An American-led tech consortium dedicated to safeguarding the development of artificial intelligence has welcomed its first Chinese member, internet search company Baidu.

The Partnership on AI (PAI) was set up two years ago to generate best practices for AI technology. It’s funded by its members, which include companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, and also partners with government entities like the UN and Human Rights Watch. Membership does not necessitate any legally binding promises, but companies who join PAI must “believe in and endeavor to uphold” eight key tenets.

PAI’s executive director, Terah Lyons, told The Verge that the group cannot accomplish its aims without “insight from the leading global AI actors” — including Chinese firms. “China has a clear ambition to become a global leader in AI by 2030 and is making massive investments to that end,” said Lyons. “We cannot have a comprehensive and global conversation on AI development unless China has a seat at the table.”

However, while proper development of AI is certainly a global concern, there is certainly a difference in approach between Western and Chinese companies, especially when it comes to data collection and user privacy. China is using AI and related technologies like facial recognition to create a far-reaching surveillance network that critics say is dystopian. Meanwhile, one of PAI’s core tenets promises that members will work to “protect the privacy and security of individuals.”

PAI’s stance on user privacy may clash in future with China’s expansive use of AI for surveillance.
Jonathan McIntosh / Creative Commons

Lyons acknowledged that different nations will have different approaches to AI depending on “national needs and priorities,” and that it was important to recognize these. “We see potentially diverging perceptions about the development and use of AI as something to embrace and attempt to overcome through our work,” said Lyons, who stressed again that PAI cannot achieve its goals “unless we have insight from the other major AI actor on the global stage (China).”

In order to achieve its goals, PAI has created a number of working groups on particular topics, like “AI, Labor and the Economy,” “Safety Critical AI,” and “AI and Social Good.” However, none of the groups have yet published research.

Baidu is the first Chinese member of PAI, but it’s not the most influential tech company working with AI in China. The company had an early lead in AI, and is pursuing familiar programs like self-driving cars and a voice-activated assistant. But in recent years, China’s other tech giants, like Alibaba and Tencent, have spent more money on their AI development. At the same time, a new generation of firms like iFlytek, SenseTime, and Bytedance have carved out a place for themselves in sub-domains like facial recognition.

Welcoming Baidu to Partnership on AI may be the start of the group’s outreach in China, but it can’t be the end.

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