promise it won’t unsettle your stomach.

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Feature Translation: Demise of Tech Neutrality (Completed)

Finished up the last parts of this lengthy essay. A few quick-hitters in the new stuff:

  • Part 5: Covers three cases: 1) Qvod and 2) Bytedance’s Toutiao were both punished for spreading pornographic and obscene content. In 2016, Wang Xin, head of Qvod (which had 80 percent of China’s online video-streaming market at the time), was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. This “announced the low tide of technology neutrality in the Internet age.” 3) He Jiankui’s bioethics violations.

  • Part 6: Author’s explains why technology neutrality is complicated by the view of technology as a process vs. technology as a thing: Modern people increasingly feel that each technology must be viewed as a "process" rather than a "thing.” We care about the application scenarios of AI, and we care even more about how it is implemented in algorithms; we care about the benefits brought by gene editing, and we care even more about whether it has potential risks in biochemical mechanisms. We have conjured up the courage to open the "black box" and exposed the dark side that had long been concealed by the myth of "technology neutrality.”

  • Part 7. It concludes: Where does humanity’s view of technology go? If pure "technology neutrality" is merely a fantasy of technological optimism, will its demise trap us in extremely pessimistic relativism or even nihilism? Since all technological processes carry human likes and dislikes and even various structural inequalities, is it possible to declare that any unbiased universal technology is a bust? Are we destined to only choose between "white AI" or "black AI", “male technology" or "female technology"? Regardless of the way out, at least one thing can be determined: technology neutralists…must make efforts to adapt to the times. After all, we cannot go back to the era of "technology neutrality" as a first principle.

4 Takeaways from WAIC 2020 in Shanghai

*Thanks to Caroline Meinhardt, an analyst at MERICs, who we’re fortunate to have as a GovAI fellow for the summer, for taking notes on the World AI Conference held in Shanghai earlier this month. Her takeaways follow:

Context: From July 9-11, Shanghai held its third annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) with the theme ‘Intelligent Connectivity, Indivisible Community.’ For the first time, the entire agenda of keynote speeches and panel discussions was streamed online due to Covid-19. Organized by the Shanghai municipal government, the WAIC brings together the who’s who of Chinese (and some international) AI leaders from government, academia and industry every year to discuss the trajectory of AI development, explore the latest AI application trends and present new AI solutions (and gimmicks). 

The ‘responsible development’ of AI featured prominently during this year’s conference, seemingly confirming speculation that 2020 will become the year of AI governance in China. In a 3-hour AI Governance Forum, more than 30 Chinese and international speakers discussed the ethical and safety challenges of AI development and opportunities for global cooperation on these issues. As such, the Forum provides an interesting window into the key trends that are shaping China’s approach to AI governance:

1. Turning principles into action: A common thread throughout most speeches was the need for China to move away from high-level AI governance rhetoric and towards more nuanced discussions of specific scenarios and concrete solutions. To that end, speakers provided detailed insights into their ongoing research on AI security issues and ideas for mechanisms to assess the trustworthiness of AI systems. Particularly noteworthy were the formal announcements of two new Shanghai initiatives to strengthen AI governance: 

  • The Expert Advisory Committee of the Shanghai AI Pilot Zone has created a new Governance Working Group that will oversee the implementation of AI governance principles on the ground. Made up of scientists, legal experts, ethics experts and company representatives, the Working Group will lead AI governance research, make recommendations on AI legislation and principles, and promote international collaboration.

  • The Committee also published a new document that aims to further advance AI governance efforts in Shanghai, entitled ‘Action Proposals on Collaborative Implementation of AI Governance Principles.’ The document is the first to outline concrete steps for implementing the national AI governance principles issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology’s AI governance advisory committee in 2019.

2. Chinese companies play an active role in AI governance: Xue Lan (dean of Schwarzman College) and other speakers emphasized that Chinese companies should, and indeed already do, take concrete action to address AI ethics issues. CEO and co-founder of Megvii, Yin Qi, made an effort to demonstrate exactly that during his speech: He presented several concrete measures his company is taking that have been developed and executed by internal working groups across R&D, product development, customer relations and operations. Such measures include the application of federated learning techniques to ensure data privacy protection and the creation of instruction pamphlets for customers and partners that outline Megvii’s standards for the ethical usage of its AI products. Yin Qi’s speech and its prominence at the Forum highlighted that the company has emerged as an industry leader for corporate action on AI governance. Megvii claims to have been the first Chinese company to establish an AI ethics committee and most recently set up a dedicated AI governance research institute.

