In recent months, there has been much discussion of the impact of advances in artificial intelligence technology, in particular ChatGPT. The appearance of the AI-powered chatbot sparked global disruption that caught tech companies – from Google in the US to Baidu in China – off guard.
At the government level, the UK issued a pro-innovation policy paper on regulation of artificial intelligence in March following the release of a national AI strategy in 2021. In comparison, Hong Kong has an innovation and technology blueprint, which makes reference to AI, and this year’s budget proposes establishing an AI supercomputing centre, but the city needs a more targeted approach to AI development.
The choices of the city’s universities are instructive here. In February, the University of Hong Kong said the use of ChatGPT or similar tools in classwork, coursework and assessments, without prior approval, would be treated as plagiarism during the current semester. Chinese University has adopted a similar approach. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has left the decision to instructors.
Former Hong Kong financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah criticised universities banning the use of the technology, saying, “The current education situation in Hong Kong is teachers of the 20th century using a curriculum from the 19th century to train students in the 21st century.”
The response of Hong Kong’s universities not only reflects the city’s unpreparedness to embrace revolutionary technology but also its lack of a framework to address technological innovation.
In late February, Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong said the government plans to set up a task force to grapple with the opportunities and challenges posed by ChatGPT, and eventually develop a home-grown version. Since then, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has said it is monitoring the risk of personal data leaks via generative AI applications.
However, no follow-up action on the government task force has been reported, nor has the government explained how the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau will work with other branches of government, and public and private institutions, to use the new AI tool for the city’s benefit.
The development of AI technology will not wait for the Hong Kong government to set up its committee and do research. The government should publish its own policy paper, setting out the context in the city and which fields can benefit from AI.
The city will fall even further behind if it waits to think about how it can fit into the supply chain led by mainland China. Only by developing an AI industry based on Hong Kong’s own needs first can it can help the country achieve its goals.
The government needs to establish a coordinating mechanism to connect decision makers, big and small, in the communications industry, and initiate regular meetings of leaders from various sectors at different levels to promote collaboration.
Although the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau has set up a committee which includes industry representatives, it is missing voices from smaller firms. The city’s lack of preparedness in the face of ChatGPT shows that an organisation dedicated to practical affairs is sorely needed.
A regulatory and policy framework is only a starting point. The more pressing issue is how Hong Kong can refine its start-up investment strategy to fund revolutionary ideas. The city’s long-standing conservative attitude to investment is a challenge because backing revolutionary technology involves taking a risk.
Most start-ups and new innovations fail. Is the Hong Kong government willing to risk losing its investment? That would be a sign that it is serious about its promise to develop its AI tech industry, in the absence of large local tech companies or a mature venture capital ecosystem to fund start-ups, as in the United States.
It is time for Hong Kong to show scientists, engineers and other innovators around the world how much support it is willing to give and how much risk it is willing to take to build a strong AI industry.