China’s Mobvoi steps up artificial intelligence efforts

Google-backed startup launches chatbot that can connect with voice-activated smart home devices

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 8:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 9:51pm

Mobvoi, the Chinese artificial intelligence startup backed by Google and Volkswagen, launched a chatbot on Tuesday that can connect with voice-activated smart home devices, as the company ramps up its efforts to turn from a niche player to being the future Amazon Alexa or Google Home in China.

The Beijing-based startup founded in 2012 by a group of former Google engineers sees smart homes as one of the top priorities to leverage its voice recognition and natural language processing technology after receiving a US$180 million investment from German auto maker Volkswagen earlier this month.

Smart homes are seen by technology giants around the world as one of the key directions for the application of artificial intelligence in people’s everyday life.

In the United States, Alexa, the robotic voice assistant behind Amazon’s Echo has already allowed people to dim bedroom lights and play song lists through speech. In China, online search giant Baidu recently acquired a Chinese start-up that developed an artificial intelligence-based voice assistant to push further into smart home devices.

The chatbot designed by Mobvoi functions like other virtual personal assistants, such as Apple’s Siri. Mobvoi envisions the artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot to be the nexus between software and hardware by facilitating human-machine interaction, such as using voice to turn on lights at home or search for an ideal restaurant.

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“Our company aspired to define the next generation of human-machine interaction since day one. With the chatbot, we want to develop ourself into an artificial intelligence-centred company with both hardware and software products,“ said Li Zhifei, founder and chief executive officer of Mobvoi.

Along with the chatbot, Mobvoi also unveiled a voice-controlled smart speaker named Tichome, which can be used as the central control system for smart home devices. Tichome is expected to be launched in the China market during the third quarter of this year.

Starting from a voice search and voice control solution provider for Motorola’s smartwatch Moto 360, Mobvoi has branched out to make its own smartwatch and extended into the auto market by producing smart rear view mirror, a product that provides navigation, messaging and information through voice input, a key factor that helped the company land the Volkswagen investment in early April.

Till date, the company’s business depends heavily on wearable devices. Mobvoi’s Ticwatch contributed the majority of the company’s sales of 150 million yuan (US$ 21.8 million) in 2016. The company’s voice-controlled wearable device operating system was the key for it to secure the US$75 million investment from Google in 2015.

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Voice is becoming an increasingly important interface as information technology research and advisory company Granter predicts that 2 billion personal devices, wearables and other consumer internet of things end points will be able to function with minimal or zero touch by 2020.

“Interactions will move away from touch-screens and will increasingly make use of voice, ambient technology, biometrics, movement and gestures,” said Annette Zimmermann, vice president for research at Gartner.

“We expect artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual personal assistants to be one of the major strategic battlegrounds from this year onwards, and make many mobile apps fade,” said Zimmermann in a recent research note.

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