China’s AI ambitions

By Zhang Ye Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-12 19:38:01

Domestic tech companies, start-ups pull ahead in some areas of artifcial intelligence

Chinese technology companies and start-ups are in a race with their overseas competitors to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology capable of blurring the line between human and machine. In March, Google Inc wowed the world with the victory of its AlphaGo AI software over South Korean champion Lee Se-dol in the complex strategy game of Go. However, Chinese companies are also making inroads into AI development with the hope of leveraging their advantages in AI technology in the era of Industry 4.0.

Illustration: IC

Wouldn't it be great if an investor could learn in advance whether an upcoming film would set a box-office record? Or what if a music producer could foresee what kind of song would hit No.1 on the pop charts?

Both could become a reality in the era of artificial intelligence (AI), and one of China's Internet giants is already working on it.

On Friday night, Alibaba Group Holding wowed the audience of Hunan TV's popular reality show I Am a Singer by correctly predicting the winner of seven competing celebrities.

Internet users learned the AI's predictions more than 10 minutes ahead the announcement of the winner, which was based on a poll of 500 people in the studio audience.

To accomplish this, Alibaba's cloud computing arm Aliyun, which has been working on AI since 2012, not only trained its AI computer program Ai to mimic music experts, but also developed powerful computation capabilities to analyze a great number of disordered and fragmented pieces of information, such as social media chatter, the singers' performances and the audience's response.

Google Inc's AlphaGo, on the other hand, employs a tactical intelligence that aims to outwit its opponents with its ability to think many steps ahead.

Min Wanli, chief scientist with Aliyun, saluted AlphaGo's victory against Go champion Lee Se-dol, but he thought that Ai's public prediction appeared to be a more complex challenge.

"Ai's correct guess proves that the machine understands human emotions and how people make decisions, marking another big step forward in AI," Min said in a statement sent to the Global Times on Saturday.

Before he started working on Ai in 2013, Min was part of the research team for IBM's AI project Watson.

Betting on AI

Alibaba has already shown its ambition to develop AI, and it is not alone. Its archrival Baidu Inc reportedly invested nearly 7 billion yuan ($1.08 billion) in 2014 into research and development (R&D) for cutting-edge technologies such as AI and self-driving cars.

A self-driving car of Changan Automobile Company started a 2,000 kilometer journey from Southwest China's Chongqing to Beijing on Tuesday. The car is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.

Baidu launched its AI research project, called Verne Plan, on April 1. It is led by Andrew Ng, the former leader of Google's Brain project. He joined Baidu in May 2014.

Another Chinese Internet mammoth, Tencent Holdings, led a $10 million investment in February to fund the AI start-up Diffbot in the US - just one of the company's recent moves into AI.

What's interesting about AI at this point in its development is that leading technology companies are not the only players.

 "AI technology is evolving rapidly," said Xu Li, CEO of a Beijing-based AI start-up SenseTime Group Ltd.

"As long as your innovative capabilities are strong enough to stay on the cutting edge, you don't have to worry about competition or copycatting from big rivals," Xu noted.

Xu, who has more than 10 years of experience working on computer vision and pattern recognition, told the Global Times that his company employs more than 50 researchers with doctorates and more than 80 engineers who used to work for international tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Baidu.

SenseTime is a microcosm of China's nearly 100 start-ups. About 65 of these start-ups received more than 2.91 billion yuan in funding in 2015, according to a February report by Beijing-based market consultancy iResearch.

There are reasons for optimism, but not everyone is optimistic about China's AI start-ups.

Qiao Huijun, founder of Beijing-based incubator A+Labs, has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward AI start-ups due to the high technological barriers to entry.

 "Now, only a few institutions can understand AI, and pure monetary support may not help start-ups develop smoothly," Qiao told the Global Times on Friday.

Welcome to Industry 4.0

Along with other emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things, AI can shape the upcoming fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of World Economic Forum, wrote in a statement in February.

Chinese companies have already created AI systems that have had a measurable impact on human lives. In September 2015, Tencent stunned the journalism world with its robot journalist, called "Dreamwriter." According to media reports, the robot can churn out a 1,000-word news report in one minute.

Aliyun claims that its computer program Ainow can help transportation authorities predict traffic jams.

Meanwhile, Google has reportedly used AI to increase the accuracy of Android's voice recognition by 25 percent.

"Companies and countries that can grasp opportunities in the AI era will be able to take a leading role in the future of manufacturing," Yang Jing, an industry expert and the founder of Ai Era with great focus on AI technology, told the Global Times on Monday.

According to a report released by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd in March, which was based on a survey of more than 500 manufacturing CEOs from around the world, the US will overtake China as the world's most competitive country for manufacturing by 2020.

The US "excels at creating connections and synergy between people, technology … to form a cohesive ecosystem of innovation," Deloitte Vice Chairman Craig Giffi said in the report.

Odds in China's favor

Scientists and experts did not completely agree with Deloitte's research.

Xu thinks China will have a chance to overtake the US in Industry 4.0.

Take the application of AI-powered security monitoring systems as an example. China has a large population, which makes it easier to collect a sufficient amount of the training samples to sharpen the AI's brain, Xu told the Global Times on Monday.

In addition, the Chinese government has moved toward a quick adoption of new technologies, which will bring new scenarios and opportunities, Xu noted.

The situation is in line with the "Made In China 2025" plan - considered the Chinese version of "Industry 4.0" - which promises to reboot industry in China, which is losing its edge due to rising labor costs and an aging population.

A Chinese team called CUVideo, formed by SenseTime and Multimedia Laboratory under the Chinese University of Hong Kong, won first place in two categories at the 6th annual ImageNet, known as the Olympic Games of computer vision, beating teams from instituitions such as Microsoft Research and Oxford University.

Xu claimed that SenseTime's supercomputer DeepLink, which employs 200 graphic processing units (GPU), can compute faster than AlphaGo's 170 GPU-powered computer.

Yang said China's AI sector will attract a lot of top talent and start-ups, driven by the government's encouragement and the willingness of people in China to adopt new technologies.

However, Chinese tech companies need to focus more on making technological breakthroughs for Industry 4.0, rather than just commercial gains, Yang said.

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