Chat Xi PT? China’s chatbot makes sure it’s a good comrade

The regulator also verifies that the chatbot avoids answering queries on politically sensitive topics.. (Photo by Alexander RYUMIN / POOL / AFP)  (AFP)
The regulator also verifies that the chatbot avoids answering queries on politically sensitive topics.. (Photo by Alexander RYUMIN / POOL / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

  • Chinese AI companies must overcome chip restrictions and strict regulations in creating chatbots on par with ChatGPT

SINGAPORE—Chinese artificial intelligence companies face two big challenges in trying to create chatbots on par with OpenAI’s ChatGPT. One is overcoming U.S. export controls on buying leading-edge artificial-intelligence chips.

The other? Making sure the chatbot adheres to Xi Jinping Thought.

That’s the doctrine of Xi, the leader of China’s ruling Communist Party. And Chinese authorities offered a reminder of how AI companies are expected to behave on Monday, when they announced a new chatbot trained on Xi’s 14-point theory , which emphasizes socialist values and the party’s leadership over everything in China.

Officially, the chatbot is meant to provide cybersecurity and information-technology research. Designed by China’s cyberspace academy, the chatbot derives data from seven sources. Six of them are professional databases about technology. The other is the doctrine, known formally as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."

China and the U.S. are vying for leadership in AI, a tech sector that promises to boost economic productivity while transforming how people work. But in one subset of AI, Chinese companies face a disadvantage because Beijing censors not only what chatbots can spit out, but also what data they can learn from.

The chatbot announced Monday is being trialed internally at China’s cyberspace research institute, and it is unclear whether it will be made public. In the announcement by China’s cyberspace regulator, people with access to the chatbot can ask it questions about network technology, and it can generate responses in Chinese and English.

As examples, the regulator said the chatbot can outline reports on the current status of AI development, or can describe the difference between technologically driven economic growth and older forms of productivity.

China in 2017 announced plans to become the world’s dominant power in all aspects of AI by 2030. It outlined a top-down agenda that encouraged educational institutions and companies to get on board, and they have responded.

In competing with the U.S., China has some natural advantages. Its 1.4 billion people give it potentially much more data to quickly train systems for autonomous vehicles and computer vision, a field that involves interpreting information from images and videos.

But for training chatbots such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the U.S. has an edge. AI systems developed by OpenAI, Google and others require large oceans of information to learn from. That has prompted deals like the content-licensing partnership recently agreed between OpenAI and Wall Street Journal owner News Corp, in which the publisher will provide data that can help improve ChatGPT.

In China, AI developers face restrictions. Just as the country’s cyberspace regulator blocks access to Google, Facebook and foreign news sources, it also has a preapproved list of sources that AI chatbots can be trained on, said Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank. The regulator also verifies that the chatbot avoids answering queries on politically sensitive topics.

“These large models need to implement core socialist values," Arcesati said. “There’s this challenge of political alignment that generative AI developers need to come to terms with."

When The Wall Street Journal tested a Chinese chatbot last year, it repeatedly declined to answer questions about Chinese politics and said conversations had to remain peaceful and constructive.

There is evidence that Chinese regulators are loosening restrictions on AI to allow chatbots to be more globally competitive. Last year, regulators released AI rules that toned down earlier proposals, a sign that they were trying to balance controlling discourse with giving companies more space to innovate.

Despite restrictions on what data they can train on and what they can say, some Chinese chatbots appear to be decent alternatives to ChatGPT, Arcesati said. “Given the political limitations and the lack of access to more extended and uncensored data training sets, they still do quite well," she said.

But she said that in the long term, the gap between American and Chinese chatbots may widen as Chinese companies face the bigger issue of lacking the best AI chips.

Write to Stu Woo at Stu.Woo@wsj.com

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