Baidu Breaks Off an AI Alliance Amid Strained US-China Ties

AI article image

by Will Knight,  Wired

Thursday, Jun 18, 2020

The search giant was the only Chinese member of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, a US-led effort to foster collaboration on ethical issues.

CHINESE SEARCH GIANT Baidu has left The Partnership on AI (PAI), a US-led effort to foster collaboration on the ethical challenges raised by artificial intelligence.

Baidu is said to have cited the cost of membership and recent financial pressures for the move. But as relations between the US and China worsen, the departure comes amid growing challenges for companies and people in the two countries to collaborate, or find common ground, when it comes to critical technologies like AI.

In a statement, Baidu said it “shares the vision of the Partnership on AI and is committed to promoting the ethical development of AI technologies. We are in discussions about renewing our membership, and remain open to other opportunities to collaborate with industry peers on advancing AI.”

Terah Lyons, executive director of PAI, says the company cited a weaker financial outlook for the decision, adding: “Baidu remains committed to our mission and hopes to be able to resume membership in 2021.”

Still, the withdrawal coincides with increasing criticism of Chinese AI companies, and a more hostile attitude in Washington. The US government has tightened trade restrictions on China’s top AI firms for allegedly supplying technology used for state surveillance. This has not affected Baidu so far.

“The whole issue of China and AI became a hot potato” after Baidu joined PAI, says Paul Triolo, practice head of geotechnology at the Eurasia Group, a think tank. No other Chinese companies have joined.

PAI declined to discuss Baidu’s dues as a member. The organization’s annual report from last year said it projected revenue of $8.1 million. That suggests its 23 for-profit members each contributed in the low to mid six figures. Baidu reported 2019 revenue of $15.4 billion.

Baidu, often referred to as China’s Google, operates the country's biggest web search engine, and has diversified in recent years to focus on AI and related areas including self-driving cars. The company’s Apollo platform for automated vehicles is used by numerous automotive companies in China and elsewhere.

This article first appeared at Wired on June 18, 2020.