If you’ve been paying attention in the past year, it seems that all anyone can talk about is the coming artificial intelligence boom on the horizon. Whether it’s the Amazon, Google, or Facebook, everyone seems to be getting in on the AI game as fast as they can. And with good reason—they’re having to play catchup with the rapid growth of artificial intelligence in China.
The Rise of the BAT: Chinese Tech Giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent
For the past few decades, China has developed a reputation as being the undisputed source of manufacturing for a whole host of well-established Western companies. Whether this bred Western complacency is debatable, but what is indisputable is that China has been diligently laying the groundwork to breakout into the tech world in its own right—with the power to start calling the shots on the world stage.
Three companies have been leading this charge: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. To many in the West, these names aren’t familiar since their products and services have not made significant inroads into Western markets, but these three firms dominate the world’s 2nd largest economy.
Commonly thought of as China’s Google, it ranks 23 on Forbes’ Top 100 Digital Companies, with close to $100B market capitalization and 65% of the market share for searches in China. Like Google, it offers services such as Newsfeed, Shopping, and an app comparable to Google Maps as well as other services.
The single largest internet company in China, Alibaba is the 6th largest internet company in the world. On a global scale, it is in a fierce competition with Amazon, fighting to be the marketplace for the internet sellers of the world and has been holding its own. Singles Day—Alibaba’s equivalent to Amazon’s Prime Day—broke a single day sales record of $25B in global sales.
China’s social media colossus, Tencent’s two primary apps, WeChat, and QQ, have so far been largely limited to the Chinese market. Directly comparing Tencent to Facebook and Twitter is understating its scope, however: Tencent’s apps serve as the primary News, Shopping, Dating, Messaging, and Gaming platforms for over a Billion Chinese users globally.
The Turn Towards Artificial Intelligence In China
In the past decade, BAT has made a concerted shift towards artificial intelligence offerings. Baidu was discussing its plans for artificial intelligence with investors as far back as 2010, five years before Google ever mentioned “machine learning” on its investor calls.
BAT has also been aggressive in its investment in AI related start-ups around the world. From Tencent’s investment in Canada’s Element AI and the US-based Atomwise—which also received investment from Baidu—to Alibaba’s investments in Israel’s Nexar, BAT is grabbing an increasingly larger share of the AI market. While only accounting for 9% of the number of global deals for AI firms in 2017, China overall accounts for nearly half (48%) of the total AI capital investment, beating out the US total of 38%, in 2017.
The Autonomous Vehicle Revolution: Baidu Is Paving The Way For Self-Driving Cars
Baidu’s substantial data resource from its maps service put it in an ideal position to lead the autonomous vehicle revolution in China and beyond. Working with firms as diverse as chip-makers Nvidia and Intel to Auto makers Ford and Daimler, Baidu has been building out an open platform for an autonomous driving development called Apollo. By positioning its service at the center of the development of autonomous driving systems globally, Baidu’s autonomous driving systems can have peerless reach in the same way that Microsoft made Windows the go-to operating system for the personal computers of the world in the 1990s.
Not only that, Baidu has partnered with automaker BAIC to develop a mass market self-driving car that they hope to introduce to the Chinese market by 2020. Coupled with a potentially ubiquitous global platform for autonomous vehicle technology, adoption of such a vehicle around the world could be swifter than most people anticipate.
Artificial Medical Intelligence: Tencent’s Groundbreaking AI Ecosystem
While it might seem strange for a social media company to jump into medicine, it makes sense once you understand what Tencent has set out to do: become the portal through which people do everything. WeChat is used by over 38,000 medical facilities and you can use the app to make appointments with more than half of them, while 35% of them allow you to pay your bill through the app.
Recently, Tencent partnered with Babylon Health to introduce a healthcare assistant to its WeChat platform, a cross between Apple’s Siri and WebMD. It is even investing in the development of a system that creates a digital health profile for use by doctors and hospitals to help monitor the health and diagnose the illnesses of their patients.
Smart Cities: Alibaba Wants To Run Your City
The ambition of Alibaba for its future growth makes Amazon’s Alexa seem downright analog. With its storehouse of data and cloud services, Alibaba is building AI “City Brains” that can do everything from regulating the flow of traffic to monitoring for fires or other emergency conditions.
According to Wang Jian, Alibaba’s Technology Steering Committee chairman, the company ultimately aims to build a system that can “conduct overall real-time analysis of the city, automatically deploy public resources and amend defects in urban operations.” In other words, Alibaba’s City Brain AI is a real-life SimCity for the 21st century; and it’s already happening. The government of Hangzhou in China asked Alibaba in 2016 to develop its first city brain for its city and this year, Malaysia enlisted Alibaba to bring build a smart city system to manage its capital of Kuala Lumpur, a city of nearly 2 million people.
China Is Putting AI To Work
China is beginning to strongly resemble the United States of the early 20th century. While Europe was making discoveries in universities and laboratories, expanding humanity’s understanding of everything from radio waves to atomic energy, America was taking those developments and building new technologies with them, from mass market radio receivers to computers. Today, China is taking the lead towards implementing the AI systems that are being theorized and developed here in America and elsewhere.
The growth of artificial intelligence in China may become the revolutionary development of the current century. “Deep learning is the single greatest invention so far in the Era of Discovery, which was led by the US,” says Kai-Fu Lee, former President of Google China, “but since the deep learning breakthrough, we’ve already entered the Era of Implementation where what matters is execution, product quality, speed, and data. And that’s where China comes in.”