September 18, 2018 / 10:50 AM / 3 months ago

U.S. tech giants eye AI key to unlock China push

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - U.S. technology giants, facing tighter content rules in China and the threat of a trade war, are targeting an easier way into the world’s second largest economy - artificial intelligence.

A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

Google (GOOGL.O), Microsoft Inc (MSFT.O) and Amazon Inc (AMZN.O) showcased their AI wares at a state-backed forum held in Shanghai this week against the backdrop of Beijing’s plans to build a $400 billion AI industry by 2025.

China’s government and companies may compete against U.S. rivals in the global AI race, but they are aware that gaining ground won’t be easy without a certain amount of collaboration.

“Hey Google, let’s make humanity great again,” Tang Xiao’ou, CEO of Chinese AI and facial recognition unicorn Sensetime, said in a speech on Monday.

Amazon and Microsoft announced plans on Monday to build new AI research labs in Shanghai. Google also showcased a growing suite of China-focused AI tools at its packed event on Tuesday.

Google in the past year has launched AI-backed products including a translate app and a drawing game, its first new consumer products in China since its search engine was largely blocked in 2010.

The World Artificial Intelligence Conference, which ends on Wednesday, is hosted by China’s top economic planning agency alongside its cyber and industry ministries. The conference aims to show the country’s growing might as a global AI player.

China’s ambition to be a world leader in AI has created an opening for U.S. firms, which attract the majority of top global AI talents and are keen to tap into China’s vast data.

The presence of global AI research projects is also a boon for China, which aims to become a global technology leader in the next decade.

Liu He, China’s powerful vice premier and the key negotiator in trade talks with the United States, said his country wanted a more collaborative approach to AI technology.

“As members of a global village, I hope countries can show inclusive understanding and respect for each other, deal with the double-sword technologies can bring, and embrace AI challenges together,” he told the forum.

Beijing took an aggressive stance when it laid out its AI roadmap last year, urging companies, the government and military to give China a “competitive edge” over its rivals.

STATE-BACKED AI

Chinese attendees at the forum were careful to cite the guiding role of the state in the country’s AI sector.

“The development of AI is led by government and executed by companies,” a Chinese presenter said in between speeches on Monday by China’s top tech leaders, including Alibaba Holding Ltd (BABA.N) chairman Jack Ma, Tencent Holdings Ltd (0700.HK) chief Pony Ma and Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) CEO Robin Li.

While China may have enthusiasm for foreign AI projects, there is little indication that building up local AI operations will open doors for foreign firms in other areas.

China’s leaders still prefer to view the Internet as a sovereign project. Google’s search engine remains blocked, while Amazon had to step back from its cloud business in China.

Censorship and local data rules have also hardened in China over the past two years, creating new hoops for foreign firms to jump through if they want to tap the booming internet sector.

Nevertheless, some speakers paid tribute to foreign AI products, including Xiaomi Corp (1810.HK) chief executive Lei Jun, who hailed Google’s Alpha Go board game program as a major milestone, saying he was a fan of the game himself.

Alibaba’s Ma said innovation needed space to develop and it was not the government’s role to protect business.

“The government needs to do what the government should do, and companies need to do what they should do,” he said.

Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Darren Schuettler

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