OpenAI’s latest blunder shows the challenges facing Chinese AI models

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday. Last week’s release of GPT-4o, a new AI “omnimodel” that you can interact with using voice, text, or video, was supposed to be a big moment for OpenAI. But just days later,…
OpenAI’s latest blunder shows the challenges facing Chinese AI models

In fact, among the few long Chinese tokens in GPT-4o that aren’t either pornography or gambling nonsense, two are “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “People’s Republic of China.” The presence of these phrases suggests that a significant part of the training data actually is from Chinese state media writings, where formal, long expressions are extremely common.

OpenAI has historically been very tight-lipped about the data it uses to train its models, and it probably will never tell us how much of its Chinese training database is state media and how much is spam. (OpenAI didn’t respond to MIT Technology Review’s detailed questions sent on Friday.)

But it is not the only company struggling with this problem. People inside China who work in its AI industry agree there’s a lack of quality Chinese text data sets for training LLMs. One reason is that the Chinese internet used to be, and largely remains, divided up by big companies like Tencent and ByteDance. They own most of the social platforms and aren’t going to share their data with competitors or third parties to train LLMs. 

In fact, this is also why search engines, including Google, kinda suck when it comes to searching in Chinese. Since WeChat content can only be searched on WeChat, and content on Douyin (the Chinese TikTok) can only be searched on Douyin, this data is not accessible to a third-party search engine, let alone an LLM. But these are the platforms where actual human conversations are happening, instead of some spam website that keeps trying to draw you into online gambling.

The lack of quality training data is a much bigger problem than the failure to filter out the porn and general nonsense in GPT-4o’s token-training data. If there isn’t an existing data set, AI companies have to put in significant work to identify, source, and curate their own data sets and filter out inappropriate or biased content. 

It doesn’t seem OpenAI did that, which in fairness makes some sense, given that people in China can’t use its AI models anyway. 

Still, there are many people living outside China who want to use AI services in Chinese. And they deserve a product that works properly as much as speakers of any other language do. 

How can we solve the problem of the lack of good Chinese LLM training data? Tell me your idea at