14 Nov 2019

China’s AI and Robotics Arms Race

From judgebots to Intellectual Property to killer robots, China is pushing the legal boundaries of AI and robotics as it fights for market share and power.

By David Cowan

vectorsector / Shutterstock.com


This year, for the first time, China has started using AI-assistive technology in a trial, beginning with the Shanghai No 2 Intermediate People's Court. When the judge, public prosecutor or defender interrogate the AI system, it displays all related evidence on a screen in the courtroom. Vice-president of the Beijing Internet Court Li Jingwei proudly unveiled the new service at the launching ceremony by proclaiming the AI judge was “the first of its kind in the world.” 

The court president Zhang Wen explained the court is striving to do two big things. First, it is integrating the internet, cloud computing and AI with judicial trials and the litigation service system. Second, he explained the Beijing Internet Court mission is to use new technology to provide more effective and widely-reaching public services, allowing the public to reap the benefits of technological innovation in China. 

Mr Zhang said the new platform is part of a broader goal of pushing the boundaries of human-machine collaboration, with robots and other forms of AI being used in China for a wide range of tasks, from his court’s judgebots through to sorting ecommerce parcels and performing maintenance on bullet trains. Chinese courts had been using AI assistance since before the new judgebot, but this involvement has generally consisted of presentation of case-related evidence and research assistance.

New platform

This new platform features an artificially intelligent female judge, with a body, facial expressions, voice, and actions all modeled off a real human being. In fact, the model used was one of the court’s current female judges. The virtual judge is only being used, at this stage, for the completion of “repetitive basic work”, according to the Beijing Internet Court’s official statement on the deployment. Other features of the online service center include a mobile micro-court and an official Weitao account, which is the Taobao social-media service.

Mr Zhang says the court will these increase efforts to accommodate people's judicial needs and the law-based governance of cyberspace. Xu Jianfeng, director of the Information Center of the Supreme People's Court, said that Beijing Internet Court should play a more prominent role in the construction of the national intelligent court with advanced technologies and expert resources and in pushing the integration of judicial work and technologies. 

Mr Xu reiterated that the development of the Beijing Internet Court will not only make the process of dispute settlement more efficient, but will also have a far-reaching impact on Chinese people's awareness of the rule of law and its progress in China. Mr Wen believes that as a pioneer in cyberspace governance, the Beijing Internet Court is playing an important role in the rule-making and governance of internet space as well as the protection of internet technologies and industries. 

The court has also issued a broader whitepaper on the judicial application of internet technologies, which was released through the Internet Technology Judicial Application Center. The court judicial applications of mobile microcourts, screen sharing, intelligent trial applications, and Balance blockchain are all explored. The whitepaper introduces the basic ideas, fundamental goals, characteristic mechanisms and achievements of Beijing Internet Court's information construction in six aspects, She Guiqing, member of Beijing Internet Court Leading Party Members' Group said. The whitepaper outlines ten typical technology applications, which Mr She said gives full play to the scientific and technological advantages of integration and upgrading, whilst adding judicial wisdom and distinctive experience to innovate further the new judicial platform.

ICJ visit

International recognition came ahead of the launch, with the visit of Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) along with ICJ vice-president Xue Hanqin and two other officials, to the Beijing Internet Court. They visited the online lawsuit experience zone, online courtrooms and the case filing hall of the Beijing Internet Court, and were given a full tour of technologies applied in the smart court, including a facial recognition system, a voice recognition system, e-signatures, blockchain technology, smart court filing generation equipment as well as AI virtual judges. 

During the meeting, Mr Yusuf applauded the Beijing Internet Court for their mode of whole-process online case handling, saying that the court, with its openness and pioneering spirit, has laid the groundwork for the future mode of judicial activities. He suggested that the court should enhance its global self-promotion so that legal practitioners around the world could benefit from its experience.

