ChinAI #64: Why is it that what you search for on JingDong (JD) will Appear in Douyin (TikTok) Ads

Plus, 3 New ChinAI Company Profiles: Inceptio, G7 Networks, and SquirrelAI

Welcome to the ChinAI Newsletter!

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, PhD candidate in International Relations, Researcher at GovAI/Future of Humanity Institute, and Research Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

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Feature Translation (1/2): Why is it that the stuff you search for on Jingdong will appear in ads on Douyin?

This week’s first feature translation is an informative fun explainer about the interaction between two major tech platforms: 1. JD - the Chinese e-commerce giant, 2. Douyin - social media app for short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos (TikTok is American version). The author, “Chief of Poor Reviews/Chief Chaping” (差评君) is a well-known blogger who writes for Chaping (差评) - new media portal centered around young people’s demand for information on new technologies.

Big ups to first-time ChinAI contributor Justin Tu for doing the bulk of translating on this one. He’s a Chinese Linguist at AECOM and previously interned at the U.S. State Department while he was at Illinois (a.k.a UIUC). He’s also contributing an article on recent Chinese conceptions of AI Safety for national and political security in the upcoming DigiChina Special Report, and is looking for collaborators on the topic!

Chief Chaping recounts how one day he was looking to buy a fridge on JD.com but was interrupted by a work obligation. Later that night, he was browsing Douyin before bed and kept swiping through fridge ads one after another. At first he gets concerned about JD and Douyin stealing/selling his personal data, then after doing some research on ad delivery mechanisms, he concludes “Things probably aren’t as bad as everyone thinks.’

Here’s how it works: When you open Douyin, an ad slot with your unique user label goes live. Per Douyin’s Privacy Policy, it collects:

  1. Your actions and behavioral information, such as, Follows, Saves, Searches, Browsing Preferences (e.g., audio and video information of your interest);

  2. Your Feedback, Posts, Likes, Comments and other information actively provided by you;

  3. Your geographic location information with your express consent.

These user profiles go to a platform (which can be owned by Douyin itself or a third-party) akin to an ad exchange for real-time auctions.

Meanwhile, businesses with demands like Jingdong, Suning [another large Chinese e-commerce retailer], and mobile game titles are the bidders!

The bidders will first attempt matching the user profile in the ad slot with their own user profiles from their database to determine the value of the ad slot. Bidders will generally attempt high bids to snatch a given slot if the profile is an extremely good match.

The above process is called real-time bidding, which is more accurate than the other main type of ad delivery method — labelled targeting, which works through “middlemen” who match ads with ad slots, and is less expensive but also less precise. In my view the key part of this translation is a section on whether user profiles are truly anonymized.

Chief Chaping writes, “Most apps nowadays request IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) from users when they sign up. These IMEI numbers, in turn, act like online IDs for users. Alongside accurate user behavior and interest profiles, platforms can pretty much deliver ads with great precision if they authenticate users through IMEI with each other. Even so, there is no need for panic. This doesn’t necessarily mean that user data is maliciously leaked. As far as the platforms are concerned, they don’t know ‘you’re you.’ You are merely a string of hashed codes.”

One key point of clash: Singapore's data protection watchdog, for instance, issued draft advisory guidelines for telecomms businesses that stated they do not have to treat IMEI numbers as personal data, where those numbers are "viewed in isolation" but they may qualify as personal data where they can be linked to other identifying details of individuals. This is an ongoing debate in China as well. See this past ChinAI translation in which Wang Fang, a data protection officer for Huawei, argues that mobile device identifiers like IMEI numbers do constitute personal data.

FULL TRANSLATION: Why is it that the stuff you search for on Jingdong will appear in ads on Douyin?

Feature Translation (2/2): ChinAI Company Profiles Continues with Inceptio, G7 Networks, and SquirrelAI

In last week’s issue we introduced a new ongoing series of ChinAI Company Profiles; we’ve crowdsourced a Google spreadsheet on these companies here (experimenting with giving edit access to everyone with a link so please don’t troll). This week, we continue three more companies.

