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China's AI Ambition on Show in Annual Event, Most US Companies Stayed Away

Updated: Jan 5

China's Annual AI event highlights Beijing's AI goals amid technological rivalry with the US, as big international names stay absent.

World Artificial Intelligence Conference
Credits: Reuters

China's annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) commenced in Shanghai this week, underscoring Beijing's ambitions in the AI realm amidst an escalating technological competition with the United States. Hosted by various government ministries, the event has drawn prominent Chinese AI firms and institutions, dominating the published agenda with local representation while notable international players remain absent, including Microsoft-backed OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT.

The Chinese market poses challenges for generative AI services like ChatGPT and Google's Bard, as domestic regulators raise concerns over associated risks. This situation further solidifies AI as yet another closed garden within the Great Firewall, favoring local tech giants.

According to the Shanghai government, over 400 enterprises are participating in the event, with at least 30 of them being developers of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, which powers various products. Among the event's ten "strategic partners" or main sponsors are several Big Tech firms, including Alibaba Group Holding, its fintech affiliate Ant Group, and Tencent Holdings. Huawei Technologies and SenseTime, both sanctioned by the US, are also sponsoring the conference, alongside Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Additionally, the Bank of Communications, investment firm Citic Group, state-owned telecoms operators China Telecom and China Mobile, and Transwarp, a big-data infrastructure software developer, are among the conference's partners.

While not a strategic partner, US mobile chip design giant Qualcomm stands as the only American company sponsoring the event as one of the 22 "elite partners." This shift is notable compared to the previous conference in 2019, where IBM, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services held strategic partnerships, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk was a prominent speaker.

Amid Washington's increasing restrictions on chip exports to China, semiconductor companies are expressing concerns. However, the hesitation to sponsor a Chinese AI conference reflects American firms' cautious approach in navigating this geopolitical minefield.

Although some US Big Tech companies are avoiding sponsorships, representatives from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Tesla will attend the conference, according to the organizers. The agenda covers discussions on topics including LLMs, semiconductors, scientific intelligence, robotics, the metaverse, autonomous driving, and blockchain.

Since its inauguration in 2018, the WAIC has been held annually in Shanghai, providing a platform for tech firms to engage with Chinese officials. Former vice-premier Liu He delivered the opening speech at the first event five years ago.

The conference boasts eight government departments as co-sponsors, including the Shanghai Municipal People's Government, National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Science and Technology, State Cyberspace Administration of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Engineering, and China Association for Science and Technology.

As the introduction of ChatGPT last November reignited the AI arms race, Shanghai has positioned itself as a key player in China's industry goals by striving to attract tens of thousands of technology workers. In February's Global AI Developer Conference, Shanghai officials reiterated their commitment to attract 20,000 to 30,000 workers and 500 related AI enterprises by 2025.

  • China's World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) highlights Beijing's AI ambitions amid rivalry with the US.

  • Notable international players like Microsoft-backed OpenAI are absent from the event.

  • Domestic regulations pose challenges for generative AI services in the Chinese market.

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