Artificial intelligence and the rise of the robots in China
State-sponsored R&D in AI looks certain to transform the landscape in the world’s second-largest economy and create shock waves along the way
Keeko is just 45 centimeters tall, or one-foot seven inches, and weighs only 45 kilograms, roughly 99 pounds. Gliding across the room to the amazement of starry-eyed five-year-olds, it rolls its head and tells the transfixed children “remember to wash your hands before you eat.”
They all giggle and rush to cuddle the diminutive AI robot with the cutesy, cartoon character voice, and stare with utter bewilderment.
In nursery schools across China, Keeko models are being brought in as teaching aids to engage and stimulate young and impressionable minds. With the assistance of her “little helper,” Yang Huizhen showed her class the importance of recycling.
Before the lesson started, she uploaded information into Keeko’s memory drive about putting waste material into the right containers. “Why are there four different colored garbage bins in our kindergarten?” the tiny robot asked the children. Immediately, hands were raised to answer the question.
“I once thought AI robots would steal the jobs of teachers, but my worry turned out to be unnecessary. They will be good teaching assistants as my class is curious about them,” Yang, who works at the Xingguo Kindergarten in the port city of Xiamen, which is in the Southeast province of Fujian, told the official Chinese media.
Curious is the right word. The brainchild of the Keeko Robot (Xiamen) Technology Company, this Wall-E lookalike from Pixar’s hugely successful 2008 fantasy movie has the IQ of a five-year-old and is programmed to interact with kindergarten kids.
So far, the model has been rolled out at 672 nurseries across the country. “Our engineers are cooperating with kindergarten teachers who know what the children really need,” Guo Changchen, the CEO of Keeko Robot Technology, said. “Teachers can prepare the lessons and upload the content to the robots. As more data is accumulated, the robots will become smarter and more helpful.”
Behind the rapid growth of companies involved in the fledgling humanoid and android sector is the expanding artificial intelligence, or AI, industry.
Significantly, this is at the core of the ambitious “Made in China 2025” policy, which will turn the world’s second-largest economy into an advanced technology superpower. Heavily criticized by US President Donald Trump for excessive state subsidies, the program has been dragged into Washington’s trade war with Beijing.
In response, President Xi Jinping’s government has simply accelerated its plans.
Last month, a study entitled China’s AI Development 2018 was released by the Tsinghua University, a major research institution in Beijing. It showed the country’s AI market was worth 23.7 billion yuan ($3.5 billion) in 2017 and is projected to nearly double this year as funding pours into the industry.
Globally, it will expand to $17.83 billion by 2023 from $5.11 billion in 2018, a report released this week on ResearchAndMarkets.com illustrated.
“From 2013 to the first quarter of 2018, China’s investment and financing in the AI industry accounted for 60% of the world’s total,” China’s AI Development 2018 report stated. “China published the largest number of AI-related research papers, as well as highly cited papers. China was also ranked first in the number of AI-related patents, most of which focus on application.”
Nearly 19,000 scientists and technicians were actively involved in artificial intelligence research last year, and the number will continue to rise, with the State Council, the administration’s de facto cabinet, predicting that the sector will grow into a 1 trillion yuan industry by 2030.
Companies are sprouting up and there are more than 4,000 AI enterprises with half of them startups, the Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology, revealed.
Part of a white paper released by the MST concentrated on the highly successful “cluster system” such as the one in Zhongguancun, which is situated in the Haidian district of Beijing and is known as China’s Silicon Valley.
Already there are more than 1,000 companies there with 56% classified as “early” startups. Retail, healthcare, education and service sectors, as well as the auto industry, were areas highlighted for “smart solutions.”
Indeed, Zhongguancun is crucial to Xi’s high-tech program.
“Zhongguancun [is] where many of the most dynamic indigenous companies were born,” Yu Zhou an associate professor of Earth Science and Geography at Vassar College in New York and the author of The Inside Story of China’s High-Tech Industry: Making Silicon Valley in Beijing, wrote in the Asia-Pacific Journal.
“Since the mid-1980s, [Zhongguancun] has transformed from a quiet suburb designated for scientific research and higher education into a bustling hub of high-tech businesses, and research and development labs.”
Entrepreneurs such as Liu Zhiyong, the founder and CEO of Zhen Robotics, which manufactures haulage androids, have been inspired by this state-backed system.
Linked with AI and equipped with GPS, cameras and radar, his yellow and black cube-like creations scuttle around at the sedate pace of three kilometers, or two miles, an hour, delivering groceries and other packages.
Weighing 30 kilograms, which is about 65 pounds, they travel on six wheels and have four cameras and a laser tele-detection system constantly scanning for obstacles.
“At the moment, there are 100 million packages delivered every day in China,” Liu told the media. “It will be one billion in the future. There will not be enough humans to make the deliveries, [so] we need more and more robots to fill this gap in manpower. And to reduce costs.”
Again, AI is, and will continue to be, crucial to this brave new world of robotics and cutting-edge technology.
Online “big beasts” such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, which are collectively known as BAT, as well as JD.com, the massive e-commerce and logistics group, are developing creative hubs and pumping billions of yuan into artificial intelligence projects.
Last year, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology identified the BAT grouping and voice AI specialist iFlyTek as the advanced guard, or “national champions,” to spur R&D.
In January, a $2.1 billion blueprint was unveiled to build an AI industrial park in the suburbs of Beijing. Not even the trade war with the US, or the slowing economy, will curtail the program.
“Even if Washington could strong-arm US firms into cutting off China for strategic reasons, their advanced [high-tech] competitors are unlikely to follow,” John Lee, who was a visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, wrote in The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an influential Australian think tank.
“Rising state and private funding in China for AI has created a virtuous cycle of talent recruitment and technical advance, which is starting to manifest in academic research, industry recognition and marketable applications,” he continued.
“Conversely, Chinese tech firms need to go abroad for scarce talent. They are aggressively hiring in Silicon Valley and at leading US universities, while Baidu, Didi [Chuxing, the Uber-like online company,] and now Tencent all run AI research labs in the US,” Lee added.
Yet the changing geopolitical landscape has put Beijing on the defensive, especially when it comes to the “Made in China 2025” policy. During the past three months, a senior official and a respected academic have played down the country’s high-tech prowess.
“China still lags decades behind developed countries,” Xin Guobin, the vice-minister of the Industry and Information Technology Ministry, told a forum in Beijing, which was reported by the state-owned China News Service.
Liu Yadong, the editor-in-chief of the Science and Technology Daily, was even more candid in his assessment. Speaking to a select audience at a seminar in the Chinese capital in June, he issued a blunt warning.
“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem,” Liu said. “But it became problematic when the people who hype [China’s achievements] … fooled the leadership, the public and even themselves.”
Still, for the “Keeko Generation,” this wave of AI development will eventually transform their lives and herald a new age of more sophisticated robots with Made in China stamped on them.
“Made in China 2025” Series