Scal­ing AI peaks one af­ter an­other

China Daily European Weekly - - BUSINESS - By MA SI masi@chi­

On May 16, via a video link, United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump “ad­dressed” a con­fer­ence in Tian­jin from Wash­ing­ton and floored the au­di­ence with his al­most flaw­less Chi­nese.

Trump high­lighted the big leaps made in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, or AI, but what im­pressed the au­di­ence more was the US pres­i­dent’s tone — his Chi­nese in­to­na­tions, in­flec­tions and pitch were near per­fect.

Well, as it tran­spired, the voice was not re­ally Trump’s, af­ter all, but that of an AI-en­abled voice tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by iF­lytek Co Ltd. And, for the record, un­like his grand­daugh­ter, Trump knows hardly any Chi­nese.

The iF­lytek tech­nol­ogy demon­strated its speech syn­the­sis ca­pa­bil­ity — it can pro­duce an un­be­liev­ably hu­man-like voice. The Trump video clip show­cased iF­lytek’s broad ef­forts to tap into voice com­put­ing, which is said to be the next ma­jor medium for man-ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion.

The man who helms the An­huibased com­pany is Liu Qingfeng, 45, a sci­en­tist-turned en­tre­pre­neur. Liu founded iF­lytek in 1999, when he was a sec­ond-year PhD stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China.

In 2017, MIT Tech­nol­ogy Re­view, an es­tab­lished sci­ence mag­a­zine pub­lished by the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, re­leased a re­port nam­ing iF­lytek as the smartest Chi­nese com­pany. To earn the ac­co­lade, it beat well-known con­tenders such as Ten­cent Hold­ings Ltd, Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd and Baidu Inc.

At the global level, iF­lytek ranks sixth, just be­low fifth-ranked Al­pha­bet Inc. Com­pa­nies are se­lected for the honor based on their achieve­ments in com­bin­ing in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy with an ef­fec­tive busi­ness model.

iF­lytek has made a name for it­self with prod­ucts and ser­vices like voice-based digital as­sis­tants, re­al­time por­ta­ble trans­la­tors, au­to­mated court clerks that re­view cer­tain types of cases, med­i­cal ro­bots and AI-en­abled as­sis­tants to pri­mary school teach­ers, with a mar­ket foot­print span­ning 31 prov­inces across China and R&D lab­o­ra­to­ries in the United States.

The com­pany’s 2017 profit was 2.8 bil­lion yuan ($410 mil­lion) on a rev­enue of 5.45 bil­lion yuan, with the com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tion of AI still in its in­fancy.

Liu’s mis­sion to take voice recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies be­yond the ex­per­i­men­tal stage has been a long one. Al­most no one be­lieved he could suc­ceed. In the late 1990s, the China mar­ket for voice recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies was dom­i­nated by US com­pa­nies such as IBM and Mi­crosoft Corp.

Liu and his col­leagues seemed to have noth­ing but a pas­sion to learn and achieve some­thing.

Then 26, Liu got a few of his univer­sity friends to­gether and raised a seed fund from the univer­sity to found iF­lytek. Soon, he re­al­ized be­ing a sci­en­tist and an en­tre­pre­neur are two fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent things.

“When I was en­gaged in sci­en­tific re­search, I would bury my­self in books and ex­per­i­ments, ig­nor­ing every­body else. But as an en­tre­pre­neur, I can’t be so capri­cious,” Liu says. “When meet­ing some­one bet­ter than me, I can’t just think of beat­ing him or her. In­stead, if they are the best peo­ple I could re­cruit, I must be kind to them, en­cour­age them and help them grow.”

The sea­soned ex­ec­u­tive now of­ten refers to him­self as a “mother” who is on a night jour­ney with a string of chil­dren. “The road ahead may be fraught with traps, pit­falls and peo­ple who want to cheat you. While walk­ing on this un­known road, I must pro­tect the kids fol­low­ing me.”

iF­lytek re­al­ized the voice com­put­ing sec­tor was set for ex­plo­sive growth, thanks to break­throughs in ma­chine learn­ing al­go­rithms. Even as it made head­way, BAT, or Baidu, Alibaba and Ten­cent, the tri­umvi­rate of Chi­nese in­ter­net­based busi­nesses, for­ayed into the seg­ment, pre­sent­ing stiff com­pe­ti­tion in voice com­put­ing and strate­gic voice in­ter­ac­tion.

“iF­lytek’s big­gest edge lies in our 19 years of con­sis­tent in­put into the re­search and devel­op­ment of orig­i­nal tech­nolo­gies. No mat­ter how in­no­va­tive oth­ers are brand­ing their tech­nolo­gies, they must put them in com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions,” Liu says.

Cur­rently, iF­lytek ac­counts for 70 per­cent of China’s mar­ket in voice-based tech­nolo­gies, ac­cord­ing to data from the Speech In­dus­try Al­liance of China. Its voice as­sis­tant tech­nol­ogy is the Siri of China, and its real-time por­ta­ble trans­la­tor puts AI to re­mark­able use, over­com­ing dialect, slang and back­ground noise to trans­late be­tween Chi­nese and 33 other lan­guages with high ac­cu­racy.

The com­pany is also lever­ag­ing its tech­nol­ogy reper­toire to branch out into other AI-en­abled sec­tors. It is de­vel­op­ing an AI-en­abled sys­tem to as­sist courts in re­view­ing four types of cases, namely mur­der, theft, tele­com fraud and il­le­gal fundrais­ing.

Its med­i­cal ro­bot also passed the writ­ten test of China’s na­tional med­i­cal li­cens­ing ex­am­i­na­tion in Novem­ber last year. Now, it is be­ing ap­plied to hos­pi­tals in An­hui prov­ince to func­tion as a gen­eral prac­ti­tioner and help doc­tors treat dis­eases.

Its AI-sys­tem has also been ap­plied in the class­rooms of pri­mary and mid­dle schools across the coun­try to help teach­ers bet­ter ed­u­cate stu­dents.

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