China needs real AI innovation, not profit-seeking

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/13 19:23:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


Some bizarrely embarrassing mistakes spotted in a high-profile artificial intelligence (AI) presentation by Baidu last week might have thrown some much-needed cold water on China's AI fever, amid concerns of an investment bubble in the sector.

China's huge online population seems to have become giddy with excitement about AI, but the growing number of companies investing in AI should be foresighted yet cool-minded when placing bets on the trendy tech.

The PowerPoint presentation by Lu Qi, the helmsman of Baidu's AI arm, at a conference in Beijing last week, was intended to focus people's attention on the Chinese search giant's transition toward an AI-first company, but has instead raised doubts about the company's AI ambitions.

A few apparently incorrect Chinese characters found in the PowerPoint slides as well as the mistaken use of a headshot of Baidu founder Robin Li Yanhong in place of a robot came as a surprise, although Baidu later clarified that the PowerPoint used during Lu's presentation was a beta version of the authentic one.

The embarrassing mistakes are certainly not enough to justify any deep pessimism about the prospects of the AI vision of one of China's top technology powerhouses. Appointed by China's top economic planner earlier this year to lead the country's first national laboratory on deep learning technologies and applications, Baidu is clearly an AI bellwether in the country.

Nevertheless, other than the mistakes, the speech by Lu, the former Microsoft executive and a reputed AI expert who joined Baidu in January as group president and chief operating officer, did not seem to offer anything new and disruptive about the application of the next big thing in the tech world.

This puts the company in stark contrast with Google, which has widened its lead in the AI arena with its Go-playing machine AlphaGo trouncing a handful of top Chinese Go players that included Ke Jie, the world's reigning Go champion, at a Go summit in late May in the Chinese water town of Wuzhen in East China's Zhejiang Province.

The "funny" mistakes can't simply be laughed away, but should instead serve as a wake-up call for not only Baidu but a multitude of Chinese companies whose future growth will rely on AI-related businesses.

As a company leading China's AI revolution, Baidu should think beyond the AI technologies and applications such as face recognition that have already become a reality in everyday life. If the likes of Baidu can't think of some truly forward-looking scenarios for the use of AI, how can China convince the outside world of its capability to take the lead in the world economy as an innovator. Too often Chinese companies have been known for their adeptness at quickly catching up with overseas counterparts, but now it's time for them to establish themselves as genuine innovators that can start a worldwide technology trend on their own.

As for the many Chinese companies hoping to simply jump onto the AI bandwagon and accordingly increase the valuation of their businesses, they'd better stay sober, as there's still a long way to go before such dreams will turn into profits, especially as AI has yet to become an essential part of everyday life.

There has already been much debate about an AI bubble emerging in China this year, with some industry insiders forecasting a wave of AI business closures as early as next year. 

China saw $2.6 billion worth of investment in AI businesses last year, second only to the US with $17.9 billion, according to data from domestic think tank Wuzhen Institute.

In a market where there's an excessive focus on profits, there are grounds for concern that an influx of investment into a hot sector could lead to an investment bubble. Investors in China's AI marketplace should heed the wake-up call.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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