Can anyone compete with China’s Artificial Intelligence super-system? Sleepy government bureaucracies the world over are finally waking up to the hard reality that they have virtually no chance. China is galloping ahead. Only last month, it unveiled its latest rival to San Francisco’s ChatGPT: the Moss bot, and this month it plans to release another. The UK lags far behind.
Tony Blair thinks Britain should put itself on an economic war footing and pour national resources into the creation of an AI framework that might compete with China’s. But it’s hard to see how that is possible — or even desirable.
In large part, this is because AI needs data to work. Lots and lots of data. By feeding huge amounts of information to AIs, deep learning trains them to find correlations between data points that can produce a desired outcome. As deep learning improves the AI, it requires more data, which creates more learning, which requires more data.
While many nations might struggle to cope with AI’s insatiable demand for data, China is in no short supply. Since the nation fully came online around the turn of the millennium, it has been steadily carving out a surveillance state by acquiring endless amounts of data on its population. This initiative has roots in China’s One Child Policy: this impetus for controlling the population in aggregate — that is, on a demographic level — devolved into a need to control the population on an individual level.
This became fully apparent in 1997, when China introduced its first laws addressing “cyber crimes”, and continued into the early 2000s as the CCP began building the Great Firewall to control what its citizens could access online. Its guiding principle was expressed in an aphorism of former-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The Great Firewall was a way of keeping out the flies.
China has always had a broad definition of “flies”. In 2017, the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur minority, rolled out the country’s first iris database containing the biometric identification of 30 million people. This was part of a larger effort known as part of a wider Strike Hard Campaign, an effort to bring the Uighur population under control, an effort to bring the Uighur population under control by using anti-terror tactics, rhetoric and surveillance.
This was a major step in the development of the Chinese surveillance state. But even that great leap forward pales in comparison to the CCP’s Zero Covid strategy, which involved the government swabbing and tracking every single one of its 1.4 billion citizens. When you consider that this population-wide genetic database was tied through QR codes to the locus of people’s digital lives — their smartphones — what China has come into possession of in the past three years is a data super-ocean, the likes of which humanity has never seen.
Nevertheless, this “overabundance of data”, as former Google China CEO Kai-Fu Lee describes it in his book AI Superpowers, does not fully account for the extent of China’s data edge. While the US might enjoy a similar mass of data, there are stark differences. The first is that American data is owned by private companies that maintain proprietary fences around it, keeping the data fragmented. While America’s own surveillance state is vast and deep, the need to maintain data protections from both a privacy and national security perspective means that much of that data is unavailable for the use of AI development. By contrast, China’s blurring of Western lines between the state and private companies means it can access limitless, generally centralised data.
The second difference is just as important. As Lee points out, American data is derived from the online world — from apps and websites that voraciously hoover it up. This data deals mostly with online behaviours, such as how a user “travels” around the web. Through the ubiquity of the surveillance state, however, Chinese data is derived from the real world. It’s about where you go physically, what you do, with whom you speak, work, date, argue and socialise. As AI melds the real world into a hybrid digital-physical realm, China’s data presents a qualitative edge. This is what makes it, in Lee’s words, the “Saudi Arabia of data”.
Does Britain have any hope of catching up with such a colossus? Tony Blair believes that by mobilising British ingenuity in the service of a national goal, the UK can become a globally competitive force in AI. This idea is well grounded in historical fact, given that the UK’s contribution to AI development has been nothing less than fundamental. From DeepMind, the UK-based AI company acquired by Google parent Alphabet in 2014, to towering figures like Cambridge-trained AI pioneer George Hinton, the UK serves as one pillar in the UK-US-Canada triumvirate of AI research and development.
This is all very well. But it sidesteps an inconvenient truth: AI technology is already here. It’s the data is missing. It’s as if the world has an unpatented design for a powerful new rocket but an enormous scarcity of fuel. Anyone can make the rocket, but only those who have access to enough fuel can press the launch button.
The temptation to rely on the government to achieve this mission might be strong, but it’s also based on a model of government that, in the West, may no longer exist. While the British government once had the know-how and political will to pursue massive projects, like the engineering marvel of the Channel, it seems that those days are passed. London’s Elizabeth Line took 20 years to bring to almost-completion, while the HS2 high-speed rail is now £50 billion over budget and years behind schedule.
Ironically, the path forward for Britain might be found in China’s own economic playbook. In 2010, China transformed an ailing “Electronics Street” in Beijing called Zhongguancun into a central hub for venture-backed technology growth. With cheap rent and generous government funding, it took a mere decade for Zhongguancun to become the birthplace of tens of thousands of startups including some, like TikTok, that would eventually grow into the world’s biggest tech companies. The UK has the economic sophistication, the research and development experience, and an international draw — all of which can be turned to its advantage in creating fertile soil for AI-driven growth. The question is whether it has the political will to get it done.
Even if the UK government could find the will to compete seriously in the “fourth industrial revolution”, one question would remain: Do its citizens really want it? A frequent refrain in the tech community is that “AI is communist”. The monopolistic nature of AI requires the kind of massive data and computational power that only huge companies like Microsoft and Google can support. With dominant players like those two increasingly cooperating with governments (including China’s) to censor speech, monitor behaviour and engineer societies, the AI-is-communist sentiment echoes a well-warranted fear that it will be used for government-like top-down control.
In the hands of an actual government, AI will inevitability encourage greater state involvement in the lives of ordinary citizens. Sovereign AIs require national data, and national data tends to require more top-down control. In a country that has resisted ID cards and national identity registers (wisely, though not without costs), this approach seems unlikely at best. Despite the tremendous potential AI holds for the betterment of humanity, it also presents equally enormous risks.