Almost every China-watcher and ordinary user are excited about artificial intelligent (AI), especially when China announced last month that its grand plan to become the world’s leader in AI by 2030. The country aims to surpass its rivals technologically and build a domestic industry worth almost $150 billion.
It is tempting to picture how the development of AI, backed by innovations from the industry and investment from the government, can make our lives more “smart” and convenient. What many fail to recognize is the trade-offs such as our data privacy we make—sometimes involuntarily— to bring such convenience.
The recent fight between Huawei, one of China’s largest phone makers, and Tencent, Chinese Internet giant best known for its WeChat and gaming products, is an epitome of how data has become “the world’s most valuable resource”.
According to Wall Street Journal, Huawei is collecting user-activity information on its advanced Honor Magic smartphone in order to “build its AI capability”. The information it allegedly collects includes, among other things, users’ WeChat chat records. No doubt Huawei was quick to deny the accusation, saying that “users have authorized the collection of their activity”.
Now take a look at how Tencent reacts. Soon after Wall Street Journal’s story was published, Tencent scolded Huawei for collecting data because “it steals Tencent’s data and violates WeChat users’ privacy.” It is reported that Tencent has “demanded Chinese government intervene on this matter.”
One should not be delusional about the moral high grounds the two companies claim in this fight as in actuality, both companies have long been suspected for intruding user privacy for commercial interests, or worse, sharing user information with government agencies.
But the concerns over gigantic technology companies monopolizing and intruding our data are not unique to Chinese users. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are almost unstoppable in dominating global markets, which in returns offers them a titanic amount of data from users all over the world.
The perfection of AI largely depends on the amount of data it is fed and trained with. While it is easy to paint a rosy picture of how the technology can advance our lives and boost the economy, it is also vital to take a step back and consider where the boundary of usr privacy lies, who has the rights to collect and store user data, and how to hold companies responsible for our most intimate and personal data they access.