This is the first post of TechNode’s profile of Chinese AI and robotics firms present at the Beijing edition of Global Mobile Internet Conference or GMIC. Read Part 2 here.
GMIC kicked off with a somewhat ominous recorded message from Stephen Hawking, played on a massive screen at the China National Convention Center in Beijing.
“AI could be the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity,” warned the renowned Cambridge physicist in his distinctive mechanized voice. “AI could spell the end of the human race.”
An unusual way to start a technology conference featuring many of China’s AI and robotics firms. So TechNode took to the exhibition floor and talked to representatives from these companies. What do they think of Professor Hawking’s message?
iFlytek is China’s leading speech technology company providing voice recognition and distributed speech synthesis tech to over 80% of the market that uses such technology, for example, firms that offer service-type robots. The company is listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and is currently worth about RMB 41.92 billion.
While internet giants like Baidu and Tencent have also entered the voice recognition and speech synthesis arena, iFlytek has been solely dedicated to voice tech since being founded in 1999. The company provides its software to firms and developers on an open platform, as well as offering tailored hardware. In fact, iFlytek has so many robotics firms as its clients, it organized a large exhibition stand for itself and several of its clients at GMIC.
Could AI end humanity?
“Technology naturally has its positives and negatives,” iFlytek Open Platform’s Zhou Yue said. “Even if AI replaces human labor in some fields, our sense of humor and artistic appreciation can’t be replaced. So maybe in the future, our arts and culture industry will flourish even more. So I think [AI] is more of a good thing.”
Smart Dynamics was one of the robotics firms invited to GMIC by iFlytek and brought its Aiwa robot. Whenever someone calls out “Aiwa!”, the robot turns its head in the direction of the voice.
The two-year-old Shenzhen-based robotics firm focuses on B2B, targeting clients such as banks, airports, and hospitals. Its Aiwa series of robots are equipped with facial and voice recognition technology and are designed to carry out basic reception duties. Its other series of robots offer patrol and cleaning capabilities.
AI replacing humans?
“AI replacing humans is still in the realms of theory,” said Smart Dynamics sales manager Kong Lingtao. “Whether AI can threaten humanity, we’ll have to see in 30, 50 years’ time.”
On being asked about Aiwa replacing staff working in reception or cleaning, Kong saw this as a positive.
“You can’t look at it this way. Some people will advance themselves. [Robots will only] free people from simple, repetitive tasks to do more meaningful jobs. This is a stage in our society’s progress.”
Another Shenzhen-based robotics company, Ubtech is making inroads in the international market. 60% of its sales come from outside of China and their products are available at Amazon and Walmart. At GMIC, they showcased the Alpha 1 and 2, Jimu and Cruzr robots.
Their Alpha series are home entertainment robots capable of a range of motions. The Alpha 1 has 16 motor servos (similar to muscle joints) while the Alpha 2 ups that number to 20. The robots are also working with an app where you can program motions you’d like the robot to perform. Ubtech Jimu robots are a type of educational robot that resembles Lego and can be modified while the Cruzr is the B2B offering, capable of basic reception duties.
Do you agree with Stephen Hawking?
“I half agree and half disagree with Professor Hawking,” Ubtech domestic sales manager Reymo Hong said. “In many fields, [AI] technology has great value. However, in the medical field, if [AI] has accidents, that could negatively affect the development of [AI] technology.”
What if AI technology takes over the human race?
“Tasks that require human thinking cannot be implemented by robots. But in the future, it’s hard to tell. Humans should be smarter in the future, so we shouldn’t be scared by the progress in AI.”