China unveils AI ethics code

By on 08/10/2021 | Updated on 08/10/2021
China aims to leapfrog the US and become global AI leader by 2030. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr

Artificial intelligence (AI) in China will remain “under meaningful human control” according to the country’s first set of rules which will govern every aspect of the emerging technology from its research to supply and implementation.

The New Generation of Artificial Intelligence Ethics Code is the next step in China’s mission to be the global AI leader by 2030. Drafted and issued by the Chinese government’s AI committee, the rules have been formulated to “deeply implement” its 2017 national AI strategy, which set out to leapfrog the US in AI dominance. The new rules are applicable immediately and cover every organisation and business using AI in China.

The plan sets out six fundamental ethics rules that emphasise public interest as well as protecting privacy, security and ensuring controllability and trustworthiness. Ultimately, it states, humans should retain “full power” of decision-making over AI with rights and safeguards in place to revoke systems at any time. “Ensure… the rights to withdraw from the interaction with AI at any time, and the rights to suspend the operation of AI systems at any time, and ensure that AI is always under meaningful human control,” it states.

On top of the six ethics rules, it also outlines 18 specific requirements that will govern all aspects of AI, from its management, research and development, to supply, use and implementation. These include strengthening the evaluation of AI products before they are released and being aware of the potential “negative effects” of products and services. It outlines plans to put in place “emergency mechanisms” and “loss prevention plans” should systems fail, and forbids the use of AI that endangers national security or public safety.

‘Remarkably forward-looking’

The new rules indicate the potential breadth and the importance the Chinese government anticipates AI will have in the country. “The state is thinking very seriously about the long-term social transformations that AI will bring, from social alienation to existential risks,” said Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. “[They are] trying to actively manage and guide those transformations. They are remarkably forward-looking in their thinking,” she told the South China Morning Post.  

The guidelines come as the Chinese government continues its crackdown on big tech companies. In August it implemented legislation to curb tech companies’ collection and control of data with the Personal Information Protection Law. It fined one, Alibaba, US$2.8bn for anti-trust violations, and forbids its education tech startups from going public or accepting foreign investment.

Freedom House, the independent democracy watchdog, ranked China as the worst country in the world for internet freedom this year, for the seventh year in a row.

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