China’s ambitions to lead the development of AI technology have received considerable attention from Western media, policymakers, and tech leaders alike. Tech leaders continue to debate whether China’s aspirations for global leadership in technical AI research are feasible, but much less attention has been paid to China’s bid to lead the ethical conversations that surround AI technologies. Chinese researchers have proven that they can produce world-class breakthroughs in theoretical AI, and Chinese companies have proven that they can produce world-class innovations in the commercial sector. Can China prove that it can lead the world in ethical AI?

As we discussed at a panel on AI ethics in China during TechNode’s Emerge conference last week, the ethical challenges posed by AI technologies are substantial. Ultimately, creative leadership on AI ethics may be at least as impactful as technical work on algorithms. Without careful attention, AI systems may fail to correct for bias in their input datasets, leading to inequitable treatment and possibly magnifying existing social inequalities. Current AI systems can be brittle, performing well in the great majority of cases, only to dramatically fail when faced with an unexpected situation. Even when the behaviors of a trained AI system are understood, its internal decision-making procedures often remain uninterpretable and opaque even to the researchers that designed the system. As companies and entrepreneurs develop new tools for automation, technological unemployment may threaten to send shockwaves throughout the global economy.

Addressing any of these challenges of these questions will be a herculean feat, and will require expert input from a diverse range of technologists, economists, ethicists, and policymakers. If current forecasts for the impact of AI are accurate, creating ethical AI systems can be viewed as a grand challenge for the 21st century.

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Chris Byrd

Chris Byrd is a GovAI research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, and a graduate researcher at Tsinghua University and Johns Hopkins SAIS.