ChinAI #65: Waking Up from BAT's Smart City Dream
Plus, Musings on Our Mission to Make ChinAI Obsolete
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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The Mission of ChinAI
Every once in a while I get the hankering to make some cheesy reflection post on the state of ChinAI, so here goes:
The mission of ChinAI is to make itself obsolete. If two years from now, we’re still trying to accomplish the current goal — mitigating the Chinese-English language asymmetry on AI-related issues, checking against misperceptions by providing a more objective and comprehensive understanding of China’s AI development — then ChinAI will have failed.
But what we’re trying to address here requires system-scale solutions not individual-level ones. There’s no turf to defend here: please take this model and run with it, do a ChinAI-mold newsletter for a particular domain of AI or vertical or do a ChinAI2 (trust me when I say there’s plenty of material to cover).
I’m very grateful for all those who have contributed to translation, analysis, and crowd-sourced projects (like our current one on ChinAI Company Profiles). In this spirit, I’d like to:
Invite people to guest-write future ChinAI issues. In other words, you’d be compensated for putting together and publishing an entire issue. This isn’t a gatekeeping mission, it’s a mission to open the gates up to fresh, underrepresented voices.
Share my ChinAI “Spotting Process” doc. This includes: a short overview of my process for finding candidate writings to translate, a list of sources/platforms I regularly look at, and an initial collection of other great translation platforms I follow. Please add comments/suggestions to the doc.
First, some scene-setting:
Why are smart cities a big deal? They can help improve the efficiency (e.g. smart traffic management) and security (e.g. smart surveillance) of cities. Is China the world’s leader in smart cities? Nah. The North America region dominates the smart city market in terms of revenue.
What does China’s smart city market look like? Per an IDC report, total market size = 39b USD by 2023. Most investments are going into three key areas: A) flexible energy management/infrastructure, B) data-driven public security governance, and C) intelligent transportation
What’s the Chinese government’s stake in this? In 2013, the Chinese government designated 90 cities/provinces as pilot smart city projects. This appears to be in line with the approach of other countries (e.g. the U.S. government's Smart City Challenge and the European Union's Horizon 2020 work program, which both funnel support and funds to a particular set of early-adopter cities).
So what’s this "BAT Smart City Dream” that the author, a writer for the smart industry-focused portal “Intellectual Things” (智东西), is referring to?
The BAT (Baidu/Alibaba/Tencent) and other Internet giants have all tried to get in at the ground floor of smart city construction through software, hardware, investment, and cooperation channels
Software = services like Alibaba’s city brain, Tencent’s YouTu Skyeye intelligent transportation platform and Youtu SkyEye intelligent security platform, Baidu’s intelligent traffic light projects
Hardware + investment/cooperation = some smart camera companies have been acquired by the Internet giants (Youdian Technology and China Transinfo), whereas some have reached strategic cooperative arrangements (The big three of Hikvision, Dahua and Uniview)
One key area to watch (covered in page 5-6 of the full translation): who has more leverage in these software-hardware alliances? This article identifies the BAT’s cloud computing business as the most important aspect of these deals. Full translation includes a list of these software-hardware alliances
Why does the author argue it’s time to wake up from this dream?
“Although their CEOs and executives have all personally endorsed their smart city-related business many times on stages…their performance can only be summarized as tepid.”
While Alibaba secured nearly 20 of those 90 smart city pilot projects — feedback from industry professionals described major issues with over-commitments on compute and higher-than-expected needs in investment.
First key issue is lack of unified standards, which complicates scaling smart city projects beyond a single application in a single city. Yin Jun, VP of Dahua R&D Center says, “Currently, everyone is in the early stages of development, and each company's solutions and design ideas for user needs and application scenarios all come in different forms…Alibaba may hope to manage everything through the cloud but Dahua and Hikvision may prefer to do coordinated computing through edge + cloud computing. In this context, the design and cost components of the differentiated solutions lead to uneven growth of the profit margins in the project…Customer needs are also diversified, and based on these different requests, it is difficult to achieve a unified design approach in the short term.”
Second key issue is letdowns in implementation projects. The key government policy (“Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Healthy Development of Smart Cities”) doesn’t provide clear indicators. Accustomed to serving users on fast timelines, Internet Giants are still struggling with the long cycles of projects for business customers which may take a decade of demo -> product testing -> QA -> mass production. One very interesting case is the Microsoft-Wuhan dispute. Wuhan was one of the initial 90 cities, and Microsoft won the Wuhan smart city project with a bid of USD$25 million. But Wuhan claimed that Microsoft under-delivered in terms of products and its Azure public cloud only had a usage rate of 12% — this escalated into a legal dispute.
ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)
This incredible BBC article by Zhaoyin Feng features my long lost name twin, Jeff Ding, who helps run a Twitter account that translates President Trump’s words into Chinese, along with two other volunteers. They are all Trump supporters and hope to “spread Trump’s messages in the Chinese-speaking world.” H/t to Rebecca Kagan at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. Stay tuned for more cool stuff coming from Rebecca.
NYT Chinese has a really cool daily newsletter, which provides a roundup (in Mandarin) of some of its top stories.
MacroPolo had another praise-worthy week.
First, this week’s must-read is Neil Thomas’s debunking of the "engagement with China failed" DC echo-chamber narrative. Hey here’s a crazy thought: Instead of pushing the flimsy theory that “younger China hands tend to be more hawkish” without any empirical evidence or comparative stats — as Politico's foreign affairs reporter Nahal Toosi and Bill Bishop have done — Maybe just maybe young China hands don’t subscribe to the simplistic hawk/dove dichotomy and write more clear-eyed takes because they aren't jaded by years of cynicism/constant need to say "I told you so"? Just a thought.
Second, MacroPolo published an excerpt “2014: The Year of China’s Digital Cambrian Explosion” from Matt Sheehan’s book The Transpacific Experiment. I’m collecting some notes on Matt’s book in this Twitter thread as I go through it, and it’s been a sharp yet sensitive (in all the good senses of that term) read so far.
Really insightful piece on the differences and similarities of Chinese and American military-civil fusion by Elsa Kania for The Strategy Bridge. One snippet: “U.S. defense experts may be surprised that certain U.S. policies and practices are routinely characterized by Chinese military researchers as involving American military-civil fusion, just as Chinese colleagues often claim to be confused why Washington is concerned that China is pursuing a strategy that is seen in their eyes as reminiscent of American approaches.” Also check out her and Helen Toner talking about “Beyond the Arms Race Narrative": AI & China” for the FLI podcast.
Thank you for reading and engaging.
Shout out to everyone who is commenting on the translations - idea is to build up a community of people interested in this stuff. You can contact me at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jjding99