China's Big AI Advantage: Humans

In the booming field of artificial intelligence, cheap labor to process data may be the only edge China has over the U.S.

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ZIBO, China — The guy behind the wheel of the self-driving truck on a testing course here sits back as the vehicle detects a slow-moving car ahead and shifts lanes to pass it. It seems like the truck is making its own decisions, but “intelligent” devices like these aren’t actually all that intelligent. In order to avoid plowing into other cars or making illegal lane changes, they need a lot of help.


In China, that help is increasingly coming from rooms full of college students, like Li Zhenwei, processing massive amounts of data that effectively creates the "intelligence" for autonomous vehicles. Li's rather tedious job as a data labeler, which didn’t even exist a few years ago, involves sitting at a computer, clicking frame-by-frame through endless hours of dashcam footage, and drawing lines on the images to help the computer recognize lane markers and other elements on the road.

“Every good-looking field has people working behind the scenes,” says Li. “I'd prefer to be an anonymous hero.”

Li and many of his classmates at a local vocational school are benefiting from the Chinese government’s push to an economy based less on heavy industry and more on high tech. Li doesn’t have a degree in computer science, so for him, this is a new opportunity to get a foot in the door of a booming tech industry and earn some money while he's at it.

VICE News went to Zibo, China, to find out what it’s like to work in an AI "factory" that cranks out data.

This segment originally aired May 30, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.