Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai made their first appearances at China’s World Internet Conference, bringing star power to a gathering the Chinese government uses to promote strict online censorship.
Apple’s chief executive officer gave a surprise keynote at the opening ceremony on Sunday, calling for future internet and AI technologies to be infused with privacy, security and humanity. The same day, Politburo member Wang Huning called for more aggressive government involvement online to combat terrorism and criminals online, even calling for a global response team to go well beyond China’s borders.
It was Cook’s second appearance in China in two months, following a meeting with President Xi Jinping in October. The iPhone maker has most of its products manufactured in the country and is trying to regain market share in smartphones against local competitors such as Huawei Technologies Co.
“The theme of this conference — developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits — is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said. “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."
The Wuzhen conference, which until this year has had a primarily local presence, is designed to globally promote the country’s vision of a more censored and controlled internet. The attendance of leaders from two of the world’s most valuable tech giants lends credibility to China’s efforts to influence the global internet so it better resembles its own.
Other leading technology executives taking part include Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma, Cisco Systems Inc.’s Chuck Robbins, Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Pony Ma and Baidu Inc. co-founder Robin Li.
Cook’s comments come at a pivotal point for the company’s future in China, which is now its biggest market outside of North America. It relies on the sale of hardware and services in the world’s most populous country to propel revenue and profit growth. But the efforts required to stay in China’s good graces are causing tensions with civil libertarians and politicians at home.
He said Apple’s operations in the country began three decades ago with a handful of employees. Today, it helps support more than 5 million jobs in China, including 1.8 million local mobile app developers, he added.
Apple has come under fire for cooperating with Chinese authorities in removing apps that give users there uncensored communications. In November, Apple complied with government orders to pull Microsoft Corp.’s Skype phone and video service from the Chinese version of its popular app store. Cook used an earnings call with investors to justify such moves, saying it obeyed the laws of the markets where it operates.
“Much has been said of the potential downsides of AI, but I don’t worry about machines thinking like humans. I worry about people thinking like machines,” he said. “We all have to work to infuse technology with humanity, with our values.”
Technology of the future should have openness, creativity and safeguards to protect users while providing privacy and decency, he added.
It’s a goal that, according to Cook’s Chinese hosts, can only be accomplished through more laws and regulations that control what can be shared online. Politburo member Wang called for a global emergency response team that would respond in times of crisis using new and undetermined measures. China goes far beyond censoring content that could support terrorists and criminals. It also blocks Facebook, Twitter and many Western commercial and educational web sites.
“What we propose is we should promote a controllable security and build a new order,” Wang said through a translator. “Cybersecurity is a serious challenge. Cyber crimes and cyber terrorism has grown more rampant. The world’s destiny has become more intertwined in cyberspace.”
Unlike Cook, Google’s Pichai did not deliver a keynote speech and was instead on a panel to discuss the digital economy. Confusion among some of the conference staff on the ground meant many didn’t know when the session would begin — much of the vast hall remained empty partway through the session.
Wuzhen holds special significance for the search giant, whose AI program defeated the world’s top-ranked player of the ancient board-game Go at the same venue earlier this year — a point Pichai alluded to as he promoted the company’s kit of AI software tools called TensorFlow.
“There are many small and medium businesses in China who take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China,” he said. “Technology is giving opportunities at a global scale, driving interconnectedness and cooperation and I think it’s a big trend and I think it’s almost irreversible at this point.”