With artificial intelligence (AI) widely perceived to be a technology that will shape the future of how people live and work, companies in China have been beefing up investment in the sector in recent years. Scientists believe that the odds favor Chinese companies to be able to match their U.S. counterparts in the AI technology race.
While U.S. tech giants like Google and Microsoft are racing to infuse artificial intelligence into their core products, tech companies in China are keen to ready their artificial neutral network to solve complicated problems of city governance and healthcare.
Traffic congestion, a global problem that troubles urban residents, is an area that has long been a focus of the artificial intelligence (AI) team of Aliyun, Alibaba Group Holding's cloud computing unit.
The AI team of Aliyun told the Global Times on Monday that it has made progress in fixing the problem over the past year as its self-developed AI system, dubbed ET, is breaking new ground in areas like video recognition and traffic prediction.
In Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, at the intersection of Nanhua Middle Road and Baogang Avenue, one of the busiest crossings in the city, the average traffic jam index monitored by local authorities between 9 am and 1 pm fell 25.75 percent after using ET in September in 2016, the team disclosed in a statement.
How does this work?
Hua Xiansheng, a visual computing scientist with Aliyun, explained to the press in a meeting in October 2016 that after consistently learning and analyzing large amounts of the city's transportation data, ET built a virtual model of the city that is able to predict how many vehicles will be on the roads at any given time.
Based on those predictions, the computer will then come up "smart" measures such as intelligently controlling traffic lights to help traffic flow better, Hua said.
Reshaping city governance is just a part of Aliyun's AI empire.
Led by Zhou Jingren, who was part of the research group on Microsoft's Bing search infrastructure, the AI team vowed to train ET into the successor of Jack Ma Yun after 20 years.
Betting on AI
Alibaba has already shown its ambition to develop AI.
Another tech giant, Tencent -Holdings, led a group that made a million investment in February 2016 to fund the AI start-up Diffbot in the U.S.
Baidu Inc, which some consider the Chinese equivalent of Google, has also been devoted to AI for a long time, with Andrew Ng, the former leader of Google's Brain project, leading its research. Ng joined Baidu in 2014, the same year the company reportedly invested nearly 7 billion yuan (.08 billion) in cutting-edge technologies such as AI.
Unlike Alibaba, Baidu is keen to use AI to improve the healthcare industry.
China's healthcare has massive potential that can be fulfilled with AI, Baidu founder Robin Li Yanhong said in a meeting on February 8.
In October 2016, the company has released an app known as Melody, designed to act like a medical assistant. The app has an AI-powered chat program that can help collect a patient's symptoms and then provide advice to a doctor. It is not a replacement for doctors yet.
Li predicted a future in which AI is used to diagnose illnesses and recommend treatment based on a gene database.
Baidu's advances were underscored in January when Lu Qi, a veteran AI expert, left Microsoft to join the Chinese company as its COO.
The Chinese search engine powerhouse is now considered to be the leader of the pack among Chinese Internet giants in the race to develop AI technology, Forbes reported on Monday.
What's interesting about AI at this point in its development is that leading technology companies are not the only players.
"As long as your innovative capabilities are strong enough to stay on the cutting edge, you don't have to worry about competition or copycatting from big rivals," Xu Li, CEO of Beijing-based AI start-up SenseTime Group, told the Global Times.