The Rise of China’s AI as Alibaba and Tencent Fight for the Lead

“China will dominate the field of AI in 2018,” said Amy Webb in the annual Science and Technology Trends Report. Webb is the founder of Future Today Institute and a professor of New York University. Webb predicted that nine tech giants, including Alibaba, will dominate the future of artificial intelligence.
At the recent SXSW Conference held in Austin, Texas, China’s artificial intelligence technology became the hottest topic.

Over the past year, global media, academic institutions and science and technology circles have continued to endorse Chinese artificial intelligence. In October 2017, an article named “China’s AI Awakening” was published in the MIT Technology Review, a global top technical journal, attracting intense attention from AI giants. China will likely surpass the U.S. in AI within 10 years, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt asserted at an AI and Global Security Summit in Washington.

Will Knight, the author of the Technology Review article once again chose Alibaba as an example to showcase AI development in China in his recent article titled “Inside the Chinese lab that plans to rewire the world with AI”. “If Alibaba is anything to go by, China’s tech giants are ready to compete with Google, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft to serve up AI on tap. In some places, Alibaba is arguably ahead of the competition.” he wrote.

In Knight’s view, Alibaba‘s advancement in the field of artificial intelligence is staggering.

Stanford Question Answering Dataset (SQuAD) is a reading comprehension dataset launched by Stanford University. Last month, Alibaba‘s AI program scored 82.44 points, higher than Microsoft, Samsung, and even the average human (82.304). This is the first time that a machine has defeated humans in such tests. According to Si Luo, the chief scientist for natural language processing at Alibaba‘s AI research unit, this technology has been used for smart customer service such as in e-commerce shopping guide and assistant AliMe.

China’s AI technology will redefine the world

Alibaba has been using AI and machine learning to optimize its supply chain and provide personalized recommendations for consumers, such as Alibaba‘s Tmall Genie, a smart speaker. Tmall Genie is China’s first smart speaker whose sales exceeded one million units.

Alibaba and the Shanghai Metro launched a voice ticketing machine, which is expected to become a standard in future China AI cities. Meanwhile, Alibaba‘s cloud-based AI technology has spread overseas. Its AI system “City Brain” has been used in Malaysia to solve traffic congestion and other problems. Alibaba has offered cloud services and AI solutions to European developers and companies. Alibaba has also set up a joint research institute with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for comprehensive AI cooperation.

According to Knight, “As China becomes more proficient in AI, it will help determine how the technology reshapes the world. And Alibaba will undoubtedly be an important part of this picture.”

The MIT Technology Review article further expounded upon the strategic thinking of Alibaba‘s founders. “In the next era of company competition, [Alibaba Founder Jack Ma]’s belief is the business model cannot give success for a giant like Alibaba. His belief is in technology.”

Alibaba DAMO Academy

The article continues to say that in 2017, Alibaba invested $2.6 billion in technology research and development as the highest research and development investor in China. Since Alibaba DAMO Academy (The Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook) was established, Alibaba has tripled its research budget to $7 billion a year, which is more than what IBM, Facebook and Ford spend in research and development. This further narrows the gap between the global leaders Amazon and Google in research and development. In 2017, Amazon and Google spent $16.1 billion and $13.9 billion, respectively, on research and development.

Last October, Ma announced the establishment of Alibaba DAMO Academy and planned to invest 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) in basic research and development of disruptive technology over the next three years. With professional teams engaged in blockchain, computer security, financial technology, quantum computing and other basic and emerging technologies, Alibaba considers AI to be most important.

Chinese technology also benefited from strongly supportive government policies.

China’s technology research and development spending increased 10-fold from $40.8 billion in 2000 to $412 billion today, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said the MIT Technology Review. U.S. investment in research and development increased by only one-third during the same period.

Tencent promotes the interdisciplinary study of AI in medicine

Tencent, another giant, also rushed in on the AI road.

On March 15, at Tencent AI Lab’s Second Academic Forum, Tencent AI Lab and Nature Research entered a strategic partnership to promote interdisciplinary research in AI-driven medicine and cooperation between industry and academia in AI research. Nature Research belongs to Springer Nature, a international leading academic and educational publishing group. The two sides will focus on real problems in the medical field, integrate global scientific research resources through academic bonuses, research and exchange, and support interdisciplinary cooperation between the medical and AI fields, promoting the development and application of “AI+ medical products”.

Healthcare is an important field to apply AI in, and it will be one of the key areas of cooperation between the two sides. In 2017, Tencent released its first AI-driven medical product named Tencent Miying. The device performs endoscopic examinations in less than four seconds, and detects early esophageal cancer with 90 percent accuracy. The device has expanded from its initial purpose of screening for esophageal cancer to detecting pulmonary nodules, diabetes, fundus lesions and other diseases. Now, Miying is used in more than 100 hospitals across multiple cities and provinces. On Nov. 15, 2017, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) conducted a meeting for future AI development and to launch major science and technology projects. MOST announced a list of next-generation AI innovation platforms, including open platforms for AI-aided medical imaging based on Tencent‘s technical capabilities. Tencent Miying has become a national benchmark for AI in medicine.

At the forum, Tencent also announced the upcoming establishment of the robot laboratory called Robotics X. Robotics X and AI Lab will become the dual fundamental departments within Tencent AI to further explore the connections between the virtual world and the real world.

This article originally appeared in cnBeta and was translated by Pandaily.