First robots

Before the No 2 court deployment, Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's already had a more general purpose robot. Called Xiaofa, the robot is 1.46 meters tall and provides legal advice and guidance in a child's voice. “Xiaofa explains complicated legal terms in everyday language to help the public better understand legal definitions,” says Du Xiangyang, founder and CEO of AEGIS Data, which designed Xiaofa. 

Mr Du explains, “We used a child's voice to ease the tense emotions of litigants who come here for help.” The robot can move its head and wave its hands as instructions show up on screen, and can guide people to the exact service window for litigation services. Over 40,000 litigation questions and 30,000 legal issues can be answered by the robot, according to the court.

Back in October 2016, China's first AI legal robot, Faxiaotao, was unveiled in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, attracting visitors from home and abroad. Faxiaotao can help people analyze the best way to solve a dispute, and also assist them in selecting which attorneys are suitable to accept the case, according to the robot's designer, Itslaw, a company that combines internet technology with law. Faxiaotao will recognize the type of case it is and then analyze its database for suitable lawyers who have dealt with similar disputes. Over 300,000 attorneys across the country were listed in the Itslaw database last year, and when a query is made it selects the best three options, the company explains.

Before the robot was introduced, it was tested by legal professionals and The Supreme People's Court has since ordered Chinese courts at all levels to build technology-friendly systems and explore the use of big data and AI to help judges and litigants search documents and resolve cases. An internal intelligent system now covers 3,520 courts across the country, giving the courts access to a great deal of information online. Ma Laike, deputy head of Beijing No 1 Intermediate People's Court, applauds the court’s programme to build a “smart” court system: “Interaction between humans and machines has improved immensely. It will decrease the cost of litigation, save trial resources and improve the efficiency of justice.”

Ambitious goals

Twelve years ago, as a national long-term strategic goal, China crafted 5-year plans with specific goals to encourage the use of robots in manufacturing to enhance quality and reduce the need for unskilled labor, and to establish the manufacture of robots in-country to reduce the reliance on foreign suppliers. Now in the third 5-year plan, robot and component manufacturers have grown from fewer than 10 to over 700. China has now turned its focus to artificial intelligence, with a three-pronged plan to catch up by 2020 and achieve mid-term parity in autonomous vehicles, image recognition and, perhaps, simultaneous translation by 2025. The ambition is to lead the world in AI and machine learning by 2030.

However, in 2018 China’s industrial robot market shrank for the first time in 2018, with continuing industry consolidation. The market shrank 3.75% in 2018, breaking a growth streak of five consecutive years, said Xin Guobin, vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. From 2013 to 2017, China had been the fastest growing market for industrial robotics, even as the global market grew at a double-digit growth rate during the five-year period, Mr Xin said in remarks to the 2019 World Robot Conference. 

Mr Xin said the market downturn was primarily the result of sluggish growth in downstream industries such as automotive and electronics, where robots have been in heavy use. A deteriorating international trade environment and a slowing economy worldwide haven’t helped either, he said. The contraction in China had a knock-on effect in the global market for industrial robotics, causing growth to slow to about 1%.  

IP wars

However, one challenge is intellectual property, where heavy-handed partnerships and joint ventures mean IP must be given to the Chinese venture. Steve Dickinson, a lawyer with Harris/Bricken, a Seattle law firm wrote, “With respect to appropriating the technology and then selling it back into the developed market from which it came: that is of course the Chinese strategy. It is the strategy of businesses in every developing country. The U.S. followed this approach during the entire 19th and early 20th centuries. Japan and Korea and Taiwan did it with great success in the post-WWII era. That is how technical progress is made.”

Mr Dickinson states, “It is clear that appropriating foreign AI technology is the goal of every Chinese company operating in this sector [robotics, e-commerce, logistics and manufacturing]. For that reason, all foreign entities that work with Chinese companies in any way must be aware of the significant risk and must take the steps required to protect themselves.”

