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Korea advised to keep balance in US-China AI rivalry

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Concerns that China could overtake the United States in artificial intelligence (AI) loom over key policy talks and discussions of the rapidly emerging technology in Washington.

China is indeed the U.S.’s chief competitor in terms of releasing top AI research papers, implementing the technology across industries and deploying its domestic surveillance apparatus. Specifically, when it comes to specifying ideas about building the most advanced AI models, China has been a fast follower behind U.S. laboratories.

Regarding the essence of today’s competition between the world’s two largest economies over AI leadership, some political experts said both Washington and Beijing should prepare for the long term. Both sides will be equipped with advanced AI systems, and experts noted that the technology has the potential to cause disasters if not managed properly, particularly as systems become ever more deeply woven into the two’s economies and militaries.

The OpenAI logo is seen on a smartphone in front of a computer screen displaying output from ChatGPT, March 21, in Boston. AP-Yonhap
Yobi founder Ahmed Reza, left, and CJ&CO founder Casey Jones / Courtesy of each company

But the core point is that the Joe Biden administration is aiming to target China’s development of specific types of AI tech, especially generative AI, as the U.S. believes AI could benefit China’s military modernization and could also enhance Chinese firms’ ability to see breakthroughs in generative AI. Precisely, generative AI relates to applications such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which are able to create content when prompted by users.

Within the geopolitical context and significance of AI, Korea could take a huge role in terms of backing both Chinese and U.S. efforts in building constructive AI-related ecosystems. Simply, AI requires large amounts of data to be effective.

While NVIDIA of the U.S. is taking more than 80 percent of the global consumption of generative AI chips, Korea’s Samsung Electronics and SK hynix are highly considered as another hidden force with the potential to hamper or lift China’s AI industry. Assistance from Samsung and SK could help China better circumvent U.S. controls in chips that could enable the country to develop methods to train AI models on better chips.

Speaking to The Korea Times, two global AI experts advised Seoul to maintain balance as global AI development is still in its early stage.

“As a powerhouse in memory chips and with leading companies like Samsung and SK, Korea can significantly support the U.S.’s efforts to lead in AI ecosystems,” Ahmed Reza, CEO and founder of San Jose-based Yobi, said in a recent interview. “But leveraging its expertise in semiconductor technology and collaborating with the U.S., Korea can contribute to developing advanced AI hardware and software solutions. But it’s important to strike a balance between collaboration and maintaining a competitive edge, considering the global nature of AI development.”

Yobi is an AI communications platform designed to help improve sales, marketing and customer service teams. Prior to establishing Yobi, Reza was a software engineer at NASA who played a role in designing and launching the Mars Rover.

Regarding questions seeking assessment of Seoul’s comprehensive efforts for AI technology, Reza said Korea has made significant strides in establishing itself as an AI powerhouse. “The government has shown strong commitment by investing heavily in AI research and development (R&D), fostering collaboration between academia and industry and creating an enabling environment for AI startups to thrive.”

Separately, Casey Jones, founder of CJ&CO, an Australia-based digital marketing company, said Korea “should preserve its economic cooperation and relationship with China on AI by pursuing the country’s own interests and values in developing AI.”

The OpenAI logo is seen on a smartphone in front of a computer screen displaying output from ChatGPT, March 21, in Boston. AP-Yonhap
Members of the Writers Guild of America East are joined by SAG-AFTRA members as they both hold up signs picketing outside of Warner Bros. Discovery’s office, July 13, in New York City. SAG-AFTRA, representing 160,000 television and movie actors, is set to strike, joining screenwriters who have been picketing since May due to a range of issues including pay and the use of artificial intelligence. UPI-Yonhap

Korea’s baseline for the country’s role amid U.S.-China rivalry in AI is, according to Jones, to maintain a strategic alliance with the U.S. in AI by supporting Washington’s efforts to lead Beijing in creating AI ecosystems. “This could include collaborating on R&D, regulation, governance and infrastructure, as well as sharing norms, intelligence, resources and information.”

Both of them highlighted AI technology has the huge potential to revolutionize various industries. “The future of AI holds immense possibilities for advancements in healthcare, transportation and finance,” according to the Yobi founder Reza. Jones also remained positive about the development of AI in terms of complexity, scalability and applicability.

International cooperation

The two AI experts do not question that a national strategy is most important for Korea to harness the full potential of AI technology as a national strategy would help monitor the development and performance of AI against national benchmarks and indicators.

“This is because AI is a strategic and competitive asset and resource that can undermine not only countries’ economic and social development but its national security and influence, as well,” said the CJ&CO founder, Jones.

With indirect assistance from the government, Korea’s dominant web portal Naver is on track to release its own generative AI model, HyperCLOVA X, in August this year at the earliest. The company’s CEO Choi Soo-yeon described Microsoft and Google AI tools as “a threat the likes of which we (Naver) have never seen before.”

The OpenAI logo is seen on a smartphone in front of a computer screen displaying output from ChatGPT, March 21, in Boston. AP-Yonhap
European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton speaks at a media conference on the EU’s approach to Artificial Intelligence following a weekly meeting of the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium, April 21, 2021. Reuters-Yonhap

Stressing Korea’s moves to enact the so-called AI Act, which is aimed at governing and regulating the AI industry, Reza said he views the legislation as a “significant step” towards regulating the AI industry. “The AI Act will enhance trust in AI technologies and promote responsible AI development if enacted. In a rapidly evolving AI landscape, such legislation is necessary to safeguard the interests of all stakeholders,” the Yobi CEO added.

Citing the EU’s recent moves to pass a draft law known as the AI Act, Jones said while he understands the necessity of having steps in place for AI regulation, Korea’s AI Act could possibly hurt the country’s key competitiveness in the industry if it is not aligned or harmonized with the EU’s regulations or other international standards.

“This is because it could create barriers or challenges for Korea to access or participate in the EU’s or other markets’ platforms for AI. It would also limit or restrict Korea’s ability or flexibility to innovate or adapt to the changing needs or demands of the AI industry. I think Korea should engage or cooperate with the EU and other countries or organizations on AI regulation to ensure compatibility and even interoperability of their AI systems and policies,” according to Jones, who is also a contributing writer at Forbes.

Reza went on to say that collaborative efforts with the EU and other global stakeholders can help establish common standards and even frameworks that promote data sovereignty and competitiveness.

“Practical guidelines for building ethical AI should address data privacy and security concerns, ensuring that AI tech is developed and deployed in a manner that respects user rights,” he added.

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