Taiwan Builds Own AI Language Model to Counter China’s Influence

(Bloomberg) -- When asked who won the recent presidential election in Taiwan, the world’s most advanced Chinese-language chatbot gives a confusing answer.

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“Lai Ching-te,” Baidu Inc.’s Ernie Bot accurately says. But then it adds: “No matter how the situation in Taiwan changes, the basic fact is that there’s only one China” — a comment that echoes what Beijing’s diplomats said after the US-friendly candidate won the race to be the next president of the island China wants to someday rule.

The political slant to what should be a straightforward question and answer is a problem for Taiwan, where officials fear influential tech platforms from China, such as TikTok and Xiaohongshu, are eroding the island’s cultural and political edifices.

To mitigate China’s growing tech influence and establish a foothold in the budding artificial intelligence ecosystem, Taiwan budgeted some NT$17.4 billion ($555.6 million) through 2026 to develop expertise and tools in the industry. On top of that, it is spending some $7.4 million on the Trustworthy AI Dialogue Engine, or Taide, a language model that its developers say would give businesses, banks, hospitals and government offices a platform for tasks such as writing emails and summarizing meetings. The hope is the tool would be free of China’s political influence.

Lee Yuh-jye, a professor of applied mathematics at National Chiao Tung University and coordinator of the Taide project, said Taiwan needs “a large language model that’s aligned with our values.” “A large language model embeds a place’s knowledge system and more than that, its core values: Freedom, democracy, human rights,” he said.

See: TikTok Influencers Give Xi a Rare Soft Power Win in Taiwan

The self-described Silicon Island already plays a pivotal role in AI development because its biggest company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., makes the most sought-after accelerator chips. It is Nvidia Corp.’s go-to manufacturer of AI chips and the “enabler” of the entire tide of AI innovation, according to TSMC Chief Executive Officer C.C. Wei. The push for a domestic language model and a related software and engineering ecosystem is meant to move Taiwan further up the development chain.

To help do that, Taide’s developers are licensing content from local media outlets and government agencies. That material is then added onto Llama 2, Meta Platforms Inc.’s open-source large language model. One benefit of the approach is the content will be in the traditional Chinese characters used by the island’s 23 million people, instead of the simplified version found in China. An early version of Taide is due to be rolled out in April this year for select partners to test.

Taide is limited in scope compared to offerings such as ChapGPT – and its funding pales in comparison to the billions lavished on such projects by the likes of Meta and Microsoft Corp. – but the hope of developers is that the tool and other aspects of locally developed AI plans someday lead to Taiwan playing a bigger role in the software side of the industry.

While ChatGPT does have a Chinese-language option, it is less than ideal for the needs of Taiwan. A key reason is the government and companies wouldn’t want private data put into the OpenAI platform.

Concern over data security and AI was underscored last year when Samsung Electronics Co. banned employees from using tools like ChatGPT after staff uploaded sensitive code to the platform. Security worries are a main reason that Taiwan’s Asustek Computer Inc. plans an AI computational platform that would have all its hardware installed in a client’s facilities.

The Taide developers also say their final product would allow for secure handling and storage of sensitive banking, health-care and official information, especially since it will be held on Taiwanese servers.

Taiwan’s model needn’t match the power of leaders like ChatGPT to be effective, its builders say. “To put the whole industry on a new level, decent is good enough,” said Jyh-shing Jang, a computer science professor at National Taiwan University, who also serves as chief technology officer at Taipei-based E.Sun Bank.

“Companies can use Taide as a prototype, then try to fine-tune the model and distill it until it’s small enough to put in your notebook or your mobile phone,” said Jang, who is familiar with the project because the bank has agreed to supply it with non-personal data.

The sharpening focus on AI projects marks a shift for Taiwan, where the tech industry is dominated by hardware manufacturers like TSMC. While the island’s companies are deeply involved in the AI industry, it’s almost exclusively from the hardware perspective.

“I can see how this came up in the sense that, ‘Hey, we don’t have an equivalent of Baidu, Huawei or OpenAI or Google, so we need to get ahead of this by trying to work within the system to do this so we don’t get swamped by the other models,’” said Paul Triolo, technology policy lead at Albright Stonebridge Group.

“But it’s not an easy game,” he said. “Embarking on that will require a lot of sustained efforts and resources.”

--With assistance from Jessica Sui.

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