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A booth by iFlytek, one of China’s designated national champions in artificial intelligence, is seen at the 2019 Smart China Expo in Chongqing on August 27. Photo: Getty Images

China’s AI initiatives to pay off with broad industrial applications, iFlytek founder says

  • Liu Qingfeng, who serves as chairman at iFlytek, says AI advances are at a ‘critical stage’ in the world’s second largest economy

China’s efforts in artificial intelligence (AI) development are starting to pay off, with wider industrial applications set to be deployed, amid the protracted tech and trade war with the United States.

Liu Qingfeng, the founder and chairman of iFlytek, highlighted that progress on Monday at a conference in Beijing, where he said AI advances were now entering a “critical stage” in the world’s second largest economy, without elaborating.

His positive forecast at the event, the transcript of which was verified by Shenzhen-listed iFlytek, included predicting a fast rate of AI adoption across most industries in China, resulting in increased efficiency at many businesses.

The rosy prospects presented by Liu come at a challenging time for iFlytek, one of Beijing’s designated national AI champions. In October, the Trump administration added iFlytek, China’s leader in voice recognition technology, and other major AI companies to the US trade blacklist, which restricts their access to American hi-tech components like semiconductors and software.
Liu Qingfeng, founder and chairman of iFlytek, speaks during the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on August 29. Photo: Getty Images

That move shows how the US and China are jostling hard to dominate advanced technologies, from 5G to quantum computing and AI. The sharp rise in China’s AI patent applications and funding over the past few years has prompted the US government to take action, as the trade dispute between Beijing and Washington intensified.

Liu said in October that being blacklisted by the US would not have a significant impact on iFlytek’s operations, although the company will appeal to the relevant US government departments.

Established in 1999 and based in Hefei, capital of eastern China’s Anhui province, iFlytek has become the country’s foremost developer of advanced speech recognition and natural language processing systems. The company, which has state-owned China Mobile as its largest shareholder, has made its products available in 200 countries and territories around the world.

The company allocates nearly 30 per cent of its revenue on research and development, Liu said at the conference in Beijing.

China, US face off over AI

Glowing optimism on China’s AI efforts, however, has been tempered by a recent study, which found that a lack of high-quality data and shortage of hi-tech talent are preventing wider adoption of the technology in the country.
China, which has laid out plans to become the global AI leader by 2030, is also being challenged by the technology’s unclear application scenarios, high investment, and security and ethical issues, according to the 2019 China AI Development white paper that was jointly released last week by technology research firm International Data Corp and Chinese tech media outlet

Those findings pose a challenge to the conventional thinking that China has a strong advantage in AI because of the huge amount of data generated by its 840 million internet users, the world’s biggest online population, as of June this year.

In 2017, China projected its domestic AI industry to be worth almost US$150 billion by 2030.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our award-winning 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.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China to see broader AI industrial applications