“In January 2018, advocates for data privacy celebrated when the Chinese government released a new national standard on the protection of personal information, which contains more comprehensive and onerous requirements than even the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, per analysis by some experts.” — Jeff Ding
In the decades ahead, the countries that dominate AI in any domain could influence how our world is shaped. Jeff Ding leads research on China’s development of artificial intelligence at the Future of Humanity Institute’s Governance of AI Program at Oxford University. He’s been interested in studying China since his high school years. Ding says that once he realized the potential of AI, he became more interested in China’s investment in this area. Ding’s new study, Deciphering China’s AI Dream, is a detailed analysis of the country’s AI strategy moving forward. He joins us in The Global Search for Education to share his perspectives on what his findings may mean for China’s education system and jobs, among other things.
Welcome, Jeff. What surprised you most in your research?
In the course of researching China’s AI approach, what surprised me most was the depth and breadth of knowledge in the Chinese AI community about the state of affairs in Western countries, from technical AI research to issues of AI ethics and safety. It appears that Chinese thinkers know a lot about what other countries are doing in this space, but the converse does not hold.
“I think Chinese leaders should also consider the downsides of education robots. Some researchers have argued that these robot assistants are unable to help children develop healthy social and communication skills, and could end up negatively affecting students’ mental health.” — Jeffrey Ding
What role do you think China’s AI should play in its schools in the future in terms of the learning process as well as curriculum offerings?
There are many near-term, significant applications of AI for China’s educational system. Many startups have leveraged AI technologies to come up with apps to help students learn English and mathematics, reducing the burden on teachers. AI algorithms have helped shape course offerings to be more tailored to a student’s individual needs. Additionally, some schools have started using robots to help assist teachers in the classroom. These applications may be most useful in China’s rural communities, where there are not as many teachers and resources available for students, which suffer from a lack of universal access to education. I think Chinese leaders should also consider the downsides of education robots. Some researchers have argued that these robot assistants are unable to help children develop healthy social and communication skills, and could end up negatively affecting students’ mental health.
What are your thoughts on the relative advantages/disadvantages of China’s educational system adopting AI?
One advantage for China’s educational system in adopting AI is the government’s ability to take a whole-of-society approach to implement educational reforms. For instance, the State Council’s July 2017 AI development plan called for constructing an AI academic discipline, involving a comprehensive effort to establish AI majors, create AI institutes in pilot institutions, and include “AI+X” hybrid professional training. This sent a clear signal for educational officials and local governments to prioritize AI education. The disadvantage of this top-down, mandate-like approach to integrate AI into the educational system is that allowing bottom-up efforts to compete organically may result in more fundamental innovations in AI. A top-down approach may result in a one-size-fits-all education scheme that would not maximize the benefits of AI for education.
How will the anticipated development of AI affect job opportunities in China – both in terms of reduction of the current labor structure and new work opportunities?
Reports from consulting firms have concluded that China has the most to gain from AI technologies, since a larger proportion of work activities can be automated in China compared to other countries. While AI could open up job opportunities in smart health, smart finance, smart transportation, and other new domains, even China’s State Council acknowledges that the government will have to deal with some of the social aftershocks of AI’s economic implications. Concretely, AI could accelerate the “digital divide” by placing a premium on high-skilled workers and reducing the demand for low-skilled workers whose jobs would be most at risk of being automated. This may widen many of the divisions in Chinese society, including income inequality, gender inequality, and the urban/rural and coastal/inland opportunity gaps.
“While AI could open up job opportunities in smart health, smart finance, smart transportation, and other new domains, even China’s State Council acknowledges that the government will have to deal with some of the social aftershocks of AI’s economic implications.” — Jeffrey Ding
As a result, how do you expect this to shift education priorities?
The shift in education priorities, in some sense, will not be as drastic because China already has the most STEM graduates of any country in the world. Thus, it may be that students interested in STEM fields will shift their focus toward the direction of computer science, or other domains more closely related to AI. Since AI requires interdisciplinary analysis, some Chinese scholars have also called for more courses that tackle the intersection of public policy, ethics, and computer science.
How significant will considerations of data privacy be to the government and citizens with the anticipated expansion of AI in all fields? What efforts do you see underway to address these issues?
The debate between data liberalization and protecting user privacy will be an important factor in China’s AI development. In January 2018, advocates for data privacy celebrated when the Chinese government released a new national standard on the protection of personal information, which contains more comprehensive and onerous requirements than even the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, per analysis by some experts. On the other hand, many influential voices, including those in China’s tech giants, argue that relatively lax privacy protections are crucial to data liberalization and spurring innovation in AI.
C. M. Rubin and Jeffrey Ding