3. Global cooperation is key: Another common theme was the emphasis on international exchange and cooperation which is essential to create a global AI governance system. While the calls for cooperation were vague, it is worth noting that several speakers emphasized that Chinese AI ethics principles are aligned with the many international principles that have emerged in recent years. The AI Governance Forum itself also says something about China’s vision: It sees its companies and research institutes as playing an important role in shaping international AI governance efforts, but also sees itself as an influential convener of the international AI governance community.

4. What wasn’t said: Unsurprisingly, the human rights concerns surrounding the use of facial recognition technologies for state surveillance went unmentioned. Discussions of ethical issues such as algorithmic discrimination exclusively focused on the ability of companies to limit consumers’ options and cited examples from abroad, such as instances of racial discrimination in the US. 

On analogies, U.S.-China Relations, race, and falling in love

Part 1: A New Analogy Awakens

Instead of a ChinAI Links (Four to Forward) this week, I want to riff a little bit about Julian Gewirtz’s recent must-read Twitter thread on analogies for U.S.-China relations that are more creative alternatives to a new “Cold War.” He points out that the Sino-Soviet split, which crystallized in the early 1960s, offers many interesting parallels. Like the U.S.-Sino relationship today, China also benefited from its relationship with the Soviet Union in terms of technology flows. Shifts in China’s domestic politics back in the 1950s, like Xi’s consolidation of power in recent years, presaged the split.

I’ve been quite outspoken about the flaws and dangers of the “Cold War” analogy, but Julian’s thread was a wake-up call for me. It’s easy to tear stuff down and endlessly critique something. It’s much harder to construct a better alternative. It’s especially hard because no analogy is perfect. As Julian notes, the Sino-Soviet relationship of the 1950s, in contrast to the U.S.-China relationship today, was based on shared communist ideals. I think the more fundamental difference is that the PRC wasn’t just splitting from the Soviet Union but that it was also, in some respects, turning toward the U.S. — part of a “strategic triangle.” The Soviet Union and China also shared a territorial border. This list of differences can go on.

Indeed, on a deeper level, language of all forms — including analogical comparisons — can never fully capture the essence of what we want to describe. We can never fully describe what it feels like to “fall in love.” To even get close might require a book-length treatment, or scores of tumblr posts. When faced with limits on words and time, we reach for analogies. Falling in love is like giving oneself over to the force of gravity. To fall in love.

Part II: Analogies Strike Back

This isn’t just fanciful wordplay. Imperfect analogies come with real costs. For instance, the historical analogy to Munich — a callback to the failures of appeasement before World War II — played a meaningful role in policymakers’ decisions to intervene in Vietnam.

So, what gives? Should we just avoid historical analogies like the Sino-Soviet split or the new Cold War altogether? Abstinence is not the solution. In their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Ernest May and Richard Neustadt compared the utility of historical analogies by scholars and policymakers to the justification for sex education classes: if teens will inevitably do the deed, why not help them do it better and more safely?

Not just better and more safely but more in general. The failure mode I’m most worried about is a singular analogy becoming the template for thinking about U.S-China relations. A diversity of analogies helps us get a better grasp of the situation. Falling in love is not just like falling in love. It’s also like soaring on the wings of eagles, like taking the first step on an icy lake, etc. For analyzing the current U.S.-Sino relationship, the addition of the Sino-Soviet split analogy is a helpful contribution.

Part III: The Clone Wars

I want to add two more historical analogies to the mix, both involving U.S.-Japan relations, which hopefully shed more light on how to grasp the U.S.-China relationship. The first is U.S.-Japan high-tech competition in the late 20th century. I’d wager that very few readers (and I definitely do not) remember the days when people thought we were in a Cold War with Japan! Here’s Samuel Huntington in 1993 for International Security (p. 75):

“Sophisticated analysts such as Joseph Nye argue that Japanese-American "economic competition can leave both sides better off, albeit not in every case and sometimes with considerable stresses." Hence it is "inappropriate" to speak of an "economic cold war" between the two countries. It takes only one side, however, to produce a cold war. Japanese strategy is a strategy of economic warfare. Japanese leaders regularly assert that economic competition is central to the relations among nations, that Japan must prevail in this competition, and that Japan is, indeed, prevailing in the competition.”

