Artificial intelligence was the emerging technology that put China in the center of attention last year. It’s no wonder then that this year’s EmTech China conference in Beijing put a major focus on AI. The three-day event organized by MIT Technology Review that began on Sunday gathered some of the most interesting minds from science and business to discuss AI from every corner. We took a peek at how Chinese companies are advancing in this field and how the technology will affect the way we work and educate ourselves.

One of the core concepts discussed was AI in the cloud. This enables the huge amount of computing required by AI applications to be transferred from limited hardware to the cloud.

“If we take cloud as the internet, I think in the future the internet will be the key carrier of many AI applications,” said the president of Alibaba Technology Committee, Jian Wang who talked about Alibaba’s AI plans in smart city and traffic management.

Image credit: EmTech China

“I think it was Andrew Ng who said that AI is the new electricity,” said Animashree Anandkumar, principal scientist at Amazon Web Services. The speakers representing the two biggest cloud companies explained how AI could become something ubiquitous as electricity:

“To me democratized AI comes in different forms,” said Anandkumar. “One is making sure that AI is accessible for everybody, both the results of AI and the people who want to work on AI research. Currently, working on AI requires a huge amount of resources and supercomputers but the cloud is a way to democratize AI because everybody is able to access that huge amount of power.”

But should everyone jump on the AI bandwagon? A talk between three major Chinese AI players Microsoft, Tencent, and iFlytek revealed that AI may not be for everybody.

Image credit: EmTech China

“If a company would like to adopt AI the first thing they need to know is whether they have data,” said Microsoft’s natural language processing researcher Ming Zhou. “If they don’t have the data I wouldn’t suggest AI.”

However, as iFlytek’s senior VP Guoping Hu showed, AI can sometimes be applied in unexpected places.

“I think that companies should first analyze their own business and work to see where AI can be used. We have a cooperation with a pig farm where we use AI to detect if pigs are coughing because there is nobody inside [to monitor the pigs].”

A recurring theme at the event was the question that concerns us all—will AI take our jobs? During the entire event, the speeches and discussions were translated on the screen in real time by iFlytek’s AI software iFlyrec which likely gave chills to the translators covering the event. Tencent’s AI Lab director Tong Zhang also showcased Dreamwriter, the robot reporter.

Guoping Hu, Senior VP and Director of Research at iFlytek, giving a speech while iFlytek’s software translates it in real time (Image credit: TechNode)

Most of the speakers sent reassuring messages that AI will take over the dull, repetitive work freeing up time for us. However, as Tencent AI Lab director Tong Zhang demonstrated, AI is now capable of doing tasks that were thought only humans could do—being creative. Microsoft’s Ming Zhou showed how their AI programs are composing music and performing it on CCTV.

After all the hype around AI and the dark premonitions about its effect on work, it’s not surprising that a lot of students are looking to get into AI. One of China’s leading AI academics Xiao’ou Tang from CUHK advises them otherwise.

“If they had done this five years ago I would definitely encourage them to do this,” said Tang urging them to follow their heart instead of what’s hot on the market. “Five years later everyone will be doing AI, I think a lot of people will not be able to get a job.”

Xiao’ou Tang
Professor at the Department of Information Engineering, CUHK (Image credit: EmTech China)

Tang also touched upon the relationship between the world’s two biggest AI forces.

“I think it would be really nice to have a rivalry, that means that we are equal, that we are advanced. But at this point, we have so much to learn from the US,” Tang shared. “Of course China has its unique advantages: we have a lot more scenarios for AI application and we have a lot more data that is allowed to be used and we don’t have such strict laws about data like in the US. And we have a leadership which is mostly engineers which is why we have this national policy to push for AI research. That’s the advantage on the Chinese side, but the idea is that we should collaborate.”