What People Get Wrong About China and Artificial Intelligence

China is close to becoming the world’s leader in artificial intelligence, according to conventional wisdom.

But Jeffrey Ding, leader of all things China at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, has a much different take: China’s prowess in artificial intelligence is exaggerated.

Ding’s take on China and A.I. is a counterpoint to the belief that China and the U.S. are embarking on an A.I. arms race that echoes the Cold War. The growing concern in the U.S. about China’s A.I. abilities, Ding says, could lead to policy based on misinformation.

In an interview with Fortune, Ding explained that much of what is written about China’s multi-billion dollar push into A.I. often seems like it’s written in a “vacuum.” There’s little context or comparison between China’s A.I. abilities and those of other countries.

For instance, some reports indicate that China leads the U.S. in the number of A.I.-related patents globally and research papers. No one bothers to mention that other researchers more frequently cite U.S. patents and papers in their own studies, indicating that the Chinese patents and papers may be of lesser quality, Ding says.

It’s these kinds of observations that make Ding’s weekly ChinAI Newsletter widely read among China and A.I. experts. His analysis is informed by a network of sources in China who help him translate Chinese A.I. research papers and related writings.   

Another of Ding’s contrarianism targets the assumption that China’s vast population provides a huge workforce of A.I. specialists. Yet quantifying the size of that workforce is difficult because there’s no standard for doing so, he says. Some workers in China who claim A.I. expertise may only have associate or technical certificates, meaning they likely lack the skills of people with more advanced engineering degrees.

China has also been singled out as a leader because it has compiled a database of over one billion facial images. In theory, it’s a valuable tool for training facial-recognition technologies, a key subset of A.I.

Less appreciated is the fact that the FBI has its own database of over 640 million faces, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Like China, the U.S. is also well on its way to track people’s identities based on their faces, despite concerns by human-rights activists.

Assumptions about privacy expectations in China are another source of misunderstanding in the West, Ding says. In short, because of China’s authoritarian government, Westerners believe that the country’s citizens don’t value privacy.

Ding argues that this thesis overlooks a “crucial distinction” between civil liberties (i.e. privacy related to the government) and consumer privacy (how companies handle personal information). Chinese consumers, he said, are wary of companies that are lax in safeguarding their personal data and are concerned about their data being stolen.

“If you want sustainable A.I. development, you have to get better at protecting data,” Ding said.

Recently, Ding testified during a U.S. congressional hearing about China’s pursuit of A.I. and its implications on U.S. national security and technology policies. His conclusion: Despite the belief by some experts that “China may overtake the U.S. in A.I.,” the reality is much more nuanced.

Jonathan Vanian