Face of the fu­ture

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS -

Coun­cil on Thurs­day. Voice com­put­ing is an im­por­tant part of that am­bi­tious goal, which the pri­vate sec­tor is de­ter­mined to reach.

For in­stance, on July 5, e-com­merce be­he­moth Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd un­veiled its Tmall Ge­nie X1, its voice-driven dig­i­tal speaker, which is mod­eled on Ama­zon.com Inc’s Echo and Google’s Home.

The same day, Baidu Inc, the Chi­nese in­ter­net search leader, show­cased its Man­darin-speak­ing DuerOS per­sonal as­sis­tant.

Such voice-based speak­ers can stream mu­sic, news­casts, so on, and can be im­proved to per­form other tasks.

To­ward that end, Baidu an­nounced a new deal to ac­quire a startup spe­cial­iz­ing in the de­vel­op­ment of voice recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Not to be left be­hind, Ten­cent Hold­ings Ltd, China’s so­cial net­work­ing and gam­ing ti­tan, is de­vel­op­ing its own voice-based speaker for launch within months.

Huawei Tech­nolo­gies Co Ltd, the world’s third-largest smart­phone man­u­fac­turer, jumped onto the voice-based tech­nol­ogy band­wagon, hir­ing more than 100 re­searchers to work on de­vel­op­ing a Siri-like as­sis­tant.

Ac­cord­ing to a Bloomberg re­port, more than 60 com­pa­nies in China are work­ing with US-based Conex­ant Sys­tems Inc, an au­dio tech­nol­ogy player, to in­tro­duce voice-ac­ti­vated in­tel­li­gent de­vices.

“Voice in­ter­ac­tion, though still nascent, will be of ut­most im­por­tance in fu­ture. In the in­ter­net-of-things era, most in­ter­net-con­nected de­vices won’t have screens. Voice con­trol will be the most con­ve­nient way to in­ter­act with them,” said Liu Xingliang, pres­i­dent of the Data Cen­ter of China In­ter­net, a Bei­jing-based mar­ket re­search com­pany.

Re­cent facts and fig­ures ap­pear to back Liu’s vi­sion. In China, the speech recog­ni­tion mar­ket ex­panded by about 40 per­cent to 4.03 bil­lion yuan ($635 mil­lion) in 2015, faster than the $6.12 bil­lion global mar­ket which grew at 34 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Speech In­dus­try Al­liance of China.

The China mar­ket is ex­pected to grow al­most 70 per­cent year-on-year to 10.07 bil­lion yuan in sales this year. Some 2 mil­lion smart speak­ers will likely be shipped in China this year, a frac­tion of the 14 mil­lion in the US; and 22 mil­lion will be sold in China in 2022, ac­cord­ing to Coun­ter­point Re­search es­ti­mates.

With po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions of the tech­nol­ogy grow­ing by the day on the back of con­stant im­prove­ments, Grand View Re­search projects the global mar­ket will reach $128 bil­lion in 2024.

“... it’s a com­bi­na­tion of qual­ity and in­no­va­tion that is linked to growth and de­mand.” Jef­frey Lu, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Meng­niu sales of the speech recog­ni­tion seg­ment in China in 2015

That kind of op­ti­mism stems from the high level of ac­cu­racy of the tech­nol­ogy. For in­stance, in 2015, An­drew Ng, for­mer chief sci­en­tist at Baidu, said the tech­nol­ogy was about 95 per­cent ac­cu­rate. Stated dif­fer­ently, de­vices were able to hear and act on about 19 out of 20 words cor­rectly.

That is, there were not too many se­ri­ous risks to con­sumers seen aris­ing from de­vices mis­hear­ing words and act­ing in ways con­trary to com­mands.

And now, the ac­cu­racy rate is said to be higher — 97 to 98 per­cent. Baidu and iF­lytek Co Ltd are lead­ing the voice tech­nol­ogy pack.

To be sure, tech­no­log­i­cal hur­dles ex­ist. James Yan, re­search di­rec­tor at Coun­ter­point, said, “More ef­forts are needed so that third-party ser­vices can be swiftly ac­ti­vated through voice con­trol.”

Im­prove­ments are com­ing at a faster rate than ex­pected as big data is crunched, an­a­lyzed and made to yield in­sights, which, in turn, are open­ing up voice recog­ni­tion plat­forms to third-party ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to Analysys, a Bei­jing-based mar­ket re­search com­pany.

With mar­ket po­ten­tial in­creas­ing, Chi­nese com­pa­nies are scram­bling to un­veil al­ways-on lis­ten­ing de­vices that are ea­ger to com­mu­ni­cate or in­ter­act with their “mas­ters”.

For in­stance, e-com­merce gi­ant Alibaba is em­u­lat­ing Ama­zon in en­vi­sion­ing a cen­tral role for voice-driven smart speak­ers that con­sumers can use to con­trol al­most ev­ery­thing at home.

Its Tmall Ge­nie X1 speaker can sim­plify on­line shop­ping by ex­e­cut­ing pur­chases based on voice com­mands.

Sim­i­larly, JD.com Inc, another lead­ing on­line mar­ket­place, has un­veiled sev­eral ver­sions of smart speak­ers by us­ing iF­lytek’s voice recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

JD said it sold around 10,700 speak­ers dur­ing last year’s Nov 11 on­line shop­ping fes­ti­val and the fol­low­ing two weeks.

“Many do­mes­tic play­ers are in­spired by (Ama­zon) Echo’s phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess in the United States,” said Zhang Yin, an an­a­lyst at Ori­ent Se­cu­ri­ties.

In the fourth quar­ter of 2016, the Echo ac­counted for about 88 per­cent of ship­ments of 4.2 mil­lion in­tel­li­gent home speak­ers in the US. In that quar­ter, US ship­ments were up nearly 600 per­cent year-on-year, ac­cord­ing to Strat­egy An­a­lyt­ics.

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