However, in 2018 China a draft law protecting foreign intellectual property and prohibiting forced technology transfer was accelerated by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to address major concerns voiced by United States. The new legislation updates the previous version released in 2015, which was never enacted. The draft law stipulates that all government support policies will also apply to foreign funded firms, who will get an equal opportunity to join the process of making standards and also take part in the government procurement.

Unveiling the draft law, justice minister Fu Zhenghua explained the government will now rely on a “negative list,” which lists projects or areas in which foreign investment is prohibited, instead of a project-by-project approval process or annually released investment catalogue. Although the government will still have the right to expropriate the property of foreign investors under special circumstances, the new draft law requires that the process must be done through legal procedures and include “fair and reasonable” compensation.

Mr Fu stated, “China encourages technology cooperation based on voluntarily agreed terms and business practices. The terms should be negotiated by the investors and administrative measures forcing technology transfer are prohibited.” However, it remains unclear how long it will take for the law to be passed and implemented. Additionally, foreign firms will still face other obstacles to defend their intellectual property rights. 


There are words of caution, in respect to the social impact of the proliferation of robots in the country. “There is a risk that you sacrifice quality for quantity,” according to Jeffrey Ding, researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University. Dr Ding explains there are concerns about how AI and robotics could exacerbate a growing social and wealth divide, “There’s also an emerging pushback in China against violations of privacy,” he says. “A national survey, called the China Economic Life Survey, found nearly 80% of Chinese consumers said they felt the development of AI would present a serious threat to their privacy.”

China , as noted earlier, still lags behind the United States in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and autonomous driving. “When it comes to artificial intelligence, we're indeed at a weak stage, where it is merely about visual and voice technologies," said Mr Jia Zhipeng, vice-president of government affairs at Horizon Robotics, an AI chip maker. However, industry figures believe that China's biggest advantage is its abundance of data and variety of opportunities for innovation. 

Mr Jia notes there is a lot more scope for AI technologies to be applied in China: “We have such a big market and so many people.” For example, AI can be used “to improve urban planning, security and retail, and to inject vitality into these traditional industries,” and “the data collected from these different industries can, in turn, be used to help improve and advance AI technologies.” 

However, Shang Guobin of Baidu Intelligent Driving Group is less optimistic. He suggests it is a fallacy to think that China can rival the US in terms of AI, just because it has a lot of data, capital and AI talent to match: “Frankly speaking, in China, there is a big gap compared with the United States in areas including autonomous driving. For example, the chips that we use in autonomous driving are still basically made in the US.” He argues that China's competitive edge lies in helping companies bring their technologies, such as autonomous driving, to the market, and that besides data China has a large number of scenarios where these technologies can be applied, tried and tested.

Military applications

There is, of course, also the military dimension to consider with China and the US fighting a major battle over killer robots and the future of AI. Laura Nolan of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, believes that Russia’s attempts to derail progress on tackling killer robots had China as a “quieter partner.” Ms Nolan says, “I very much get the impression that they’re working together in some way,” adding the Chinese “are letting the Russians steamroll the process, and they’re happy to hang back.”

At these discussions Chinese delegates have a reputation for contributing the bare minimum, and being ambiguous by, on the one hand, calling killer robots a “humanitarian concern,” but on the other have watering down the text under debate. According to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, last year China joined 28 other states in saying it would support prohibiting fully autonomous weapons, but this was qualified by Beijing that it just applied to their use on the battlefield, not their development or production. Peter Singer, a specialist on 21st century warfare, claims, “They’re simultaneously working on the technology while trying to use international law as a limit against their competitors.”

President Xi Jinping call for the country to become a world leader in AI by 2030, placed military innovation at the center of the program. He encouraged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to work with startups in the private sector, and in research with universities. Like other states, China is developing intelligent weapons in a context of technology fast outpacing UN processes, which mean that without any clear international legal parameters the major military bodies are under pressure to invest in autonomous capabilities on the assumption that everyone else is doing it. The concern is this will lead to an AI and robotics arms race, and as Daan Kayser of European peace organization PAX muses, “An AI arms race would have no winners.” 


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