Artificial intelligence

Enterprises will be the main drivers of China’s push to implement artificial intelligence

Transportation, financial services, retail and media among sectors in which artificial intelligence is adopted to make businesses more consumer-friendly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 10:25pm

Private enterprises are poised to drive China’s push to rival the United States in implementing artificial intelligence across a broad swathe of industries, aided by the sheer size of the mainland consumer market, fast-developing “smart” infrastructure and a growing focus to innovate by organisations of all sizes, technology experts said.

Their views on AI as an opportunity to transform traditional industries, including transportation, financial services, retail and media, took centre stage at the opening on Tuesday of this year’s Rise technology conference, which concludes on Thursday.

China was the world’s second-biggest investor in AI enterprises last year, injecting US$2.6 billion into the sector, according to the state-run Chinese think tank Wuzhen Institute. The US topped the list with US$17.9 billion in investments.

Li Zhifei, the founder and chief executive of AI start-up Mobvoi, said conditions are ripe for China to take the lead in rolling out self-driving or autonomous vehicles across the country before the US.

“Right now, China has many companies working on autonomous driving and computer vision algorithms, while the venture capital industry invests huge amounts of money on start-ups,” Li said. “Traffic is so bad in many big cities that the Chinese government sees the need for autonomous driving.”

There are likely to be 200 million cars, buses and trucks on Chinese roads by 2020, according to government forecasts, a number that’s likely to increase at a rate of 23.7 million units every year, making China the world’s largest automotive market.

That volume of vehicles generate an amount of data that is unrivalled by any other market around the world.

Beyond data collection, China would need to put in place the relevant transport and legal infrastructure to satisfy customers’ expectations on safety and the efficiency of autonomous vehicles on the road, said Gong Fengmin, ride-hailing service provider Didi Chuxing’s research head in California's Silicon Valley.

“We’re now looking deeper at intelligent machine technology to help drivers see and hear the conditions that could endanger their driving which they would not otherwise see,” Gong told the South China Morning Post.

Last month, Jefferies equity analyst Edison Lee said China’s so-called smart city initiatives will take advantage of future high-speed 5G mobile networks “to make use of artificial intelligence for public security, traffic management and disaster management”, while the major internet companies introduce more advanced consumer services.

AI has been particularly embraced by China’s financial services industry as a tool to make products more consumer-friendly, according to Ping An Technology, the information-technology services arm of insurance giant Ping An Group.

“Artificial intelligence is giving a lot of value and a whole different experience for our customers,” said Ping An Technology chief executive Ericson Chan.

The wide use of facial recognition, voice-authentication engine and micro-expression comprehension already enable mainland customers to apply and receive a loan online through Ping An’s mobile app within a few minutes, he said.

Online retail is increasingly dependent on AI, said Joseph Tsai Chung-hsin, the executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the Post and operator of the world's largest e-commerce platforms. Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace and use AI and machine learning to tailor preferences to each customer, and an AI bot to identify counterfeit products.

“Large-scale computing and data are the father and mother of artificial intelligence,” Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma Yun said at a recent internal company technology summit. “Today, worldwide, companies that have the resources and platforms to truly develop artificial intelligence technologies are fewer than five. Successful companies must have both data and computing capacity, and also believe in high demand for AI. Alibaba is definitely one of the top three.”

At the Post, which Alibaba acquired for US$266 million in December 2015, the technology is expected to help drive transformation at the 114-year-old media organisation, as it forges ahead to reach a global audience who want to better understand mainland China.

“Artificial intelligence is going to change the way that consumers expect to find the news,” said Post chief executive Gary Liu. He cited as example the use of smart, voice-controlled home speaker systems, which can respond to users’ requests for news.

The technology’s natural language generation function has allowed “commodity type news to be written by machines”, freeing journalists to focus on “hard-hitting” reports, he said.

Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent Holdings – the Chinese internet triumvirate collectively known under the acronym BAT – are “leading the way in China by investing heavily in AI”, according to Harry Shum Heung-yeung, the executive vice-president for the artificial intelligence and research group at Microsoft, in a recent interview.

“Each of the BAT companies have a lot of data, whether these come from search, e-commerce, social networks or games,” Shum said. “Each one has significant cloud resources that provide them with a lot of computing power, and they are also investing heavily in breakthrough algorithms.”