October 7, 2019

I’m going to begin with a big assumption — which is that there won’t be a robot rebellion and that humans will stay in control of their artificially intelligent creations.

That still leaves a big question: which humans? Because, just like any world-changing technology, ownership and control of AI is not evenly distributed.

For at least 200 years, westerners have rather smugly assumed that we’ll be the ones calling the shots. Indeed, any instance of another culture gaining a technological edge has always been seen as a crisis — think of the Soviets and spaceflight in the 1950s, the Arab world and the oil industry in the 1970s, or the Japanese and consumer electronics in the 1980s. In every case, the West (well, the Americans) responded with a major effort to regain the initiative.

Today, it’s China that presents the most formidable challenge — not least in the field of artificial intelligence. Last year, I wrote about the Chinese government’s impressive AI strategy, which will give America a run for its money and which leaves European efforts in the dust.

Last month, I unpacked a report by Karen Hao about China’s widespread use of advanced educational software in the classroom — i.e. the use of artificial intelligence to boost human intelligence. If you’re at all interested in the future of education — and the radical changes that Al could bring about — then I’d urge you to read Hao’s report for MIT Technology Review.

And yet, in a blog post on the same site, Hao highlights a major impediment to the Chinese quest for global AI supremacy: a brain drain. Drawing on research from the MacroPolo think tank, she notes that efforts to expand its AI expertise are succeeding, up to a point:

“The report analyzed the authorship of papers accepted to NeurIPS, one of the most prestigious international AI conferences, and found a nearly tenfold increase in the number of authors who did their undergraduate studies in China over the last decade. Whereas there were only around 100 Chinese researchers in 2009, accounting for 14% of the total number of authors, there were nearly 1,000 in 2018, accounting for a quarter.”

Taking their cue from the government’s strategy, Chinese universities are training up the AI specialists on which future progress depends. But here’s the kicker:

“Roughly three-quarters of the Chinese authors in the study currently work outside China, and 85% of those work in the US—either at tech giants like Google and IBM or universities like UCLA and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.”

Now, it may be that China has a whole load of other super-geeks working on AI projects whose results aren’t being shared through international conferences and open publications. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the big US universities and tech companies might be in a position to recruit China’s top talent — they can pay top dollar for it. Indeed, Hao notes that part of China’s AI strategy is to lure “top scientists back home with competitive compensation packages”.

But it’s not just about the money. The West can offer other inducements that China can’t. For a start there’s the sweet air of freedom — and, for that matter, the sweet air of a comparatively unpolluted living environment.

Back in March, in a widely syndicated AFP article, Catherine Lai and Ruchika Chitravanshi wrote about the impact that air quality is having on recruitment and retention in Asian cities:

“According to the United Nations Environment Programme, some 92 percent of people in the Asia-Pacific region are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to health.

“This means that on top of large salaries, businesses are having to offer extra incentives.

“These include paying for smog breaks every few months, or allowing non-traditional working arrangements so people can commute from less polluted areas, says Lee Quane, Asia director for consultancy ECA International.

“At ‘a location with a higher level of pollution, you’re likely to see us recommend allowances of anywhere between 10 to 20 percent of the person’s base salary,’ he says.”

If ‘pollution premiums’ and ‘environmental hardship allowances’ are necessary to persuade Westerners to work in China, then it seems reasonable to assume that our (relatively) breathable air is helping to recruit Chinese talent to the West.

According to Wolfgang Georg Arlt in Forbes magazine, smog-avoidance has become a major factor in Chinese domestic and international tourism:

“Based on booking statistics, [China’s largest online travel site Ctrip] reckons that December 2016 saw more than 150,000 Chinese travel abroad specifically to escape air pollution, proving that the search for fresh air has become a major push factor in China’s outbound tourism.”

But as well as paying to travel to the breathable West, Chinese workers increasingly have the option of being paid to live there.

Strict environmental regulations are sometimes condemned as a threat to our economic competitiveness. But in a globalised knowledge economy, in which those with the most valuable knowledge and experience can choose to live anywhere they like, compromising on quality of life may prove to be a massive own goal.

There’s a lesson here for Brexit Britain. Breaking free from EU control should not be seen as an opportunity to join a race to the bottom. There are those who’d love to take an axe to our environmental and animal welfare regulations, not to mention workers’ rights. They must be resisted, and not only on moral grounds.

Instead, we should make the most of our natural, historical and cultural riches and establish this country as one of the very best places to live on Earth – the cleanest, greenest and safest of all the major economies.

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