From inside the bubble of US and European tech it seems that too few people are looking at China as a big player in the game. Censored internet, factories making shoes and bags, nothing cutting edge or innovative. China can’t be doing anything cool, right? But China is in fact a huge player in the game with a long list of global companies and startups pushing innovation with artificial intelligence (AI), The Internet of Things, machine learning, software development and so much more.
Who’s Doing What?
Take Alibaba as a first example. Alibaba is the world's largest retailer and one of the largest Internet and AI companies, offering services from cloud computing to electronic payment. The goal? Enable global digital transformation by providing the fundamental tech infrastructure to help businesses leverage the power of the Internet. In the summer of this year alone, Alibaba has partnered with Siemens to power the industrial Internet of Things in China (more on that later) and provided an artificial intelligence system to a fashion store in Hong Kong that’s capable of learning fashion trends and suggesting outfits to customers.
Then there’s Tencent. As Asia’s most valuable company — these days its market value is greater than Facebook’s — Tencent has fingers in almost every tech- or Internet-related pie you can imagine. Currently investing in AI, machine learning, virtual reality, consumer, computer, and even space technology, Tencent inspires Silicon Valley. Not the other way around.
Let's Talk about Artificial Intelligence
Right now, China is nailing AI. SenseTime is one company at the forefront of the global AI industry with a pioneering belief that AI is going to redefine human life as we know it. The products and services coming as a result are things the rest of the tech and software development world shouldn’t overlook: industry-leading face recognition systems that can identify faces or objects within milliseconds; machine learning algorithms allowing autonomous robots to pick up objects as though they are human and ridiculously advanced artificial intelligence for autonomous driving.
To demonstrate their commitment to AI and show the rest of the world that Chinese tech really means business, SenseTime has recently signed investment and development agreements with three leading tech organisations in Singapore and joined forces with Alibaba and HKSTP to boost AI in Hong Kong.
Aside from face recognition, companies like iFlytek are using artificial intelligence to make a spoken conversation between human and machine as natural as one between you and your best mate. Again, these sort of speech and language technologies are world-leading and influence how the US and Europe go about this kind of business. Take Google Assistant. It can engage in two-way conversations thanks in many ways to the speech recognition, speech synthesis, natural language processing and speech evaluation technology like that developed by iFlytek.
What Else Is Outside the Bubble?
Chinese tech and software development is also shaking up plenty of other industries in ways that might feel a little more relevant to daily life. Just look at Ziroom. An app like Airbnb but for long-term rentals, it uses the individual credit ratings of users instead of cash deposits to allow leasing. When you keep in mind that most Chinese house rental firms usually charge five months’ rent in advance before letting a property, Ziroom’s tech lifts a heavy burden off the shoulders of new tenants.
Further down the line, Ziroom plans to furnish its own properties with smart furniture and this idea of the smart home is one that countless other Chinese startups are jumping on as well. Fuelled by flourishing Chinese AI, LifeSmart is one startup looking to boost the global smart home market through innovative products that combine to make a smart ecosystem and enhance the Internet of Things. And then you’ve got Gizwits, another AI-driven startup platform providing developers with Internet of Things management tools, data analytics modules and cloud services.
Look Sharp: China Is Innovating
So, to go back to that room full of people, some may suggest that China’s tech scene is blocked. Waiting for some digital wall of censorship to fall while California takes all the glory. But as is clear from just this surface glance at the ways Chinese conglomerates and startups are investing heavily in tech, the opposite is true.
Chinese AI, machine learning and face recognition tech is arguably more advanced than anywhere else in the world and Chinese manufacturing spending on Internet of Things tech is estimated to rise to $127.5 billion by 2020. China is now the world leader in e-commerce and the boundaries of software development for smartphones, home gadgets and more are being pushed all the time.
Just look at Tencent’s WeChat, a multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app. WeChat is not playing catchup. It’s dangling hundreds of millions of users and superior features in front of Silicon Valley and saying “catch me if you can”. An obvious example, maybe, but WeChat defines the point: Chinese tech is flourishing big, and the US and Europe ought to take note.