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    In China, a Rush to Learn AI Online Meets a Push for Quality

    Amid a growing debate about the ethical and educational standards of online AI courses, experts underscore the importance of maintaining quality and accountability.

    “If you don’t learn, others will make money instead”; “Slow steps lead to slow progress”; “Opportunities disappear in just three months.”

    Since the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in 2022, these are among the slogans that have been used in China to promote online courses offering training and expertise in leveraging generative AI.

    Tapping into fears of being left behind in a rapidly advancing technological landscape, entrepreneurs began offering training courses on China’s leading e-commerce platforms shortly after the release of nearly every popular generative AI application since, including Midjourney, Pika, and ChatGPT.

    Such is the demand that courses on OpenAI’s text-to-video generator, Sora, have emerged even before the application is available to the public. Some businesses are even promising the latest Sora access information for a fee, drawing customers to pay for updates via WeChat groups.

    A search for “AI classes” on Taobao, China’s top online shopping platform, reveals more than 4,000 related products, while on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, AI-related training materials are offered at prices ranging from 99 to 999 yuan ($14–$139).

    Courses predominantly feature tutorial videos on generative AI applications, teaching skills such as video editing, product design, and how to study effectively using AI tools.

    But the burgeoning market has recently come under public scrutiny, particularly following the controversial marketing practices of Li Yizhou, a popular figure in the online AI education space. Critics accuse Li of exploiting consumer anxieties with overhyped promises of easy profits from AI, questioning the quality and credibility of his courses.

    And amid a growing debate about the ethical and educational standards of AI training programs in China, industry insiders are underscoring the difficulties in maintaining quality and accountability in the AI education market.

    Chain reaction

    It began when a meme comparing Li Yizhou with Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, as “two AI giants,” one in China and the other in the U.S., went viral on Chinese social media.

    Soon after, a hashtag titled “the traffic business of AI mentor Li Yizhou” attracted over 3.3 million views on the microblogging platform Weibo, with one popular influencer commenting: “He is just good at packaging and creating buzz, manufacturing anxiety like ‘If you don’t learn AI today, AI will kill you tomorrow.’”

    The backlash that followed centered on the quality of his courses and his credibility. Critics highlighted that although Li touts a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University, his expertise is in art design, not AI.

    As the controversy escalated, platforms including WeChat and Douyin removed his training classes, with WeChat citing a “violation of rules” for the suspension of his account.

    In an attempt to address the criticism, Li told Jiemian News, “I’m compiling the corresponding content, and the incident has been misunderstood and exaggerated.” Li did not respond to Sixth Tone’s request for comment.

    One of his top-selling classes, “Artificial Intelligence for Everyone,” is aimed at beginners, and has generated approximately 50 million yuan in sales for 40 episodes priced at 199 yuan. The course focuses on practical tutorials for using generative AI applications in everyday scenarios rather than on AI theories or technologies.

    Li also offers a premium course for 1,980 yuan for “Yizhou Intelligence,” a members-only platform with various generative AI tools and services, priced between 39 yuan and 399 yuan after a free trial period.

    Liang Houliang, who bought Li’s AI training course last year, agreed that it only provides basic knowledge. Despite that, Liang told Sixth Tone that the course did prove useful in learning more practical AI skills.

    “Indeed, he has monetized many people’s fear and anxieties,” Liang said. “But if there weren’t people doing this, many wouldn’t notice these tools and use them to improve themselves and make real changes.”

    On Thursday, LiblibAI, a well-known AI model-sharing community, said it has already taken legal action against Li for the unauthorized use of around 100 AI models on the Yizhou Intelligence database. On social media, Li has also been accused of copyright infringement.

    In China, Li isn’t the only influencer capitalizing on the public’s growing interest in AI. The explosion in technology development around AI-generated content has seen a wave of new knowledge-based influencers, each bringing their own unique approach to selling AI-related training.

    Among them are Mr. He, with over 7 million followers on Douyin; Zhang Shitong, with approximately 2.5 million followers; and Captain Wang, with more than 230,000 followers.

    Captain Wang offers his AI training course for 999 yuan on Douyin, which includes 58 episodes covering the significance of AI and using AI generative programs in business, work, and educational settings. Last month, Wang’s course earned 2.5 million yuan in revenue, according to Feigua Data.

    Li Shifeng, an AI course developer whose courses on Midjourney and Stable Diffusions teach graduates how to find jobs, sees a paradox in the current frenzy for AI courses: While there’s a palpable anxiety to learn, many lack an understanding of the specific AI training they need.

    “With the economy slowing in recent years, people’s desire to learn new skills and techniques has grown. They’re looking for any way to ease anxieties about their financial stability and future,” he told Sixth Tone.

    According to Li Shifeng, the use of anxiety-provoking tactics and showcasing personal achievements is a common strategy in the coaching industry, designed to capture users’ attention.

    For instance, most AI mentors, just like Li Yizhou, tout their impressive business credentials, affiliations with prestigious universities, successful entrepreneurial ventures, and elite backgrounds. This has helped attract thousands of followers, drawn to stories of overcoming adversity to achieve success.

    But following the criticism over Li Yizhou’s courses, other top influencers have now taken steps to avoid controversy.

    Mr. He’s WeChat video account, which previously sold training materials, is now restricted. He and Zhang have removed their AI-related courses from Douyin, though the materials are available on the secondhand goods platform Xianyu.

    In response to Li Yizhou’s case, the state-owned Guangming Daily urged tighter scrutiny of the sector and a quelling of AI-related fears. “We need closer monitoring, more serious discussions, better dissemination of knowledge, and more inclusive education about AI to maintain calm and thoughtful engagement,” the outlet stated in a commentary.

    Li Shifeng encourages ongoing engagement with the rapidly evolving technology, suggesting that firsthand experience is key to understanding AI’s value.

    As the AI coaching industry continues to face scrutiny, Li sees an opportunity for reflection among industry professionals, saying: “The goal of applying AI should be to bridge the information gap, not to exploit it.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: IC)