China and chatty artificial intelligences

Thursday 23rd February, 2023 - Bruce Sterling

*The new crop of AIs are not global, they’re geopolitical.

*I recommend this newsletter if you’re at all interested in Chinese society and Chinese AIs.

ChinAI #213: Why Can’t Chinese users access ChatGPT?

Plus, my upcoming testimony at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

FEB 20

Feature Translation: Why doesn’t ChatGPT open up registration to all Chinese users?

Context: Caught up in all the buzz around ChatGPT, Chinese users realized that OpenAI’s new chatbot was not available. In response to Caijing E-Law queries (link to original Chinese), an OpenAI spokesperson stated that conditions in some countries meant that providing access would contravene the company’s mission: “We are currently working to increase the number of locations where we can provide safe and beneficial access to our tools.” The spokesperson did not offer specifics. This week’s article tries to uncover more details.

Key Takeaways: The mechanics of the restrictions are based on application programming interface (API) system that uses phone number verification, not location. *Relatedly, Baidu’s Ernie models (versions of GPT-3) also use an API system to restrict access, making these models available only to those with Chinese phone numbers.

For instance, Caijing E-Law reports that a user in California was unable to register ChatGPT accounts with phone numbers from mainland China and Hong Kong.

Currently, OpenAI’s API (which provides access to its GPT-3, Codex, and Content filter services) is available in 161 countries and regions.

So, why isn’t ChatGPT open to Chinese users? What do the experts say:

First, Zhang Yi, head of iiMedia Consulting, says OpenAI’s services are considered telecommunications services, restricted under the Chinese government’s Negative List for Foreign Investment. “Whether OpenAI can meet the requirements of the business license still needs to be judged by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. If OpenAI does not obtain the qualification for the value-added telecommunications business license, ChatGPT may be suspected of illegally operating products in China,” Zhang Yi told Caijing E-Law.

Second, Chen Bing, deputy dean of Nankai University Law School, emphasizes concerns about cross-border data flows.

*My comment: the above two explanations doesn’t totally square with me, because ChatGPT wouldn’t constitute a foreign direct investment. Also, OpenAI could conceivably provide ChatGPT services without collecting any user data (the model has already been trained with mostly English-language text). Chen Bing does note that the Chinese government may heavily scrutinize AI generated content because it could shape mainstream values and viewpoints.

According to a legal veteran in the U.S. who wished to remain anonymous, OpenAI’s decision is more about U.S.’s enhanced controls on AI technologies.

What does ChatGPT itself say? Caijing reporter queried ChatGPT: as screenshot below shows, ChatGPT says that it’s because OpenAI abides international laws and relevant regulations. In a follow-up response, ChatGPT said that these include regulations related data privacy protections.

My guess is that it’s a mix of the reasons given by ChatGPT itself, Chinese and U.S. experts, and one more: OpenAI’s concerns about the misuse of ChatGPT for influence operations and propaganda.

One last point that I find fascinating: as the above screenshot shows and many screenshots of ChatGPT’s Chinese-language outputs show, the chatbot performs very well in Chinese, despite being trained almost exclusively in English.

A thread by Jan Leike, an OpenAI researcher, further explores this curious phenomenon of cross-linguality in language models.

FULL TRANSLATION: Why doesn’t ChatGPT open access to Chinese users?

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Should-read: Inside the ChatGPT race in China

I talked with Zeyi Yang, for this MIT Technology Review piece, on Chinese efforts to develop ChatGPT. His piece had an excellent summary of how Chinese users have access ChatGPT despite the API restrictions: “Most people who’ve experienced ChatGPT firsthand in China have accessed it through VPNs or paid workarounds—for example, clever entrepreneurs have essentially rented out OpenAI accounts or asked ChatGPT questions on buyers’ behalf, at the price of a few bucks per 20 questions. But even more people are seeing the results through screenshots and short social videos showing ChatGPT’s answers, both of which have swept Chinese social media this week.”

Should-read: U.S. Outbound Investment into Chinese AI Companies

Emily S. Weinstein and Ngor Luong, in a CSET Policy Brief, analyze U.S. investments into Chinese AI companies, based on Crunchbase data from 2015-2021. They find: “167 U.S. investors participated in 401 investment transactions—or 17 percent of 2,299 global investment transactions—into Chinese AI companies.”

Should-watch: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing (Feb 24)

I’ll be testifying in front of this Congressionally-mandated commission this upcoming Friday. The hearing’s subject: “China’s Challenges and Capabilities in Educating and Training the Next Generation Workforce.” Excited to hear from my co-panelists, Anna B. Puglisi, senior fellow at CSET, and Xin Xu, Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Higher Education, University of Oxford. That link will have a livestream of the hearing.

Should-read: Glow AI Chatbot has millions of Chinese users (in Chinese)

I considered translating this as the feature article this week. QBitAI reports on the very popular Glow app, created by Minimax, an intriguing company co-founded by Yan Junjie, former VP at SenseTime.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding’s (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University.

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