Nation catching up but the U.S. still in front: experts
Chinese companies have been investing heavily in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies over the past five years, and the central government has offered continuous policy support.
Since Robin Li Yanhong, CEO of Chinese Internet giant Baidu Inc, proposed the "China Brain" project during the "2015 two sessions" - the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - the central government has come up with a slew of policies to encourage the development of AI, Xiang Yang, an industry analyst at Beijing-based CCID Consulting, told the Global Times. [Special Coverage]
"Since the beginning of 2016, the AI sector has begun to grow rapidly, as major tech companies have shifted their focus to AI technologies," he said.
In July 2015, the State Council, China's cabinet, unveiled three-year guidelines for the Internet Plus initiative, which highlighted the application of Internet-powered AI for the first time, Xiang said. The government called for breakthroughs in core technology and to boost the application of AI technologies in sectors including smart home appliances, smart vehicles and robots.
Two years later, during the two sessions in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang highlighted the AI sector in the 2017 Government Work Report, saying China would enhance the research and development (R&D) of AI technologies.
Major Internet companies worldwide such as Google Inc, Amazon.com Inc, Facebook and Microsoft Corp have all tapped into AI, making progress in smart driving, machine translation, and human-machine interaction, Yang Jing, an industry expert and the founder of Ai Era, which focuses on AI technology, told the Global Times.
"Following the global trend, domestic companies such as BAT [Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent], iFlytek and JD.com Inc have integrated AI into their corporate strategies," she said.
In July, the State Council unveiled new guidelines for the development of the AI industry, which it hopes will motivate the sector to reach the same level as other advanced countries in terms of technology and applications by 2020.
The AI market scale is expected to surpass 150 billion yuan ($23 billion) by then, and the related industry scale will be over 1 trillion yuan.
AI has already been widely implemented by major tech firms in the country, Yang said. "For instance, Huawei uses an AI-powered chip in its flagship product, and start-ups like SenseTime and Face++, which are in the computer vision field, have become technology unicorns," she noted.
Chinese companies are playing a leading role in three major AI-powered products - voice recognition, services robots and image recognition - Xiang noted. "In addition, the application of some image recognition technologies is being driven by the country's smart city plan," he said.
For example, image analysis has been applied in security cameras, which have been widely established in various cities, Xiang explained.
"Local governments in areas such as [East China's] Anhui [Province] and [Southwest China's] Guizhou [Province] are highly supportive and work closely with tech companies," he said.
A recent report from Goldman Sachs said that China has the resources, ambition and high-level government support to develop AI and machine learning over the next few years, CNBC reported in September.
Various major domestic players have unveiled AI development projects and established R&D teams in recent years.
Alibaba recently launched eight new research bases in China, Israel, the U.S., Russia and Singapore, the company said on October 11. It is hiring 100 researchers to work on AI, quantum computing and fintech, Reuters reported.
Gap still there
In spite of the rapid growth of the AI sector in China, the country is still lagging behind countries like the U.S., particularly in basic research and theory studies, experts noted.
"The number of Chinese scientists who are ranked at the top level is still lower than in the U.S.," Xiang said.
Still, China may have more advantages in terms of talent in the near future, as the number of research papers about AI conducted by Chinese people, including those living abroad, now accounts for up to 40 percent of the total volume, and more and more talented Chinese people are returning home to take advantage of the huge domestic market, Tencent said in a report.