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Chinese Advances In Artificial Intelligence


Artificial intelligence, or AI, is everywhere these days, from self-driving cars and voice-activated software like Siri and Alexa. It's being used in fields from criminal justice to finance. So this year in All Tech Considered, we're going to spend some time exploring AI.


MCEVERS: And today - China. Its leadership wants to dominate the tech world. It's one way China can beat possible competitors and adversaries. NPR's Anthony Kuhn introduces us to the Chinese firm that is leading the way to AI.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Robin Li, CEO of China's largest search engine, Baidu, took the stage recently at a conference for developers and media. He talked about Baidu's big investments in artificial intelligence.


ROBIN LI: (Speaking Chinese).


KUHN: "Today, Baidu understands you better," he declared. One of the things Baidu is doing is recognizing voice commands of its search engine users. To understand more, I visited Gao Liang, the lead engineer for voice recognition at Baidu. He showed me some gadgets, including a voice-controlled speaker.

GAO LIANG: (Speaking Chinese).


GAO: (Speaking Chinese) "Hotel California."

KUHN: OK, I guess "Hotel California's" not available, so we also try out an interpretation device.

Man, that radio program was awesome.


KUHN: She got that one right. Gao Liang says that Baidu is working on ways for people to use voice commands to drive cars, do their banking and navigate airports. He explains that the task is complicated by the myriad local accents and dialects in China. Baidu uses vast amounts of data and computing power to learn to understand them.

GAO: We extract 100 voice queries that we collect from the user, and we ask a average native Chinese person to listen to it, see if he can understand. The chance are, our search engine will beat that average person.

KUHN: In July, China's cabinet released a national plan to become the world's leading power in artificial intelligence by 2030 and create an industry worth nearly $150 billion. China's leaders have long taken pride in their ability to mobilize people and resources for megaprojects. From the Great Wall to the atom bomb, many have had military uses, and AI is no exception.

ELSA KANIA: The Chinese military is focused on the ways in which the disruptive impact of AI in warfare could enable it to achieve an advantage and will actively seek to leverage the dynamism of Chinese private sector advances in AI.

KUHN: That's Elsa Kania. She studies the Chinese military's approach to emerging technologies at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. She says China has strengths which could help its bid to dominate emerging technologies, especially at a time when the U.S. seems less focused on them.

KANIA: The devotion of resources to AI in the form of investment as well as certain structural advantages that China possesses, including massive amounts of data and a robust potential talent base, could enable China to take the lead in the longer term.

KUHN: Kania notes that, as in the U.S., technological advances by private sector firms like Baidu are quickly adapted to use by the military and the police. So I asked Baidu engineer Gao Liang, what if the government asks you to do something that, for example, threatens users' privacy?

GAO: Can we say no? I don't know. Cooperate with the government is one thing - right? because we're building business in China, and we must obey all the regulations.

KUHN: Besides, he says, Baidu has its own code of ethics, which he describes as follows.

GAO: To make our end user happy and very easy to acquire the information and very easy to get the things they want is our No. 1 goal.

KUHN: I also asked Mr. Gao about whether he's concerned about all the people who could be thrown out of work by robots with artificial intelligence. He answered that AI will create many new job opportunities, including teaching robots how to be more human. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.