China is aiming be the world’s leading player in artificial intelligence (人工智能) by 2030 and by some measures, the country appears to be on track.
According to a report by CB Insights, Chinese companies seem to be overtaking their US counterparts in AI-related patent applications; the number of patents published in China containing the words “artificial intelligence” and “deep learning” have grown rapidly over the past few years, and the middle Kingdom finished 2017 with six times more patent publications containing those words than the United States in 2017.
While the United States continues to lead in terms of the number of AI startups and equity deal volume, it has seen its share of global AI equity deal volume shrink from 77% in 2013 to 50% in 2017. By comparison, China accounts for a mere 9% share of the world’s AI equity deal volume.
However, in terms of global AI funding value, China is the dominant player accounting for 48% of global equity funding in 2017 representing a major increase from the 10% share China held in 2016 and surpassing the United States for the first time. By comparison, the United States accounted for 38% while the rest of the world accounted for the balance 13% of global AI funding value in 2017.
The numbers are likely to be just the beginning for China’s AI industry expansion which, driven by government funding, an encouraging regulatory environment, and the natural advantage of having the world’s largest population yielding unrivaled quantities of data (AI systems need to be “trained” with real-world data and the more data fed into a system, the more accurate it is) positions China as a hotbed of AI opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs.
The Chinese government has set forth a plan for the Development of a New Generation of Artificial Intelligence Industry, which runs in three stages during which the country’s AI capabilities will be steadily developed through 2020 and 2025 and conclude in 2030 when the government aims China will be the leading player in artificial intelligence.
Towards this end, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) unveiled the first stage of the plan in December 2017, a detailed Three-Year Action Plan (2018-2020) which supports the local AI sector as a strategic area by developing AI-related technologies, bolstering AI talent and investing in AI research through various initiatives, incentives, grants, and funding commitments. The plan focuses on the development of some key AI areas namely,
- Intelligent Networked Vehicles (智能网联汽车)
- Intelligent Service Robots (智能服务机器人)
- Intelligent Drones (智能无人机)
- Medical Imaging Diagnostic Systems (医疗影像辅助诊断系统)
- Video Image Recognition (视频图像识别)
- Intelligent Voice Systems (智能语音)
- Intelligent Translation Systems (智能翻译)
This creates tremendous business opportunities. By 2030, the Chinese government expects China’s AI sector to blossom into a CNY 1 trillion (US$ 150 billion) industry which could stimulate as much as CNY 10 trillion in related businesses.
The opportunity has attracted local and foreign tech giants eager to profit from China’s burgeoning AI industry. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) for instance has opened an AI research facility, Google AI China Center, in Beijing to hire China’s top talent in artificial intelligence while homegrown tech giants such as Alibaba (NYSE:BABA), Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), Tencent (HKG:0700), Xiaomi, Huawei and JD.com (NASDAQ:JD) are making hefty investments in AI technologies.
Artificial Intelligence chips
AI systems depend on powerful AI chips to run and while numerous Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are actively deploying AI technologies to improve their core offerings, much of the AI chips that power their systems are made by foreign suppliers such as Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC).
Although China is the world’s largest semiconductor market, accounting for about 45% of the world’s demand for chips (also known as integrated circuits), much of the country’s demand for chips is met through imports which account for about 90% of China’s total consumption of integrated circuits.
AI chips make up the basic infrastructure of AI systems and having a greater presence in the supply of such strategic components could potentially facilitate the Chinese government to achieve its goal of becoming an AI powerhouse.
Furthermore, as the global AI industry expands at a rapid clip, the global AI chips market is expected to witness extraordinary growth as well. According to research from ResearchAndMarkets, the AI chipset market is poised to expand from US$ 7.06 billion in 2018 to US$ 59.26 billion by 2025, representing a CAGR of 35.5% during 2018-2025.
Globally, chip startups have raised more than US$ 1.5 billion from in venture capital funding last year, nearly double the amount the year before according to CB Insights.
The Chinese government appears intent on capturing some of that profit potential too; in its Three Year Action Plan (2018-2020), the Chinese government aims to mass-produce neural network processing chips by 2020. China’s previous attempts to build the local semiconductor sector (from as way back as the 1990s) had mixed results partly due to the fact that government incentives and funds were concentrated on research and academia than on business.
