Google shrugs off trade war at Shanghai AI event, says partnering with China on talent ecosystem is key

Themed as “AI for Everyone”, the Shanghai forum touched on Google’s artificial intelligence research and applications in areas such as health care, astronomy and arts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 6:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 4:13pm

Art & Culture, a seemingly harmless free app from Google that allows users to view interesting art and exhibits online across the world, remains banned in China because of the Great Firewall.

But this small fact, which can be seen as a symbol of the US technology giant’s wider problems over censorship and an escalating trade and technology war between the US and China, has not deterred Google from continuing to engage the world’s second-biggest economy.

Jay Yagnik, Google’s head of machine perception research, was in Shanghai last week for the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), where discussions covered cool but not necessarily new AI applications to an audience unfamiliar with Google’s offerings, such as real-time menu translation through to smartphone tech that could search and identify a dog breed automatically from a photo.

“We have got a very, very engaged community in China,” said Yagnik, noting the two million downloads of Google’s open-source machine learning software tool TensorFlow by developers in the country. “Partnering with China and the overall AI talent ecosystem is really important.”

Betting big on the core technology behind an array of cutting-edge applications from autonomous driving to facial recognition, China’s State Council last July laid out a three-step road map to AI supremacy. It included the goals of building a domestic AI industry worth about US$150 billion and to make the country an “innovation centre for AI” by 2030. China’s AI ambitions have captured the attention of US President Donald Trump in his escalating trade spat with the country.

Themed as “AI for Everyone”, the Shanghai forum touched on Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) research and applications in areas such as health care, astronomy and arts. Yagnik, who spoke to the South China Morning Post last week at Shanghai Long Museum where Google is hosting its biggest technology exhibition in China in recent years, said that AI will be the “disruptive force that propels society to the next level”.

Visitors to the exhibition can interact with machines by playing musical duets, have their Chinese horoscope told via a series of hand gestures or have a sketch compared with the painting style of a famous artist.

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But having fun is only a small part of what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.

“If you look at the last 200 years of human history, it’s advanced technology that’s had a lasting effect on people’s quality of life,” said Yagnik. “Overall, it’s better for humanity to think of it as a global event and focus on how best to utilise the new technology.”

Comparing the arrival of AI to the initial invention of photography through to the high-resolution digital pictures of today, Yagnik called for united efforts in education, research and technology adoption. His comments echoed similar remarks by Liu He, China’s vice-premier and top trade negotiator, at the opening of conference, when he appealed to “members of a global village” to embrace AI together.

When it came to Google’s current development plans in China, Yagnik was more circumspect, saying there were no “specific” further plans at this point. Although the company previously announced the opening of an AI centre in Beijing in December, it has faced a number of China challenges recently.

Google cloud AI chief Li Fei-fei, a China-born scientist and major advocate of the AI centre, recently announced her intention to step down at the end of the year. This announcement came after The New York Times disclosed the content of an internal email where Li cautioned against mentioning AI in public discussions of a Pentagon contract, noting that “weaponised AI” is very “sensitive” and “red meat to the media”.

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Google has also faced a political storm over Project Dragonfly, which involves efforts to develop a censored search app specifically for China, which will blacklist sites on human rights, democracy, religion and other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, according to a report from The Intercept.

Google executives told employees in a meeting in August that the company is “not close to launching” a search product in China but is considering how to do business in the country. When asked about a possible re-entry into China, all Google scientists the Post spoke to on the sidelines of the WAIC conference said they were either “not qualified” to comment or were “unfamiliar with the situation”.

Meanwhile, Google has also been working to make more of its content on TensorFlow available in Chinese over the past year, according to Rajat Monga, engineering director of TensorFlow.

“We are trying to make more things accessible, working with the locals whatever the best way is,” he said on the sidelines of the WAIC, when asked if he was concerned by the temporary blocking of Github and Reddit in China.

“Right now we have WeChat channel, connecting with folks to make sure the content is readily available,” he said, referring to a public account TensorFlow has opened since last December, adding that open source is a win-win to both developers and companies that want to strengthen security.

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Monga’s comments chime with earlier statements from China head Scott Beaumont about how Google has “always been” in China.

Despite having no direct links with Chinese hospitals at the moment, Lily Peng, product manager of Google AI’s medical imaging team, said on the sidelines of WAIC that there has been “a lot of enthusiasm” to work with some in the future. As a Chinese-American, Peng said she hopes companies from both countries can work together to develop algorithms that can be trained on both populations, taking account of genetic differences and other diverse factors.

“I will be very pleased if there’s any project that we can collaborate on in health care,” she added.

Google is not the only US firm targeting AI solutions in China, as both Amazon and Microsoft announced plans to build new research facilities in the country at the WAIC. This comes despite increasing trade tensions between the US and China in recent days – with China retaliating with US$60 billion of tariffs on American goods after US President Donald Trump imposed another US$200 billion of tariffs on Chinese imports.

Yagnik ended the interview with a cryptic comment when asked about how the trade war might affect Google’s business in the region.

“The global landscape is something that evolves very rapidly,” is all Yagnik would say, without elaborating further.