AI giant Baidu first-ever Chinese company to join US-led ethics board

A crucial step towards developing cross-border AI ethics guidelines

Chinese technology giant Baidu just joined the Partnership on AI, marking a historical moment in the quest to develop guidelines for AI ethics.

Founded by Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft in 2016 and joined by Apple the year after, the Partnership on AI (PAI) aims to develop guidelines for AI ethics and monitor its effects.  The PAI currently comprises more than 70 members, including private-sector and academic groups.  While Baidu is the first company to join from Mainland China, Hong Kong University’s engineering school was already a member of the PAI.

Baidu started out as a search engine and has since expanded into developing self-driving cars, cloud software and smart assistants.  As a technology giant as well as a key investor in other Chinese AI companies, Baidu is an important representative of the AI scene in Asia.  Its membership in the PAI is a crucial step on the way towards international cooperation in AI.

AI ethical guidelines will largely be determined by the US and China

AI development in the US and Europe has been greatly hindered by ethical concerns such as those surrounding user privacy.  In contrast, AI development in China has moved forward at a frenetic pace thanks to the piles of personal data that companies have been able to collect through facial recognition software, digital assistants and other Internet of Things devices.  Since the US and China are battling to be at the forefront of AI research and development in the coming decade, their individual approaches to AI ethics will play a crucial role in deciding how AI ethics will evolve.

In light of this fundamental difference, Ya-Qin Zhang, the president of Baidu, has acknowledged that ““As AI technology keeps advancing and the application of AI expands, we recognize the importance of joining the global discussion around the future of AI. Ensuring AI’s safety, fairness and transparency should not be an afterthought but rather highly considered at the onset of every project or system we build. The impact of a transformative technology like AI goes beyond borders, so we are looking forward to both sharing our own insights and learning from our international peers.”  The PAI has shown appreciation for Baidu’s efforts to incorporate an ethical approach to their AI research and development.  The organization hopes to incorporate more Chinese and other international companies in future.

Cross-border AI: An ethical dilemma

Interesting ethical dilemmas arise when companies start to operate across borders.  Take Google, for example, who left China in 2010 because they disagreed with government censorship.  Now, Google is considering re-entering the Chinese market with a censored search app, a proposition which has justifiably sparked the indignation of many.  The expansion works the other way, too – Baidu itself has announced its intent to pursue market share in countries such as Brazil and Japan.

With increasing cross-border transactions will come increasing concern over each country’s approach to ethics.  In light of this, and considering the fact that China has enjoyed 60% of the world’s AI funding in the time span from 2013 to 2018, it seems impossible to conceive of an AI ethics board in which China has not sent a representative.  As PAI Executive Director Terah Lyons has noted, “The growth and scope of work on AI in China is extensive, and any conversation about the future of AI that does not involve China is an incomplete conversation.” The PAI is still far from being a comprehensive, global AI ethics board, but the addition of Baidu is a step in the right direction.  Let’s hope more Chinese companies will join soon, as well as companies from other countries.