Increased focus should be placed on democratizing artificial intelligence (AI) so that the technology’s capabilities aren’t solely available to big corporations, according to a director at Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA).

Tim Pan, senior outreach director at MSRA, warned that the changes brought upon by AI could come too fast for the general public to react and realign themselves in the workplace. He said that widespread access to AI should be emphasized.

“It will be very difficult for a taxi driver to change his or her job to be a computer scientist in their lifetime,” said Pan. A lot of professional drivers will lose their jobs when autonomous vehicles hit the streets, he added, which creates a social issue.

China has set out ambitious goals for its AI development. The country is pushing to become a global leader in the technology by 2030, while increasing its focus on high-tech industries, including chipmaking, through its Made in China 2025 initiative.

Pan said governments should play an active role in mitigating these risks by, for instance, strengthening the younger generation’s computer science abilities.

Pan was speaking on a panel focused on AI ethics in China at TechNode’s Emerge conference in Shanghai on Thursday morning. He was joined by Nancy Xu, CEO and founder of Cevolution, Christopher Byrd, fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, and Danny Wang, China new IT and AI managing director at Accenture.

According to research firm McKinsey, 51% of work-related activities in China could be automated, equal to nearly 400 million jobs.

But the arrival of automation does not necessarily spell doom for low-skilled workers. New forms of blue-collar work could include labeling data to train AIs.

Even so, strategies that work in other regions for upskilling workers in the AI era may not have the same effect in China. “The differences between the Chinese economy and western economies are very important,” said Byrd, explaining that access to cheaper labor may not provide the same incentives for automation.

Governments should support tech companies, which know the technology, to lead in AI ethics, Byrd said.

China has become increasingly engaged in conversations about AI ethics. At this year’s Two Sessions, the country’s largest annual gathering of lawmakers and political advisers, CEOs Robin Li of Baidu and Pony Ma of Tencent called for rules emphasizing ethical standards in AI development. Li urged the government to consult experts when developing ethical frameworks for emerging technologies, and for China to take part in a global dialog on AI ethics.

“China has some advantages because it has a unified agenda. You don’t have some of the complicated multi-level structures like in the US,” said Byrd on the sidelines of TechNode’s event.

Even so, out of almost 3,500 robotics and AI researchers who signed an open letter initiated by US think tank Future of Life Institute to ban autonomous weapons, only three were affiliated to a Chinese institution, and they were all from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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