We see this theme often repeated in current discussion by prominent “China-watchers” like Bill Bishop and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who runs Axios’s China newsletter. Regarding a May issue titled “The ‘new Cold War’ started in Beijing,” Matt DeButts noted that Axios China’s “anti-CCP tone is edging from ‘slant’ into straight-up ‘bias.” In the piece, Bethany makes many of the same talking points that Huntington made back in 1993. “A growing number of experts are warning against what they call a ‘new Cold War’ with China. But many Chinese Communist Party elites already view the rest of the world as a staging ground for competition between China and the United States,” she writes. In other words: They started it! This isn’t middle school. Imperfect analogies come with real costs.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad and dangerous. As The Chicks croon in their recent album: “Gaslighter, big timer. Repeating all of the mistakes of your father.”

Part IV: Return of “Kill Japs”?

The second historical analogy I want to add into the mix is the U.S.-Japan relationship in the heat of World War II. We already analogize everything to war way too much. But the motivation here is to unpack how race and racism shaped the U.S. war in the. Pacific, compared to its approach toward the Nazis — with an eye toward warning against how race and racism affects current U.S.-China relations.

Much of this draws from John W. Dower’s 1986 book War Without Mercy, in which he lays out how the war in the Pacific Theatre was, in many respects, a race war. These are just brutal to read:

  • The Japanese “were perceived as a race apart, even a species apart — and an overpoweringly monolithic one at that. There was no Japanese counterpart to the ‘good German’ in the popular consciousness of the Western allies (p. 8).”

  • “The Navy representative to the first interdepartmental US government committee that was assigned to study how Japan should be treated after the war revealed himself to be a literal believer in Admiral Halsey’s motto ‘Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.’ He called for ‘the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race,’ on the grounds that this ‘was a question of which race was to survive, and white civilization was at stake.’” (footnote 61, p. 55)

  • “There was a widely accepted belief that the Japanese, like ‘patient’ Orientals in general, thought in terms of millennia rather than centuries, and that this current conflict in the view of Japan’s leaders ‘was but a step in Japan’s hundred-year-war plan for world conquest.’” (p. 56) ****Hmmmmm….why does that sound so familiar? Oh maybe because it’s the conspiracy theory that Michael Pillsbury, who Trump thinks is “probably the leading authority on China,” and many others believe in — one that has been thoroughly torn apart.

Obviously, war escalates racial divides, and we are not at war with China. But racial divides can also escalate threat perceptions and the risk of war, and so many of the threads above can be seen in the Trumpian approach to China. When Trump says that almost every Chinese student that comes over to this country is a spy, or when Sen. Marco Rubio and FBI director Christopher Wray warn about China as a “whole-of-society threat,” it’s not that hard to draw a line to the “overpoweringly monolithic” perceptions of Japanese.

I don’t pretend to think that I can influence the Marco Rubios or Christopher Wrays of the world. Even less likely when it comes to the Peter Navarros, Steven Millers, and Steve Bannons. What I can try to do is appeal to the people who lend the sheen of legitimacy, the wisp of reasonability to their views — like, say, the people who write about espionage risks, the United Front, and tech transfer concerns.

Here’s what I’d like to say. There are no neutral takes. Your reports, ideas, Tweets — the “technology” — you are putting out into the world are value-laden, and the writers of takes, the gatekeepers of which takes get read must bear additional responsibility. To not just give the proper context or footnoted caveats — like how while there are some concerning cases of espionage, the VAST MAJORITY OF CHINESE STUDENTS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE JUST HERE TO MAKE A BETTER LIFE FOR THEMSELVES — but also to carefully consider how those with Trumpian values who are in power will contort and exploit these takes. Sometimes chasing the hype cycle and the clout is not worth it, and you can push ideas in more careful ways.

Regardless of what type of platform you have — from something as small as ChinAI to one as big as the NYT — we all have to be more careful of the analogies we feed and the ones we neglect. A diverse set of analogies is an important starting point on the road toward a more perfect understanding of the U.S.-China relationship. It’s not unlike falling in love.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

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