This Chinese Lab Is Aiming for Big AI Breakthroughs

In a low-rise building overlooking a busy intersection in Beijing, Ji Rong Wen, a middle-aged scientist with thin-rimmed glasses and a mop of black hair, excitedly describes a project that could advance one of the hottest areas of artificial intelligence .Wen leads a team at the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence (BAAI), a government-sponsored research lab that’s testing a powerful new language algorithm—something similar to GPT-3, a program revealed in June by researchers at OpenAI that digests large amounts of text and can generate remarkably coherent, free-flowing language. “This is a big project,” Wen says with a big grin. “It takes a lot of computing infrastructure and money.”Wen, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing recruited to work part-time at BAAI, hopes to create an algorithm that is even cleverer than GPT-3. He plans to combine machine learning with databases of facts, and to feed the algorithm images and video as well as text, in hope of creating a richer understanding of the physical world—that the words cat and fur don’t just often appear in the same sentence, but are associated with one another visually. Other top AI labs, including OpenAI, are doing similar work.
One thing that drew Wen to BAAI is its impressive computational resources. “The BAAI has received stellar support from the government and has strong data and computing power,” he says.His language model is one of many BAAI projects aimed at fundamental advances in AI, reflecting a new era for Chinese technology. Despite considerable hype and hand-wringing over China’s technological ascent, the country has so far primarily excelled at taking innovations from elsewhere and deploying them in new ways. This is particularly evident in AI , an area Chinese leaders consider crucial to their aspirations of becoming a true superpower.
Some breakthroughs at BAAI could benefit the government directly. Wen says his language system could serve as an intelligent assistant to help citizens perform civic tasks online like obtaining a visa, a driver’s license, or a business permit. Instead of spending days filling out paperwork and waiting in line, as is the norm, a clever helper could guide citizens through the red tape. Zhanliang Liu, project lead for the effort and previously an engineer at Baidu , China’s top web search company, says his team has built a prototype for Beijing’s Department of Motor Vehicles. “It is a really tough challenge,” he says.The government might, of course, benefit in other ways. More sophisticated AI language systems could prove useful for scanning social media for questionable comments or for scouring phone call transcripts. The Chinese state has embraced AI as a tool of governance, including for censorship and surveillance , particularly of Muslims in western Xinjiang province. There’s no evidence of BAAI’s work feeding into policing or intelligence, but it is being released openly for anyone to commercialize or apply.

At the same time, officials are wary about the potential for AI to erode the power of the state. Several projects at the institute aim to set guardrails for commercial use of AI, to head off ethical challenges and curb the power of big tech companies.

“The Chinese government's trying to get on top of this, to make sure that they're properly in control, and I think that's actually not proving altogether straightforward,” says Nigel Inkster, author of The Great Decoupling, a recent book about the fracturing relationship between China and America.

An Ambitious Plan for AI

The government made its AI ambitions clear in a sweeping plan released in 2017. It set AI researchers the goal of making “fundamental breakthroughs by 2025” and called for the country to be “the world’s primary innovation center by 2030.”