This time however, Chinese AI chip businesses seeing greater government support, putting them in good position to participate in the growing global AI chip market.
Within 18 months of its founding by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Chinese AI chip developer Cambricon Technologies raised US$ 100 million in Series A funding making it China’s first AI unicorn. Led by SDIC Chuangye Investment Management which is a subsidiary of China’s State Development and Investment Corporation, the funding round attracted prominent investors including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, computer manufacturer Lenovo (HKG:0992), robotics company Zhongke Tuling Century Beijing Technology and the investment arm of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
Scientists and engineers from Beijing’s Tsinghua University (which is known as China’s ‘MIT’) have developed “Thinker” a multi-purpose AI chip that can support any neural network and is extremely energy efficient. Beijing-based chip manufacturer Tsinghua Unigroup, a subsidiary of Tsinghua Holdings which is owned by Tsinghua University received up to US$ 22 billion in state financing in early 2017.
Chinese e-commerce goliath Alibaba is also reportedly developing its own chips, joining global tech giants such as Google, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) which are already working building their own AI chips. Called the Ali-NPU, Alibaba’s AI chips will be made available for anyone to use through its Alibaba Cloud service.
Over the past few years, China’s facial recognition market has seen a rapid growth in investment in terms of deal value and volume.
According to CB Insights, of all countries in the world, China appears to be making the greatest use of facial recognition software with the technology being widely used throughout the country from supermarkets, airports, streets, office buildings, apartments, hotels, bank counters and ATMs.
The business opportunity has given birth to a number of Chinese facial recognition startups such as Alibaba-backed AI unicorn SenseTime (the most valuable AI startup in the world as if April 2018), Megvii (which develops Face++, one of China’s most common facial recognition platforms used for applications such as to manage entry in places such as Beijing’s train stations and Alibaba’s office building, and to enable Alipay customers to authenticate payment), CloudWalk Technology (a facial recognition software developer whose clients include the Zimbabwean government and Bank of China), DeepGlint, Zoloz and Yitu Technology (which counts the Malaysian Police as a client).
Chinese police are already using facial recognition sunglasses to track its citizens and the Chinese government is reportedly aiming to build a national database that will recognize any of the 1.3 billion citizens in China (the world’s most populous country) in three seconds. Already, more than 4,000 people have been arrested by Chinese authorities, helped by facial recognition technology.
Alipay, China’s most popular mobile payment app owned Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial has rolled out the world’s first payment system that uses facial recognition to enable customers to authenticate payments using just their face and a second authentication using their mobile phones.
In spite of China seeing rapid advancements in facial recognition, there is still considerable potential for the industry to grow driven by the growth of intelligent vehicles in China.
While autonomous cars are gathering momentum worldwide, China, the world’s largest car market is speeding towards intelligent vehicles with the country’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission naming intelligent vehicles as a national priority in a three year action plan unveiled in December 2017.
Autonomous cars refer to vehicles that are equipped with sensors and GPS while intelligent vehicles (the so called “smartphones on wheels”) refer to cars with technologies such as road safety monitoring, interactive entertainment, facial recognition, voice interaction systems and in-vehicle payment systems.
By 2020, the Chinese government expects the market share of smart vehicles to reach 50% of total new vehicles sold in China. Towards that end, the Chinese authorities have taken steps to boost the country’s intelligent and connected vehicle industry such as through talent training and research, encouraging investment, and encouraging cross-border mergers and acquisitions.
Strong regulatory support coupled with Chinese car buyers’ seemingly high enthusiasm for connected vehicles which presents a potentially sizeable market for smart cars suggests the government’s target could be within reach. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey in 2017, 64% of Chinese consumers would switch brands for better in-car connectivity. By comparison, 37% of Americans would switch brands for better in-car connectivity and just 19% of Germans would do the same.
The opportunity has turned China’s intelligent connected vehicle market into a hot sector attracting a raft of companies, from established tech giants to smaller startups, keen to participate.
Alibaba has signed agreements with auto companies such as Ford (NYSE:F), Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen and SAIC Motor (SHA:600104) to develop connected vehicles which use its AliOS automotive operating system which was unveiled in 2016.
Chinese social media behemoth Tencent has teamed up with Changan Automobile, while Chinese internet giant Baidu has partnered with Great Wall Motors towards develop intelligent connected vehicles.