China's Tech Giants Are Launching ChatGPT Clones — and Beijing Is Watching Closely

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  • Chinese technology giants from Alibaba to Baidu have announced their intentions to launch ChatGPT-style products.
  • But announcements from China's biggest firms have not declared they are working on a free-for-all ChatGPT-esque chatbot, a move which could worry Beijing, which heavily censors internet content.
  • Instead, companies have spoken about the technology in application-specific scenarios, taking a more circumspect approach.

Chinese technology giants over the past week have announced their intentions to launch ChatGPT-style products, joining the artificial intelligence arms race sparked by the popular chatbot.



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But announcements from China's biggest firms have not said they are working on all-encompassing platforms like the U.S.' ChatGPT, a move which could worry Beijing which heavily censors internet content. Instead, companies from Alibaba to NetEase have spoken about the technology in application-specific scenarios.

"Given all the regulatory focus on both tech platforms and AI algorithms over the past year by a range of government bodies, the big tech platforms are not eager to draw attention to themselves by putting out a chatbot/generative AI tool that gets them in hot water," Paul Triolo, the technology policy lead at consulting firm Albright Stonebridge, told CNBC.

ChatGPT is developed by U.S. firm OpenAI. The product allows people to type questions and receive answers on a huge range of topics. It is an example of generative AI, which is trained on huge amounts of data, and can generate text-based responses or even images.

Chinese authorities have heavy control over internet content, often blocking sites or censoring content that does not sit well with Beijing. ChatGPT is not officially blocked in China but OpenAI does not allow users in the country to sign up.

The fact that ChatGPT will answer questions on sensitive topics in China is likely a concern to Beijing's authorities.

"ChatGPT poses some unique challenges for Beijing. The app, trained on western uncensored data, represents a more powerful type of search engine than Google or others that are also uncensored outside of China," Triolo said, adding that he "would not be surprised" if the service was eventually blocked in the world's second-largest economy.

China's ChatGPT response

Baidu, Alibaba, and NetEase, some of China's biggest tech firms, have in the last week announced their plans for ChatGPT rivals. It comes after two years of intense scrutiny from Chinese regulators on the country's technology firms, that has seen the introduction of new regulation covering issues such as antitrust and data protection.

Chinese technology firms have had to adapt to a new regulatory situation and their announcements around their ChatGPT responses, which have been circumspect, reflect that reality.

Alibaba announced via its cloud division that it is working on a ChatGPT-style of technology that could be integrated into its cloud computing products. NetEase meanwhile said that its education subsidiary Youdao has been working on generative AI, adding that the technology could be integrated into some of its education products.

Chinese e-commerce firm said it will release an "industrial version" of ChatGPT called ChatJD that will focus on applications in the retail and finance industry.

The big firms have focused very much on enterprise applications and have been quite specific as they try to strike a balance between investing in key technology while trying to avoid rocking the political boat.

"In their responses, these tech giants face a dilemma: on the one hand they need to convince consumers and investors that they are not lagging behind in the development of the new technology," Xin Sun, senior lecturer in Chinese and East Asian business at King's College London, told CNBC via email.

"On the other hand, they also need to be extremely cautious to avoid being perceived by the government as developing new products, services and business models that could raise new political and security concerns for the party-state (or even cause radical changes to the existing regulatory landscape)."

Such a balancing act could mean that the use of ChatGPT-style technology in China may look different to the U.S., given the unique internet landscape there.

Regulatory question marks

Artificial intelligence development remains a key priority for China as it continues its technology competition with the U.S.

But at the same time, regulators have tried to keep oversight over the way the technology is being used. And that's the current balance Beijing is trying to strike.

Last month, China introduced first-of-its-kind regulation on so-called deep synthesis technology, which are synthetically generated or altered images, videos or text that are made using a form of artificial intelligence. The regulation is overseen by the increasingly powerful Cyberspace Administration of China.

Last year, the CAC also introduced rules that govern the way companies operate recommendation algorithms. One of the requirements is that companies need to file details of their algorithms with the cyberspace regulator.

Such regulations could apply to any kind of ChatGPT-style of technology.

"The 'Deep Syntheses Tech' regulation broadly covers the algorithms dealing with multiple-dimension of data and information. Together with the earlier CAC algorithm rule, it's very likely that ChatGPT-like algorithms in China will need to be registered and supervised by the CAC," Winston Ma, adjunct professor of law at the New York University School of Law, told CNBC via email.

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