Twenty years ago, there was a huge gulf between China and the United States on AI research. While the U.S. was witnessing sustained growth in research efforts by both public institutions and private sectors, China was still conducting low-value-added activities in global manufacturing. But in the intervening years, China has become a world leader in AI publications and patents. This trend suggested that China is also poised to become a leader in AI-empowered businesses, such as speech and image recognition applications.
In one of the most ambitious LegalTech undertakings ever seen, China is set to upgrade its court system into a new generation of smart courts that bring together aspects of big data, artificial intelligence, and block chain technology by 2025. The drive behind this move is to centralize political power and tighten the CCP oversight of judges. The term smart court is vague in many ways. For the new initiatives in China this has been used as a catch-all term for a variety of tools that vary widely in sophistication. Generally, it refers to the continued use and adaptation of intelligent tools that increase reporting and process efficiency. This includes everything from improved processes for filing paperwork to online access to court rulings and AI-assisted decision-making in the courtroom itself.
The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) released a work report during China’s annual parliamentary sessions earlier this week. The report makes note of the growing efforts the SPC has made toward building a smart court system, publishing more than 120 million court decisions to a database online since 2014, including the online broadcast of over 11 million trials. The smart court project also includes a number of new initiatives, include the submitting evidence electronically. In 2020 alone, more that 7 million cases were filed and more than 4 million cases were mediated online. During the same period the number of trials heard virtually increased seven-fold to nearly 900,000.
China’s AI growth is dramatic. The country’s global share of research papers in the field of AI has vaulted from 4.26% (1,086) in 1997 to 27.68% in 2017 (37,343), surpassing every other country in the world. China also consistently files more AI patents than any other country. As of March 2019, the number of Chinese AI firms had reached 1,189, second only to the U.S., which has more than 2,000 active AI firms. These firms focus more on speech (e.g., speech recognition, speech synthesis) and vision (e.g., image recognition, video recognition) than their overseas counterparts. China has been able to leapfrog the AI initiatives of other countries and build a world-leading AI research infrastructure because of supporting policy and investment initiatives seeking to drive the growth in access to system training data and the development of AI talent. What’s more, the country’s centralized power structure enables friendly regulatory environments where innovation is prioritized, leading to increased AI investment and adoption.
During the period between 2016 and 2020, nearly 640 million pieces of data were uploaded to the SPC’s national judicial blockchain platform that was used to store court evidence for the same period. The SPC has found blockchain technology incredibly useful for locking down and documenting digital evidence, especially in the areas of IP law. At a high level, blockchain technology allows a network of computer to agree at regular intervals on the true state of a distributed ledger. These ledgers can contain different types of shared data, such as transactional records, attributes of transactions, credentials, or other pieces of information. The ledger is often secured through a clever mix of cryptography and game theory, and does not require trusted nodes like traditional networks. This is what allows bitcoin to transfer value across the globe without resorting to traditional intermediaries such as banks.
On a blockchain, transactions are recorded chronologically, forming an immutable chain, and can be more or less private or anonymous depending on how the technology is implemented. The ledger is distributed across many participants in the network – it doesn’t exist in one place. Instead, copies exist and are simultaneously updated with every fully participating node in the ecosystem. A block could represent transactions and data of many types – currency, digital rights, intellectual property, identify, or property titles, to name a few.
Unlike computer hardware and drug development, AI is open science. In terms of knowledge and technologies, many of the essential algorithms in the field of AI have become public knowledge, accessible from published papers and conference proceedings. The open science nature of AI is important for latecomers’ catching-up with respect to forerunners, because it allows the former to close the knowledge gap with the latter in a short period of time. Data and talent trumps patents in AI research. In traditional sectors such as pharmaceutical or mobile communications, patents play a critical role in securing firms’ positions and protecting profit streams.
China’s weak privacy regulations can also explain how it caught up so rapidly in certain AI application fields. For example, the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in China creates a big market for AI firms specializing in visual and facial recognition. This market would not have grown so fast in many other countries with tighter regulations on privacy. By many indicators, China is now on the global frontier of AI in terms of technologies development and market applications. The unique technological, market, policy environments that Chinese firms face in the emerging AI sector have given them a window of opportunity to catch up with global leaders rapidly.
For a long time, the US has been the leader in AI, quantum computing, blockchain, and numerous other digital frontiers. However, the AI boom isn’t slowing anytime soon, with new figures showing a 34.5 percent increase in the publication of AI research from 2019 to 2020. That’s a higher percentage growth than 2018 to 2019 when the volume of publications increased by 19.6 percent. China continues to be a growing force in AI R&D, overtaking the US for overall journal citations and AI research last year.
US policymakers are now concerned that China could dominate the technology if the US investment and regulatory environment into data and AI talent does not improve. In particular, policymakers and the public are concerned about applications including autonomous weapons and government social scoring systems. The Chinese government has controversially used AI tools to identify pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and for racial profiling and control of Uighur Muslims. Face scans in China are used to pick our and fine jaywalkers, and citizens in Shanghai will soon have a to verify their identify in pharmacies by scanning their faces.