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Chinese tech firms on AI push

There was no lack of excitement at the World Internet Conference (WIC) as tech bigwigs unpacked their ideas. Some talked with humor, others provided food for thought.

CEO of Sogou Wang Xiaochun stole the show with a speech employing Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As Wang talked, his voice was captured and precisely transcribed line by line onto a screen behind him, with simultaneous English translation.

The awesome part: there were almost no mistakes.

Sogou's voice recognition system is 95 percent accurate in a quiet environment. Translation is 90 percent accurate.

Sogou, a subsidiary of NASDAQ-listed, is best known for its popular Pinyin input system, used everyday by roughly 300 million smartphone users to generate Mandarin from Latin characters. The company also runs a search engine - Sogou - second only to Baidu in the Chinese language market.

The search engine of tomorrow will be a question-and-answer robot, Wang said.

"The future lies in artificial intelligence. For an input system, to capture and recognize voices is not enough," he continued. "Our input system may find the words and sentences for you, to help you think."

Chinese tech companies are becoming more interested in AI research as the dividend from mobile connections alone is on the wane.

The past decade was focused on connecting businesses and people, and the growth of tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent. With 90 percent of China's 700 million Internet users on smartphones, there is little room left for expansion in that direction.

Even Alibaba's Jack Ma admitted at the WIC that the time of "e-commerce" will end as all businesses will soon be connected to the Internet in some way or another.

Cheng Wei, chief executive of ride-haall about AI.

AI research started more than 60 years ago and there have been some major ups-and-downs, Wang explained to his audience. The current wave is backed by unprecedented quantities of data and computing power.

AlphaGo's victories against legendary Go player Lee Se-dol in 2016 were touted a major milestone in AI development.

"I am optimistic there won't be a 'down' this time," Wang said.

A report released by the WIC showed AI research in China attracting $2.6 billion of investment in 2015. Chinese companies have a core competitive advantage against foreign rivals, huge volumes of data with comparatively light restrictions on its use.

Leading the way is search engine Baidu. Company president Zhang Yaqin told Xinhua that about 15 percent of company revenue went on research and development, mostly relating to AI: $1.5 billion last year.

Baidu set up its Institute of Deep Learning AI lab in Silicon Valley and persuaded former Google deep learning founder Andrew Ng to jump ship to become chief scientist of the project. The company has developed a range of AI applications around its "Baidu Brain," including self-driving cars and a voice-controlled assistant called Duer.

The "MIT Technology Review" featured Baidu's Deep Speech among its 2016 top 10 breakthroughs in conversational interfaces. The WIC also put Baidu Brain in its top 15 of the year, prompting a fleet of 15 autonomous cars to appear in the WIC host town of Wuzhen for the public to test "drive." Unfortunately, the limitations of the vehicles were obvious. Staff only allowed members of the public to try out the cars for a few minutes, on a designated section of road, and under close supervision. Taking videos was not allowed.

"There might be some problems and we don't want the public to be confused," said a Baidu employee. "Yes, we are doing great, but around the world this technology is still in its early development. Errors are inevitable."

Jerry Kaplan, a Stanford University computer scientist who attended the conference, said it is not helpful to compare AI to human intelligence.

To him, AI is a collection of tools that allow people to perform tasks with the help of machines, something humans have been doing for two hundred years.

"Don't think about it as an artificial person," Kaplan told Xinhua in an interview. "It is rather a toolkit of techniques can be used to solve a specific problem."

Zhang, Baidu president, said AI "can't do everything" but can free people from repetitive jobs.

"Our ultimate goal is to let people do more creative and more interesting things," he said.

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