Artificial intelligence
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more

How artificial intelligence could help China cope with a graying population

Co-founder of world’s most valuable AI startup says machines can fill a gap in shrinking workforce

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

A lot has been said about how artificial intelligence is going to shape our future. For Bing Xu, it might provide a solution for a problem that China sowed decades ago.

The co-founder of Hong Kong-based SenseTime -- which recently became the world’s most valuable AI startup -- said he believes the technology is key to dealing with the legacy of China’s one-child policy.
SenseTime co-founder Bing Xu speaking at a Wall Street Journal event in Hong Kong. (Picture: Manuel Wong Ho/The Wall Street Journal)

In force for more than 30 years before it was scrapped three years ago, the policy left the country with an uneven population structure: The number of elderly people is increasing rapidly, while there are fewer and fewer young people.

By 2050, it is forecast that one in every four people in China will be older than 65 -- up from one in 10 in 2015. That means a diminishing workforce will have to support a swelling elderly population.

“I’m actually the result of the single-child policy -- I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” said Xu at a Wall Street Journal conference in Hong Kong. “In future, we won’t have enough labor. In about 10 years, you’ll see that the problem is going to get even worse.”


The answer may lie in AI, according to Xu.

“I think that AI is basically about data processing. It’s about processing a lot of data and enabling recognition of patterns [and] predictions,” he said. “If you think of it that way, AI actually helps solve one bigger problem...the aging problem.”

Research has already shown the power of AI in areas important for a graying population -- such as medical care. A system developed by Stanford University researchers, for instance, was able to predict how long patients would live with up to 90% accuracy -- which could help doctors make better decisions about end-of-life care.

This field is called machine learning -- where computer algorithms study a large amount of data to discover useful patterns. It’s the same technology that allowed Google’s AlphaGo program to defeat a world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go.

Using the same principles, IBM’s Watson system aims to comb through medical data of patients and notes from physicians to suggest appropriate diagnoses and treatments.

Meanwhile as China’s working-age population shrinks, AI could take over jobs that were once done by humans -- with greater efficiency.

Just last year, JPMorgan said its machine learning program was able to review documents in just seconds -- a task that used to take legal aides thousands of hours to complete.
China is keen to enhance automation to support the world’s largest population. Under an ambitious plan called “Made in China 2025”, central planners want to have 150 robots for every 10,000 manufacturing workers within two years -- more than double the current number.

But the growing reliance on AI is also stoking concerns over privacy -- in particular in face recognition. As the Beijing-based start-up Megvii demonstrated during Friday’s event, the technology can be applied to security and surveillance with increasing accuracy.

Megvii’s Face++ platform accurately recognizes a face even though the person was wearing a wig. (Picture: Abacus)

Xu suggests his company’s role is simply to provide solutions to meet a client’s need.


“We are not a data gathering company -- we are actually a data processing company. We help our customers process their data better,” he said.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.