Chinese regulators have reportedly tightened their grip on access to ChatGPT as Chinese tech firms and universities accelerate their development of domestic artificial intelligence bots. This move is part of the Chinese government’s comprehensive firewall and strict internet censorship, as it tries to develop its AI industry while protecting its national interests.
Despite not being officially available in China, many people had been accessing ChatGPT via VPNs, and some third-party developers had produced programs that gave some access to the service. However, those programs have now disappeared from WeChat accounts, and major tech firms including Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, and Ant Group have been ordered to cut access to the programs. Searches for ChatGPT on Chinese platforms no longer returned results, while workaround programs had been disabled or replaced with a notice saying they had been suspended for “violating relevant laws and regulations,” according to the South China Morning Post.
Earlier this week, state media had warned of the potential dangers of ChatGPT as a tool for the US to “spread false information.”When asked about Xinjiang, ChatGPT always returned answers “consistent with the political propaganda of the US government that there is so-called ‘genocide’.” The Chinese government has been accused of committing mass human rights violations in Xinjiang, which it denies.
Dr. Ilaria Carrozza, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said that this crackdown was not surprising. She said that OpenAI didn’t allow people in China to register, so there were some barriers, but it wasn’t fully blocked. However, the model is trained on open information based in western countries, which potentially raises a lot of issues for the Chinese government because people could have used it to raise questions about sensitive topics, like human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu islands.
With ChatGPT access now cut off for Chinese consumers, and no equivalent domestic replacement, there is now an unanswered demand in China. The industry is still reeling from two years of heavy regulatory interventions.
“They face a dilemma – they want to reassure investors and consumers that they’re developing as fast as other tech companies in the world, but they also don’t want to upset the government,” said Carrozza. “It’s quite difficult for these companies to navigate these environments and propose products that aren’t going to be immediately shut down.”
Chinese social and state media have been filled with reports of tests of the technology and discussions of its use in academic and other settings. Plato, a chatbot released by Baidu in 2021, drew unfavorable comparisons on social media after it failed to match up to the new US-created entrant, according to a translation by ChinaTalk. In one widely shared example, Plato became fixated on saying “3+5=5,” while a ChatGPT-scripted fake government notice announcing the end of anti-congestion traffic regulations caught many people out in Hangzhou.
Baidu, Alibaba, JD.com, and Tencent are among dozens of firms and universities to have announced plans for AI chatbots. Baidu’s program, named Ernie Bot, is considered to be the most advanced in development, with a launch expected in March.
The Baidu CEO, Robin Li, told reporters this week that the company had spent years developing large language models that were trained on its billions of daily search engine requests. He also said that Ernie Bot was “state of the art” among large AI-driven language models in terms of understanding China’s language and culture.