China Leads in Practical AI

In a pragmatic standpoint of world’s current economic and social situation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the technological game changer deciding which countries will get ahead. Right now, the two nations at the forefront of AI are the US and China.

In a summary of SCMP’s ‘China AI Report’ by editors Gareth Nicholson and Sarah Dai, it was revealed that China is leading the way in applying AI practically at the economic and social level.

The business intelligence report gives a good feel of AI scene in China now, by looking at the combination of research, data and talent information gathered on the ground of the world’s most populous country.

Controlling the Economy

One basis for China wanting to dominate in AI technology is that it allows her to better control her economy. Currently, China is both the world’s largest manufacturer as well as its largest consumer.

Firstly, AI drastically assists in China’s manufacturing efficiencies to really advance and amplify its supply chains and production systems.

Secondly, as a consumer, AI promises China the ability for product personalization that would both satisfy and boost consumer demand, domestically and internationally.

Although over the past years, there has been practical concerns regarding the hype and reality in implement AI-enable smart manufacturing capabilities in Chinese factories, it is believed that 5G will solve this by providing a much better quality of connectivity between manufacturing devices and its systems.

“For manufacturing, the challenge before was to produce one thousand individual items in the shortest time, but AI – the idea is that it will allow the manufacturing of 5000 customized items in the shortest time,” says Nicholson, SCMP.

Smart AI recommendations is almost a default characteristic in Asian retail shopping and supply that is enabled by AI – which Dai says, help retailers a lot in anticipating and planning demand, cost and robotic delivery.

In healthcare, China is had been notoriously known for its imbalance of medical supplies and services with long patient queues for the best doctors in the cities. There are hundreds of AI start-ups in China now just in providing diagnosis tools to help doctors for faster diagnosis such as screening for breast cancer, eye diseases and etc.

Dai says that this is an example whereby AI comes in very handily as ‘doctor assistance’ to help medical specialists and junior doctors more quickly and accurately serve their patients.

The area of autonomous driving is where the most exciting AI developments are happening; although a fully autonomous driving world has to wait longer as there are many practical challenges that can yet to be addressed.

Although the US seems to be moving faster in the development of AI for autonomous driving (with the recent Californian road drive test that demonstrated the longest period of autonomous driving without human intervention); China’s car trials for autonomous driving are done under much more difficult conditions ie. In urban environments with a much more chaotic mix of pedestrians and diversity of traffic.

Therefore, Nicholson says, it is important to have US-China collaboration in sharing data for the autonomous driving sector to advance using AI.

AI Talent & Technology in Chinese companies

Apparently, China aims to build a market of ‘core AI application’ valued at RMB 130 billion by Year 2020, that grows to RMB 1 trillion in five years’ time. Meanwhile, AI-related industries are expected to touch a market value of RMB 1 trillion and grow to RMB 10 trillion in five years’ time.

Meanwhile, the bulk of AI technology and talent reside with a plethora of Chinese companies – made up of the earlier first wave companies such as Alibaba, Baidu Tencent that have gained world-standard endorsements all around for their lead in many specific AI developments.

Increasingly, China’s AI talent and value are in 2nd wave companies that include dozens of ‘unicorns’ start-ups that specialize in AI-technologies including Facial recognition, drone, droids, computer vision, AI-chips, etc …with a total valuation of over USD40 billion.

Since the US-China trade war, it seems that the AI tech war has also heated up with some of these Chinese AI companies being added to the US entity list that Nicholson says, blocks them from buying US components. However, he believes that many would just move to adjust their supply chains accordingly.

Nicholson opines that although the US has the advantage of having a market capitalist economy which encourages innovation and a ‘winner takes all’, risk-taking mentality to AI.

The difference is that in China, however, it is about long-term planning, whereby the central government identifies AI as a unique competitive edge for its economy and backs up AI-companies with the necessary support for funding and endorsement.

This support is also obvious in terms of AI-talent development whereby several Chinese companies are pushing free AI and coding online programs to primary students homeschooled due to the coronavirus lockdown; the government supporting many AI-centric undergraduate programs, and giving the greenlight to set up 50 AI-research centers to train thousands of AI instructors over the next few years, and so forth.

At the working level, it is now the trend for many bright Chinese graduates who studied in the US, took up internships at Silicon Valley companies and gained four to five years of working experience overseas; to now coming back to take senior roles in the Chinese economy.

Greater Societal Acceptance

The general observation is that Chinese people are not so concerned about personal data privacy. This is untrue, because a more accurate explanation is that Chinese people display a greater willingness to accept new technology in trade off for greater convenience.

Dai says that this is evidenced by the example of over 160 million Chinese nationals voluntarily sharing their travel data (to their telecommunications providers) over the Lunar New Year 2020 period – as part of showing evidence of their travel history as more diligently required due to Covic19 situation.

The Chinese society also embraces technology at wider spectrum of population as a significant percentage % of its rural population is already plugged online.

Dai says that senior residents in rural areas are embracing technology social media, smart speakers and the short videos in their daily lives; and with a surprising fact that many Chinese seniors are tending to trust information from AI-sources, as compares to their village doctors or even work supervisors.

In summary, earlier on AI was more confined to development for use in the areas of manufacturing, smart cities and surveillance.

However today, AI is being very quickly being applied across social policy areas like healthcare and education.

China is expected to lead the way in practical AI application as its people and government continue in their pragmatism, making it conducive for AI to be commercially applied in every aspect of social living.