ifly­tek: Beat­ing to the Pulse of the AI Era

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Hu Zhoumeng Pho­to­graphs by Zheng Liang

Do you get sore fin­gers af­ter tex­ting your friends for a long time? In China, ifly­tek, an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy com­pany work­ing on in­tel­li­gent voice sys­tems, might of­fer a so­lu­tion—you just need to speak to your phone, and its ifly­tek voice in­put app will con­vert your voice into text. In ad­di­tion to iden­ti­fy­ing ma­jor di­alects in China, the app can in­stantly trans­late Man­darin Chi­nese into English, Ja­panese and Korean, re­port­edly with 97 per­cent ac­cu­racy. To date, it has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar in­put meth­ods in China, with 430 mil­lion users.

Look­ing be­yond mo­bile de­vices like smart­phones and tablets, in­tel­li­gent voice in­put is also a god­send for of­fice work­ers who are tied to com­put­ers, typ­ing all day long. In an ef­fort to en­able them to in­put and edit text in doc­u­ments with their voices, Mi­mouse Tech­nol­ogy, a com­pany founded in 2015, has pro­duced a smart mouse us­ing ifly­tek’s tech­nol­ogy. Feng Hai­hong of Mi­mouse said that they had re­ceived or­ders of over 40 mil­lion yuan up to Jan­uary of this year.

Voice tech­nol­ogy is get­ting smarter day by day. It doesn’t just rec­og­nize voices, but also un­der­stands and an­a­lyzes them, help-

ing ma­chines “talk” with peo­ple. As it is ap­plied more widely in daily life, ifly­tek has ex­panded its busi­ness into many sec­tors, in­clud­ing smart home ap­pli­ances and smart cars. With a voice com­mand, you can now ask your fa­vorite show to play on TV, wind for­wards or back­wards wher­ever you like, or ask for di­rec­tions when driv­ing. You can even ask whether there are any good restau­rants nearby. China’s TV in­dus­try lead­ers in­clud­ing TCL, Sky­worth, Haier and Konka have joined hands with ifly­tek, and car makers Audi, BMW, Mercedes-benz and Ford are also its partners. By the end of 2016, the num­ber of ve­hi­cles pre-set with ifly­tek’s man-ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion tech­nol­ogy had risen to one mil­lion.

Aside from mak­ing it eas­ier to use var­i­ous fa­cil­i­ties, in­tel­li­gent voice tech­nol­ogy also tends to re­place work­ers. Ap­ple’s Siri and Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana may en­ter­tain users, but the in­tel­li­gent in­ter­ac­tive ro­bot ‘Xiao­man,’ launched by ifly­tek at the end of last year, is tak­ing real jobs. Nowa­days, more than 20 of these ro­bots are work­ing at banks, help­ing clients with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and ser­vice guid­ance.

When it was first built, ifly­tek saw its mis­sion as achiev­ing smooth com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween man and ma­chine. In­tro­duc­ing deep learn­ing into voice stud­ies in 2010, the com­pany has made its own way in the field of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), from voice iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and speech syn­the­sis to man-ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion. For now, ifly­tek’s mar­ket value stands at close to 50 bil­lion yuan, and its busi­ness stretches be­yond China into Amer­ica’s Sil­i­con Val­ley and Ja­pan.

The grow­ing busi­ness ac­tu­ally de­rived from a group of pas­sion­ate young en­trepreneurs 18 years ago. Back in 1999, China’s voice tech­nol­ogy mar­ket hadn’t re­ally taken off, as tech gi­ants like IBM, Mi­crosoft and Mo­torola still dom­i­nated. At that time, Liu Qingfeng, founder of ifly­tek, was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy of China in An­hui Prov­ince. Liu gath­ered a group of friends who were fas­ci­nated by tech­nol­ogy, and started a busi­ness with a team of 18 mem­bers. They worked un­til three or four o’clock in the morn­ing ev­ery day in a rented res­i­den­tial apart­ment, Liu re­called, and it was usu­ally in­stant meals that filled their bel­lies. Some­times, he even made do with cucumbers.

From a ded­i­cated young en­tre­pre­neur to the board chair­man of ifly­tek, Liu has led his busi­ness into the spot­light on the world stage. In May 2016, the com­pany claimed its 11th straight cham­pi­onship at the Bl­iz­zard Chal­lenge, an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion for cor­pus-based speech syn­the­siz­ers. In the same year, it also won the first prize at the Wino­grad Schema Chal­lenge, a renowned test of ma­chine in­tel­li­gence.

An ifly­tek em­ployee demon­strates a smart class sys­tem, through which tar­geted classes and home­work can be de­liv­ered.

This smart au­to­mo­bile model, cre­ated by ifly­tek, can be con­trolled by a hu­man voice.

A ro­bot cre­ated by ifly­tek that can be op­er­ated by a hu­man voice.

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