China tipped its hand when it declared that it would seek global leadership in artificial intelligence, a move that alarmed the US and the rest of the world, according to former US secretary of state John Kerry.

When Google's AI computer program AlphaGo beat Chinese Go master Ke Jie in May 2017, that spurred China to seek dominance in the AI industry, Kerry said at the VivaTech conference in Paris on Thursday.

"That lit a fire under China, it was a Sputnik moment, and President Xi announced not too long thereafter that China was going to lead the world in [AI]," said Kerry, who served as secretary of state in President Barack Obama's administration. "I don't think that was the wisest announcement, it would have probably been smart to go try to do it and not announce it, because the announcement was heard in Washington and elsewhere."

In July 2017, China's State Council issued a three-step road map to become a world leader in AI by 2030. AI was also identified as one of China's major tasks in the country's 13th Five-Year Plan, which would guide government policy between 2016 and 2020.

Advertisement

The government also included AI in its Internet Plus initiative, which was established in 2015 as a national strategy to spur economic growth driven by innovative, internet-related technologies.

The development of AI encompasses a wide range of technologies that can perform tasks characteristic of human intelligence, such as understanding language and recognising objects.

The practical applications of AI are huge – from diagnosing serious illnesses like lung cancer using medical imaging, to improving manufacturing processes using sensors and big data, to enhancing security and surveillance at immigration controls at airports using facial recognition technology. The technology also has military uses.

After the initial chest-beating, China has tried to play down the head-to-head confrontation with the US over AI.

AI needs to be viewed as an economic game-changer, whose benefits can be shared and potential problems solved globally, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He told a gathering of AI elites at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in September 2018.

Even so, China's ambitions to dominate the industry has led people to wonder about the intentions behind that goal, Kerry said.

"[Is China developing AI] for the standards and values we live by, or for authoritarianism – for quashing Uygurs, throwing people into detention camps, et cetera," said Kerry, referring to China's treatment of Muslim minorities in the far western Xinjiang region that has drawn international condemnation.

"It's a great danger what's happening right now because we could wind up with two very segregated worlds," Kerry said of the competition between the US and China. "Not unlike the cold war and the Soviet Union and the West, with the lines divided and it cost lives and it cost a lot."

"We should try and avoid that if possible, I believe in the effort to collaborate until you cannot," he said. The arms race also means that smaller countries, such as those in Europe, could find themselves falling behind given the vast investments that the US and China are pouring into AI.

"We need a global negotiation from the largest countries ... to come together to agree on how we're going to have the transparency and accountability, and the sharing and the joint effort necessary that the world can [work together on AI]," Kerry said.

"We've got to get away from China and US dividing the spoils, but it's still going to be difficult for other countries [to catch up]."

- South China Morning Post