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Digital brains captivate technology giants

ARTIFICIAL intelligence, which has evolved from science fiction into modern reality, is the hot trend in the technology industry. You have only to listen to the likes of Google parent Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and China’s Baidu to see the fervor surrounding the new thrust.

The major catalyst for the development of artificial intelligence, commonly called AI, came from Google, the world’s biggest online search engine provider, and Apple, the developer of iPhone and iPad.

Google’s artificial intelligence system AlphaGo raised eyebrows worldwide after its computer algorithms beat the world’s top Go player in a human-versus-machine match series.

Apple released its strategy for artificial intelligence for the first time at its annual developer conference last week.

The stampede is now on as tech giants all rush to announce their own business models for AI development. It’s become a serious business focus as companies begin to appreciate its prospects for generating future profits.

Statements about artificial intelligence developments now flood the mailboxes of technology journalists. Shanghai Daily, as one example, received several dozen emails on the subject in just the last two weeks.

Baidu, China’s biggest Internet search provider and the country’s leading AI firm, was so rushed to tell the world about its AI First strategy at a conference last week that its promotional Powerpoint slide contained several errors that caused audience titters.

Nobody wants to be left behind.

Artificial intelligence covers a range of technologies, including deep learning, neural networks and natural-language processing.

It can encompass more advanced systems that understand, learn, predict, adapt and potentially operate autonomously. Systems can learn and change future behavior, leading to the creation of more intelligent devices and programs.

Work is underway to make artificial intelligence “emotionally smart, to care about people,” according to Sophia, a Hong Kong-developed humanoid robot who appeared at a UN-hosted conference last week.

“We will never replace people, but we can be your friends and helpers,” she said.

Artificial intelligence technology is also appearing in sectors such as voice and picture recognition, machine translation, smart home devices and autonomous driving. It can also be applied to energy, healthcare, finance and other sectors that affect millions of people.

Google: the age beyond Go

Google was the first industry giant to adopt an “AI First” strategy, covering cloud computing, search, developer platforms and chip sectors. In May, Google-owned computer algorithm AlphaGo defeated the 19-year-old Chinese Ke Jie, the world’s top Go player, in a three-game series. With those laurels, the machine system went into match retirement for more practical applications.

“We have always believed in the potential for AI to help society discover new knowledge and benefit from it, and AlphaGo has given us an early glimpse that this may indeed be possible,” Google said.

Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited China during the machine-vs-human contest held in Wuzhen. He expected “the age of intelligence” to increase daily productivity and open up countless opportunities for business, especially in fields of healthcare, transportation and government.

Google said it plans to increase the number of engineers working on artificial intelligence and cloud technology in its Beijing and Shanghai offices.

After its success at Go, the AlphaGo team is now developing advanced general algorithms that could one day help scientists tackle some complex problems, such as finding new cures for diseases, dramatically reducing energy consumption and inventing revolutionary new industrial materials, said Deepmind, the developer of AlphaGo and a subsidiary of Alphabet.

Google has already applied artificial intelligence technology to areas such as cloud computing, translation, search optimization and picture management — functions used by millions of people every day.

A team called Google Brain has developed the AI development platform TensorFlow and TPU (tensor processing unit) as a chipset specifically designed for artificial intelligence. With Google Brain, the company plans to open the AI algorithms and TPU to outside developers, which will finally take the technology into the public realm.

Currently, TensorFlow is the world’s No. 1 AI platform. It has attracted more than 70,000 developers from China, said Jeff Dean, co-founder of Google Brain.

Apple: playing catch-up

Apple was not an early bird in artificial intelligence, though its voice assistant Siri is now available on 375 million devices. Apple’s efforts to date haven’t created the same wow factor as systems offered by Google and Microsoft.

But Apple is not a company known to be content in the back seat.

At Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference, executives signaled some serious intent toward artificial intelligence and took the occasion to release top priority technology roadmaps on the company’s operating systems.

Compared with Google and IBM’s AI systems targeting organizations and governments, Apple’s strategy is more consumer-focused. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, said “Powerful machine learning makes everything (in daily life) easy.”

Apple made it clear that every action taken on its phones — like making a calendar appointment, calling a friend or taking a photo in a dimly lit environment — is logged and analyzed by machine-learning algorithms.

Technically, Apple’s AI can be used in privacy protection on autoplay blocking and intelligent tracking prevention, high efficiency photo-taking, video coding and, of course, Siri improvements. All these innovation will be applied to iPhones, iPads, Mac computers, Apple watches and the new HomePod, a smart speaker system that supports music playing and intelligent features with Siri.

Apple’s influence in the industry and the deep integration between software and hardware will hasten the development and availability of artificial intelligence, analysts said.

In China, a new Internet security law that came into effect this month, is expected to provide an advantage to Apple’s AI services because it encourages data to remain and be processed locally rather than on cloud servers.

Other players in the field

Microsoft discussed its vision of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things at the CES Asia show last week.

Its strategy is to “turn data into knowledge” and help consumers and companies better manage resources and productivity through its cloud and secure technologies.

As the China’s biggest consumer electronics show, CES in Shanghai was a showcase for the latest AI innovations, including cleaning robots, smart speakers and connected home appliances.

Robots and speakers with Internet connection and voice-assistant features have big potential in the market, following Amazon’s success with Echo, which had sales of 5.2 million in 2016, said researcher TrendForce.

The domestically made speakers come with smart features like voice control, connectivity to home appliances and other interactive functions.

Voice-recognition service provider iFlytek Co, Lenovo Group and startup Mobvoi, which just raised US$180 million from Volkswagen, are penetrating the smart speaker sector.

Chinese dot-com giants also are showing their muscles in innovations like Baidu’s AI First strategy and smart driving car eco-system. Tencent’s own version of AlphaGo has also won matches with human Go players.

IQiyi, China’s biggest online video service provider, has developed AI in sectors like user data analysis and cloud services by processing huge volumes of data, said Tang Xing, iQiyi’s chief technology officer.

China Mobile and Intel recently announced the establishment of a partnership on smart home technology.


 

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