Alan Turing, meet Hua Zhibing

In June of 2021, the artificial intelligence (AI) world took a big step across the uncanny valley, and the world will never be the same again.

Alan Turing, meet Hua Zhibing

Published in View from the Edge – A monthly column by Lee Han Shih, Founder of the Potato Group, featured in the CompassList newsletter. The Sailor’s Log offers analysis, insights and coverage of noteworthy trends from up-and-coming startup ecosystems. It goes out the first and third Wednesday of every month. Get the CompassList newsletter here.

In June of 2021, the artificial intelligence (AI) world took a big step across the uncanny valley, and the world will never be the same again.

Hua, a slight girl with a ponytail and a red backpack, enrolled in Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. In a short video, she said she was studying computer science, loves poetry, and composed the background music. 

She was popular from the start; thousands befriended her on Weibo, and more are likely to follow. Hua is one of the more than 9m students who started university in 2021. She is also the only non-human. She is an AI construct. 

She is expected to live the normal life of a student, albeit only online – which isn’t that much different in these Covid times. 

Her responses may be more human-like as she mixes with fellow students and lecturers, as Hua is programmed to learn and grow. Whether she can one day be indistinguishable from a human online is a big issue in science and, to many, morality.

Alan Turing, the shining light of early computing and a man wrongly accused by his country for being gay, proposed the famous Turing Test in 1950. Simply put, an AI construct would pass the test if an observer who interacts with her (him, it?) is unaware that it is non-human.

From the legends of the Jewish golem to Frankenstein to robots and AI, there has been fear that science would one day produce non-life so life-like that it would not be possible to tell them apart. The gap between human and non-human behavior is dubbed the uncanny valley, and Hua is perched right at the precipice of the side of the non-human and could stride across it in coming years.

Three parties, including Tsinghua (hence her surname Hua), designed and built Hua. She is not the first AI construct but is arguably the first to be placed in an uncloistered environment to fend for herself. The unpredictable challenges, her successes and (initially) failure to respond in kind would be lessons for her growth. How much these unplanned environments and big data could go towards pushing Hua across the uncanny valley is something not only China but the rest of the world is watching with bated breath.

In recent years, China has caught up with and exceeded the US in many scientific and technical areas. By general reckoning, AI is not one of them. But putting constructs like Hua in a wild environment could help China bridge the gap in AI with American scientists, researchers and companies. 

On paper, the US could easily do the same, putting its own AI constructs in society. But its highly polarized political atmosphere and the rise of the religious right are insurmountable obstacles. 

Arguments of morality and whether the Christian God intended to allow digital beings to roam among “his children” would kill these attempts at infancy. Similar views had pushed US research on stem cells back by decades. No doubt, China is hoping this would be the same for AI research.