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China's AI business ready to lead the world

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-06-01 14:04

BEIJING - Over the past week, the Internet has yet again been buzzing about the future of artificial intelligence (AI).

And once again, the heat was generated by AlphaGo, Google's AI program, which completed a 3-0 clean sweep Friday over Ke Jie, the current world No 1 Go player.

In contrast to the generally negative reactions to AlphaGo's 4-1 victory over South Korean master Lee Se-dol in March last year, people are now more optimistic towards the future of AI.

"AlphaGo was not designed just to play Go," said Qian Jianlun, a Go teacher in east China's Zhejiang province. "As an AI project, it will change a lot of aspects of our lives."

Full speed ahead

Qian's words echoed the overall positivity shown by the status quo of China's AI industry.

According to data from iiMedia Research, a major research institution, China's AI industry increased by 43.3 percent in 2016, surpassing 10 billion yuan ($1.47 billion), and is expected to reach 15.21 billion and 34.43 billion yuan in 2017 and 2019 respectively.

The numbers were driven by a boom in the amount of research taking place in the industry. China has applied for 15,745 AI patents, ranking second worldwide, according to Liu Lihua, vice minister of industry and information technology.

Favorable policies came as a consequence. Over 40 robotics industry parks have now been or are currently being set up around the country, and for the first time ever, AI was included in the government work report Premier Li Keqiang presented to the Fifth Session of the 12th National People's Congress in March.

"We will accelerate research and development, and commercialization of new materials, artificial intelligence and develop industrial clusters in these fields," the report read.

"AI has become a key driving force behind Chinese companies," said Zhang Yaqin, president of Baidu, China's Internet giant.

"In the AI era, China can innovate not only in products, but also in technologies," he added.

Data set the base

For insiders, the further development of China's AI industry will continue to count largely on data.

"The core of AI development lies in the massive amounts of data," said Li Kaifu, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital company aiming to create successful Chinese start-ups.

"In China, we have a huge database, and it has proved to be quite valuable for us," he continued.

Bai Chunli, president of Chinese Academy of Sciences, agreed. "By 2020, China will hold 20 percent of the global data, which is expected to reach 44 trillion gigabytes," he stated at an expo on big data Monday.

AI has been playing a bigger role in people's everyday lives. For example, an AI system monitoring vehicles to intelligently control traffic was applied in east China's Hangzhou, and increased vehicle passing speeds by up to 11 percent during its trial last year.

"China is already leading the world in fields such as computer vision and automatic speech recognition," Liu Lihua added.

"We believe that AI presents the most favorable opportunity for us to lead the world," Li resonated.

Business yet to unite

However, for some, what has been transpiring in the industry is not enough for it to successfully achieve sustainable development.

Despite predicting that China's AI market will enjoy a 50-percent annual increase, way above the global rate of 20 percent, McKinsey and Company, a worldwide management consulting firm, also noted that less than 25 percent of the AI industry insiders in China have over ten years of experience in the business, while in the United States that number is 50 percent.

Also, the country's AI companies are yet to join forces.

"There's been a lack of technical collaboration in our AI industry," said Wen Xiaojun from CCID Wise, a major Chinese think tank. "The inter-connectibility of products is poor, and there is no efficient coordination between upstream and downstream producers."

He believes an industry service platform needs to be set up to boost functions including research and development, application and product examining.

"We need such an incubation center for AI to prosper," he added.

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