2017 a key year for China’s AI industry as it begins to outperform the US in tech breakthroughs

By Chen Qingqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/13 17:23:39

China’s quest for global AI dominance

A boy holds hands with an AI robot at a conference held in Beijing on August 24. Photo: IC

China and the US are now the two world leaders in pursuing AI development. 2017 in particular has been a key year for China's AI industry, as more and more domestic companies have been making technological breakthroughs within the sector and as the application of AI has been penetrating all aspects of daily life in China. During the AI World 2017 summit held in Beijing on Wednesday, experts discussed what milestones the domestic AI industry has reached so far.

While Saudi Arabia was busy considering a female robot named Sophia as a Saudi citizen, some Chinese companies were busy advancing their artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

For example, one company unveiled the first robot that can work as a certified doctor in a Chinese hospital, while another announced an ambitious multibillion-yuan AI plan.

For both investors and tech geeks, 2017 is the year China is experiencing a boom in its AI industry, representatives said during the recent AI World 2017 conference, an industry event held on an annual basis.

Three factors - massive data, cloud computing and strong algorithms - have led to the rise of AI technologies, particularly in China, Wang Yongdong, vice president of Microsoft's Asia-Pacific R&D Group, told the audience at the event held at Beijing's National Convention Center on Wednesday.

In 2016, Microsoft established an AI business division to bring scientists and technicians together to improve both basic infrastructure building and services, Wang noted. "AI is not a topic in the lab anymore, it's now in every industry… and we'll be the first generation to co-exist with AI."

China's three Internet giants - Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent - have all demonstrated their passions for pursuing AI technologies.

Starting out as just a search engine, Baidu Inc has been tapping into the AI sector for about seven years, Wang Haifeng, head of the company's AI department, was quoted as saying in an e-mail sent to the Global Times on Wednesday.

And the company's research presence has expanded from just natural language processing and machine learning to a multi-layer AI ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Tencent's image recognition technology is being widely used by Chinese car-hailing services provider Didi Chuxing, according to a document the Internet firm sent to the Global Times on Wednesday. Didi has also introduced a credit-scoring system to verify drivers' information, the accuracy rate of which could soon reach 99.5 percent, the document noted.

In July, Alibaba also unveiled its AI ambitions by outlining a slew of detailed targets in cloud computing, high-performance computing and other AI-related projects.

Many industry representatives have applauded the Chinese government's efforts to integrate AI into the strategy of a national development plan, which has become a major driving force for the industry as a whole.

After the State Council, China's cabinet, in July released AI guidelines and set a 2020 target, some provincial governments came up with their own plans to develop local AI industries.

"For now, there are more than 2,000 enterprises in the country engaged in AI technologies, and different regions have their own edges," Zhang Yifu, an expert from the Electronic Technology Information Research Institute of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told the Global Times Wednesday.

"With the central government's guidelines, the AI sector has been attracting a lot of attention. Authorities will soon grant special funds to some AI projects," he said.

China's "AI 2.0" blueprint was incorporated into the key 2030 scientific and technological innovative projects led by the Ministry of Science and Technology in February.

With strong central government support, China is outperforming with regard to the output of academic papers on AI, and some research teams have scored highly in globally recognized AI competitions, helping the country to rank No.1 ahead of the US and India in AI global power, Yang Jing, the host of the AI World 2017 summit, told the Global Times.

Increasing global presence

More and more China-based research teams have been taking over global AI competitions.

In April, a joint laboratory between the Harbin Institute of Technology in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province and Hefei-based AI firm iFlytek in East China's Anhui Province took the lead on Stanford reading comprehension tasks, Hu Yu, executive director of iFlytek, noted during the conference.

In a recent Microsoft Common Objects in Context dataset studying object recognition on October 29, Beijing-based Megvii Technology Inc beat its foreign competitors such as Facebook and Google, ranking first.

"China, with its huge population that can generate a tremendous volume of data, has now become the only one country that can be compared with the US in terms of AI development," Shao Yang, president of strategic marketing at Huawei's consumer business diion, said at the conference.

China was ranked as the top country in terms of numbers of AI publications cited worldwide in 2015, followed by the US and India, worldwide management consultancy McKinsey said in a report released in April.

Although China does not yet have the same kind of vibrant AI ecosystem as the US, the country is on a par with others in terms of algorithm development, particularly in voice recognition and targeted advertising, the report noted.

Optimizing core chips

While Google's tensor processing unit (TPU), a cloud system combined with software and hardware designed for machine learning, has been rattling the AI industry over the past year, more questions have been raised regarding which cutting-edge AI platforms, such as graphics processing unit (GPU) or field-programmable gate array (FPGA), are more suitable for deep learning.

"It's hard to design a specific platform for the purpose of 'training' AI systems, we always expect maximized flexibility in an algorithm. So the best model is likely to be equipped with both CPU [central processing unit] and GPU," said Hu Leijun, vice president of Chinese information technology firm Inspur.

The core technology in the AI sector is based on computing capacity, but sustainability should also be built on a friendly ecosystem, Wang Zai, vice president of Chinese AI chipmaker Cambricon Technologies Corp, said at the conference.

The company was the first "unicorn" in China's AI semiconductor sector to be worth more than $1 billion. After it released the first AI chip in the country in 2016, it teamed up with Huawei and found a way to commercialize its core technologies.

"As the smartphone maker's flagship product Mate 10 is equipped with Cambricon's neural processing unit, we have to constantly upgrade our technologies to improve user loyalty," Wang said.

Over the next five years, China's AI will make even more major breakthroughs in empowering industries, Yang noted.

"But it might lag behind in developing open-source software as well as general chips," she said.

Also, the US has a more robust AI ecosystem than China, industry representatives noted during the conference. In terms of basic research, US scholars demonstrate much deeper study and understanding of fundamental fields, for example, the study of math.

"Chinese scientists are very smart, but some are too eager to turn their research into profits," said Micree Zhan, CEO of Beijing-based custom chip manufacturer Bitmain.


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