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AI companies stress social responsibility

By KONG WENZHENG in Las Vegas | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-01-13 23:08
A woman demonstrates the Gait Enhancing & Motivating System, or GEMS, as Federico Casalegno, senior vice-president and head of the Samsung Design Innovation Center, stands by during a Samsung keynote address at the 2020 CES in Las Vegas, US, Jan 8, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

At CES, experts say artificial intelligence companies in China address global issues

Experts from China's artificial intelligence (AI) companies underscored how the industry is devoted to alleviating social problems globally, as AI took center stage recently at the world's largest tech show.

"Today we are applying the AI technology to areas like education and health that carries social significance and are using AI to solve some supply-chain problems," Duan Dawei, senior vice-president and CFO of China's top voice-recognition company iFlytek, told China Daily on Wednesday in Las Vegas, where global tech companies were showing their best at CES 2020, which concluded Friday.

"I believe our practices of helping the low-income regions with scarce resources to develop have global significance," he said during a showcase of the company's latest products — a real-time translator that supports 60 languages, a smart-education companion and a Chinese-language learning portal for students of all levels, among others.

A 2019 CES Innovation Award honoree, the company was not listed in the official directory of CES 2020. Its exhibition was held in a location separate from the CES show floor.

Three months ago, the company was placed on a trade blacklist by the US government over Xinjiang-related issues, a move Duan said also could impact American companies that used to be part of the company's supply chain.

"As our key focus was not on hardware, we purchase (that) from other companies, including those from the US," he said.

"The foundation of our company is self-developed technology by Chinese scientists. Now, as we are adjusting to a supply chain with no American companies, I feel that the US companies are to bear more impact," said Duan, who felt a misunderstanding exists between the US public and Chinese AI companies.

Chinese people have built an environment that is friendly and encouraging for the application of AI, bringing the technology closer to people's everyday lives, said Duan.

China is the largest market in the application of AI technology; China's economy has developed to the extent that innovation is much understood and welcomed by the people, and AI products are popular among families and children, he said.

Duan said that companies like iFlytek have started to alleviate resource-scarcity through AI, by introducing their educational and health products to less affluent communities.

"With AI technology, we can connect people in suburban areas or villages with high-quality education and health resources that are normally accessible only to metropolitan [areas]," Duan said. The company's Las Vegas exhibition focused on how it is helping disadvantaged communities.

Some problems iFlytek has been solving are global issues, and Duan believes technologies from China are having a global impact.

"In China, we use AI technology to help people with hearing and vision disorders," he said. The company was able to develop technologies that translate audio to text and vice versa, and such technology is "applicable for all humankind".

"I hope China and the US can keep the doors open for communications and cooperation in technology development and practices, which is meaningful for both countries and the world," Duan said.

In recent years, China and the US both have developed strategies that support advancement in AI technologies.

Last February, US President Trump signed an executive order that laid out plans for "maintaining American leadership in AI", and associated the development of AI with the country's national security.

The US recently imposed new restrictions on exporting designated AI software. Reuters reported that US authorities were considering submitting the rule to international bodies in an attempt to create a level playing field.

China has been underscoring the development of the AI industry for years. It has introduced the idea of "new digital infrastructure" with AI included, which Duan praised as a significant move.

"Actually, all of the world's major economies have their AI-centered national strategies supporting the industry," said Tan Huan, co-CTO of UBTECH, a Shenzhen-based company focusing on intelligent humanoid robots.

"We all believe that AI is the future. By investing in AI education, we are preparing for the future," said Tan, who displayed an educational toy the company showcased at this year's CES.

Tan echoed Duan's point that technology companies bear social responsibility.

"We believe our investment should not be based purely on commercial benefits — we see it as a responsibility. We hope to do something for the next generation," said Tan. He believes that only products designed with the society and the future of humankind in mind could be sustainable long term.

UBTECH has been investing heavily in companion and service robots for the healthcare industry. For Tan, AI is the answer to concerns about aging populations in many countries.

With a similar vision, iFlytek has been leading the development of real-time translators, which Duan said facilitates seamless communications among all people.

"We are different in race, culture, social institutions, language and skin color, but we share a lot of similarities in our wish to develop," said Duan.

"That's why we still decided to bring a showcase to CES — we hope to advance the cooperation with foreign partners and to reduce the barriers that are hindering such cooperation," he said.

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