China’s ChatGPT Black Market Is Thriving

“The high-context nature of Chinese language used to create hurdles in natural language processing,” says Thomas Qitong Cao, a PhD candidate at Stanford University who studies political behaviour and the internet. “But the gap between languages has significantly closed in the era of pretrained large language models.”

Cao says the challenges of training Chinese-language AI models test the size and quality of data sets, as well as computing power. 

Companies will also have to contend with the government’s censorship of subjects it considers sensitive. Social media platforms in China already employ a combination of algorithms and human moderators to monitor content and remove anything that breaches the government’s constantly moving rules for what is and isn’t allowed.

Tech companies will need to closely monitor the output of chatbots, a task that will probably involve employing human moderators. “It is likely that we will see this type of human-reliant censorship, in combination with other tactics like keywords blocking, being used in public-facing chatbots,” Cao says.

An investigation by Time found that OpenAI is paying Kenyan workers less than $2 an hour to make ChatGPT less toxic. 

However, the nature of chatbots, whose output cannot always be anticipated or controlled by their creators, means it’s inevitable that companies will run into trouble, according to the Carnegie Endowment’s Sheehan. 

“[There are] two public AI laws focusing on recommendation algorithms and deepfakes, respectively, which demonstrates that the Chinese government has a top priority monitoring the content people consume online,” Sheehan says. “AI-generated content falls into this category, and it would be expected that the companies who try to create their own ChatGPTs will run into problems with the Cyberspace Administration of China.”

Chinese tech platforms have begun to crack down on black market ChatGPT access. By late February, WIRED found that the keywords “ChatGPT” and “OpenAI” have been banned on Taobao. On WeChat, “ChatGPT Online” and similar services have rebranded to neutral-sounding names like “AI Smart Chat.”

The intermediaries depend on APIs (which offer programmers access to the backend of the ChatGPT system) and on bulk-registered accounts. “These intermediaries profit by relaying ChatGPT’s service to users who do not have direct access. Just in this process alone, the parties involved would have violated ChatGPT’s terms and conditions, and other related trademarks and applicable patents,” says Ivan Wang, a New York-based IP attorney.

Data showing the number of ChatGPT users in China who managed to find workarounds to the restrictions is not available, but the proliferation of under-the-table access points has at least provided some use cases for generative AI. 

Echo Liu, a tech product manager, paid 189 RMB ($27.50) for an OpenAI account with ChatGPT Plus, a pilot subscription service that gives users prioritized access. “I am particularly astounded by the ability of ChatGPT to explain complex language in plain language,” she says. Liu upgraded to ChatGPT Plus after experiencing lags in response while talking to ChatGPT in Chinese, and she is now trying to learn coding through it. 

A number of small entrepreneurs selling overseas have already integrated ChatGPT into their day-to-day work. 

Tao Ye, owner of a global logistics service called OL Warehouse, tells WIRED that his company has already started using ChatGPT in customer queries at a small scale. “We are experimenting with letting ChatGPT write customer service messages, and it has been producing good results,” he says. 

Rachel, who runs a small ecommerce site aimed at English-speaking audiences and asked to be identified by her first name only to avoid official scrutiny, says she has used the system to help draft copy. On Chinese lifestyle social media platform RED, Rachel’s post sharing how to integrate ChatGPT in cross-border ecommerce has been liked over 2,000 times. She used to hire a freelance writer based in India on the microtasking site Fiverr to write her blog posts for $20 apiece, but she has now decided to switch to using ChatGPT completely. 

“Writing product descriptions and blog posts in proper English used to be a pain for me,” she says. “ChatGPT has now drastically sped up our listing process and communication.”

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