ChinAI #89: 500+ Use Cases of AI in Coronavirus Control

Plus, an open letter by foreign policy experts on combating anti-Asian racism

Greetings from a land where eSports is on ESPN!…

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Feature Translation: AI Industry Alliance Report on 500+ Use cases of AI in Coronavirus Control

Context: In February 2020, China’s AI Industry Alliance (AIIA) released a report based on analysis of 500+ use case of AI in combatting coronavirus (collected from submissions by Chinese companies). Graham Webster previously covered AIIA’s “joint pledge” on self-discipline in the AI industry. He described AIIA as a “pseudo-official organization,” which was launched in October 2017 by a group of institutions headed by CAICT, a think tank with significant regulatory powers under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). According to Webster, its membership “is divided into regular members (more than 250), council members (more than 125), and council vice-chairs (29). The final category includes the leading tech companies Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, ZTE, 360, etc., plus Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, and the Harbin Institute of Technology.”

Key Takeaways:

  • The way to read this report is to take nothing at face value and get beyond the tropes — no, China is not leading on AI because of these 500+ examples, no, AI is not saving the world from coronavirus; the most important technologies seem decidedly “low tech” (e.g. humans with thermometers standing in front of grocery stores, hand sanitizer, masks).

  • What is most interesting about this report is the insights into how AIIA thinks and frames certain issues — it’s an interesting hybrid body that appears to be a mix between the lobbying arm of the AI industry and an industrial planning body. Recall the important role that lobbying played in the spread of electricity in the U.S. (Edison had to bribe New York politicians to build electricity networks). Let’s look at some questions that the report raises:

  • What is the role of the state in an industry alliance? There was some serious convening work behind this effort. China’s AIIA has collected these uses cases of AI via its “AI Support for Coronavirus Control Platform.” This platform is a product catalogue sorted by "star rating" -- which corresponds to whether the company's product information is complete, whether they have submitted proof of the product, whether they have passed a third-party evaluation, whether they have given access to or reported on monitoring data. For even the most neutral tasks, such as standardizing the accuracy of fever detection products, there will always be winners and losers, and the interests of the state will never line up perfectly with the interests of individual AI firms.

  • In addition, is the “AI industry” coherent enough of a concept to justify an AI lobby? The report divides the 500+ AI products into different categories — the top four most popular were smart service robots, big data and intelligent analysis systems, smart identification (temperature measurement), and smart education/online work. Others included drug R&D, genomic testing, smart transportation, smart emergency dispatch platforms, smart medicine auxiliary diagnostic systems. For many of these companies who specialize in some of these verticals, the AIIA’s recommendations at the end of the report (e.g. set up the construction of basic data platforms for AI) will not really help unless those recommendations are tailored to a specific vertical rather than “the AI industry.”

  • Lastly, press releases still provide useful information, so maybe we shouldn’t be that cynical. The report provides a good sense of the diversity and breadth of companies developing AI applications for coronavirus control.

  • Consider one subcategory on logistics support: “To provide (on-site) disinfection, Boying (byaero) has launched sanitation/anti-epidemic drones; in delivering medicines, OrionStar’s delivery robot “baoxiaodi” has been used in many hospitals; for detection, the drone monitoring system developed by McFly can perform real-time monitoring and analysis of quarantined area for observation; in terms of logistics,’s logistics robots/drones have provided logistics services to closed areas.”

  • A favorite of mine — machine quality inspection: “In actual production, Pulisi (Guangzhou) transformed its original production line into a flexible AI vision fully-automated mask machine, using AI for identification and packaging control. The output from a single machine can reach 120 pieces per minute, and the daily output of masks exceeds 150,000 pieces; Tyrobot (TSIC -- Shenzhen Tuoye Robot Automation) launched an automated mask production line and put it into use; DEEPEXI uses AI visual inspection to assist in the quality inspection of mask production, helping to improve production efficiency.”

FULL(ish) TRANSLATION: AI Industry Alliance Report on 500+ Use cases of AI in Coronavirus Control

ChinAI Links (One to Forward)

Must-read: An Open Letter by Early-Career Specialists in Foreign Policy and National Security on Combatting anti-Asian Racism

Just one link today, so forward it to 4x the people please! The entanglements faced by Chinese Americans amidst narratives of great power competition between the U.S. and China is a topic that is pretty close to my heart, as I’ve written about in past issues, and attacks against Asian Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have definitely unnerved me. But I think what made this more meaningful for me was seeing up-close-and-personal how the other drafters, especially Elsa Kania and Chenny Zhang in leading this effort, brought in multiple perspectives and built consensus around this letter, which has now been signed by a bipartisan group of nearly 200 scholars and professionals in foreign policy and national security. Longtime readers of my rantings in ChinAI know that I am not the most diplomatic with my words, and let’s just say many of my takes have not painted the U.S. national security establishment in the most favorable of lights (to put it diplomatically), so I learned a lot about how to be a more constructive public servant. Seeing this open letter grow largely out of the efforts of rising, next-gen foreign policy/national security professionals gives me a great deal of hope in an America that recognizes racism and xenophobia as byproducts of a type of national insecurity and an America that strives toward a broader vision of national security.

Some passages from the open letter:

“Recent hate crimes and violent assaults against people of Asian descent should sound an alarm for America. Within the past couple of weeks alone, an acid attack against a woman in Brooklyn caused her to suffer severe burns, and a man in Texas has been charged with attempted murder after attacking an Asian American family. Such stories have become disturbingly frequent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the FBI has warned that this trend may continue…

We call upon U.S. leaders at every level and in every sector to take action against anti-Asian racism and express support for Asian diaspora and AAPI communities. U.S. leaders should adhere to guidance on best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises dealing with the novel coronavirus in ways that reduce and avoid stigma and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Terms such as “Chinese virus” stoke discrimination in ways that place lives at risk of violence.

Unfortunately, America has a history of associating immigrants with diseases, and such racialized otherness and dangerous xenophobia can be exploited by and motivate those acting from hate. The United States must learn from that painful history and continue to fight to uphold greater equality of rights and opportunity. America is strongest when it lives up to its guiding principles, including the embrace of diversity and inclusion. Attacks against Asian individuals and members of the AAPI community, including immigrants, are unjust and at odds with our core values. Intolerance and stigmatization risk dividing our society and hurting the most vulnerable precisely when we must unite to confront the pandemic…

History teaches us that injustice and divisions in the United States can be exploited by other governments for strategic purposes. These issues can play into the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda in ways that undermine U.S. unity, national interests and global leadership while weakening U.S. concerns and critiques of Beijing’s human rights abuses. There continue to be compelling reasons to examine factors that facilitated the rapid diffusion of the outbreak from its origin in China, including the Chinese government’s apparent failure to heed the early concerns of doctors, initial suppression of such warnings and subsequent disinformation about the source of the novel coronavirus…

We are committed, finally, to ensuring that the academic, foreign policy, and national security communities continue to become more inclusive and welcoming of the diversity that enriches our work.

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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