The first two — Inceptio and G7 Networks — are linked in an interesting way. Targeting freight transport, Inceptio (嬴彻科技) is an autonomous driving startup focused on L1 and L1.5 trucks (somewhere between a “hands on" systems like adaptive cruise control and a "hands off" systems where the automated system takes full control of the vehicle but driver must be ready to intervene). G7 Networks, the largest shareholder of Inceptio, claims to be China's leading Internet of Things technology company. Official statements say that it has data flows of nearly 1 million vehicles. In the "capital winter" of last year, G7 raised $320 million. Also, Ma Zheren, CEO of Inceptio, is also the president of G7 Networks.

The QbitAI profile of Inceptio emphasizes how this model has attracted many talents including Qi Zichao who graduated from Tsinghua’s renowned “Yao Class” which basically only accepts the “Number One Scholars” from each province and gold medal winners in competitions like the International Olympiad in Informatics (which Qi won in 2009). As I mentioned in my Twitter thread on Megvii’s recent IPO, all its cofounders attended this class, led by Professor Chi-Chih Yao, a winner of the Turing Award who gave up US nationality to return to China.

Other Big-Picture Takeaways:

  • Again, the information arbitrage is in the unsexy areas. Not DECOUPLING! but machine visual quality inspection of knife production lines. Not consumer cars but freight transport.

  • We are seeing these Chinafornia-model startups (to steal a phrase from Matt Sheehan) pop up more and more, in which a good portion of the R&D research takes place in Silicon Valley (e.g. Qi Zichao is Inceptio’s planning tech lead at its Silicon Valley R&D Center) but the target market is China. I wrote about this in my MIT Tech Review profile of another Chinafornia-style autonomous driving startup, Roadstar.

  • This type of model isn’t new (Baidu does a good chunk of their autonomous driving research in Silicon Valley as well) and is not going away anytime soon regardless of how many times pundits scream DECOUPLING! into the void (the U.S. also has overseas R&D labs in other countries as well. Please search up “asset-augmenting R&D” in Google Scholar if you’re really interested in how innovation is globalizing.

  • From a U.S. competitiveness perspective, the main concern should be how do startups like U.S.-based startups like Zoox retain or continue to attract the next Qi Zichaos of the world. Some ideas off the top of the dome: appropriately value your bilingual staff as they have twice as many options of places and companies to work for. Upgrade your understanding of Chinese competitors by mandating all your employees read and subscribe to ChinAI?

FULL TRANSLATION: Inceptio’s Past Year: “Yao Class” genius joins, a transport model emerges, and there is already commercialized income

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

We’ve also added a working ChinAI Company Profile of Squirrel AI which at this point mostly consists of excerpts from Karen Hao’s must-read MIT Tech Review article on this startup which provides extracurricular tutoring programs with lessons curated by an AI algorithm. Here’s just one of many juicy tidbits: “In the five years since it was founded, the company has opened 2,000 learning centers in 200 cities and registered over a million students—equal to New York City’s entire public school system.”

In a piece for War on the Rocks, My GovAI colleagues Jade Leung, Sophie Charlotte-Fischer, and Allan Dafoe argue that proposed export controls on artificial intelligence are not only ineffective but could also inadvertently strengthen the technology base of U.S. competitors while weakening its own. “Washington appears to be defaulting to traditional, 20th-century policy tools to address a 21st-century problem.” Relatedly, Scott Moore’s Lawfare article also warns that Trump’s techno-nationalism will do lasting harm to U.S. economic competitiveness and innovation.

I’m a little late to this but earlier this month Vox’s Kelsey Piper published a balanced, well-researched (25 hyperlinks to sources!) deconstruction of Peter Thiel's NYT hitpiece on Google’s overseas AI labs in China. She draws from a previous ChinAI issue that lists all the things wrong with Thiels’s NYT oped (it’s a lot of things).

I recently came across Liz Carter’s “Today’s Chinese” project in which she teaches a (usually Mandarin) Chinese word or phrase every day on her Twitter feed. She’s been doing this for about seven years now and is currently getting her PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA.