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Pay with your smile

You can pay with your face

China is set to become a leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. For that, the state spends billions. Chinese consumers are already experiencing the effects in everyday life today.

Chinese AI expert Kai-Fu Lee recently told the following story: He was on a business trip to the US, and on the way to a conference on "Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work" he got into a conversation with his Uber driver. How long it would take until his job is done by a computer, the man wanted to know from Lee. Lee thought for a moment and replied: 15-20 years. Whereupon the Uber driver sighed in relief, after all, he would be already retired by then. Lee was relieved too. "I was glad that that I was asked this question in America. In China, I would have told the driver that it will not be ten years before he loses his job to a computer."
Whether autonomous driving really becomes reality so quickly and actually in China earlier than elsewhere, experts' predictions differ. Finally, legal regulations, traffic management and sensor technology also play a role in this field. But one thing is certain: China's government has recognized the importance of future technologies. And it leaves no doubt that it is determined to win the global competition, for example in the area of artificial intelligence (AI).

1. Money

By 2030, the People's Republic of China is to become an AI super power - according to a plan of the State Council. Countless research projects, initiatives and projects have since been tackled. An overview of how much China invests in AI projects does not exist, however, it was recently decided to build a $ 2.1 billion AI technology park in western Beijing.

By comparison, the US government spent $ 1.2 billion on "non-secret" AI programs in 2016. And, according to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2018, the Trump government plans to reduce spending on science and technology by 15 percent. "That's exactly the wrong way", Thomas Kalil recently commented in the New York Times. Kalil led technology and innovation in the Obama administration.

2. Research

China's catching up is already in full swing. KI expert Kai-Fu Lee admits that the absolute pinnacle of AI research is undoubtedly still firmly in the American and Canadian hands. "But look to China, the number of researchers is growing incredibly fast." At last year's Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the world's premier AI conference, 23 percent of the papers were submitted by Chinese - this is an increase of 13 percent compared to 2012; while in the same period the influence of American scientists fell dramatically, from 41 percent to now 34 percent. A similar trend can be seen in the top 100 AI journals.

Lee himself has contributed to this trend by founding the Microsoft Research Asia Center in China a few years ago. More than 5000 junior researchers are now trained here with a focus on artificial intelligence. Graduates from this program work for leading Chinese companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent or Haier, some even as CTOs or AI directors.  

3. Cooperations

Together with the Chinese company Mobvoi, Volkswagen is developing AI technologies for the automotive industry.

Volkswagen Group China and Mobvoi Inc., a leading Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) company, have entered a strategic partnership in 2017. The joint venture will develop and apply AI technologies to automotive industry. Utilizing Mobvoi’s leading voice recognition, natural language processing technologies, vertical search and proactive search, together with Volkswagen’s leading position as an automotive and mobility player, the joint venture shall continue to explore and provide the answer to the future smart mobility. Prof. Dr. Jochem Heizmann, Member of the Board of Management of Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft as well as President and CEO of Volkswagen Group China, said: “This partnership is a particular example of Volkswagen’s determination to work with groundbreaking Chinese tech companies like Mobvoi. We are impressed by Mobvoi’s innovative approach of AI technology, and we are pleased to form this joint venture to explore the next generation of smart mobility. With the new joint venture we promote people-oriented mobility for our customers in China, along with the potential to be adopted globally.”

4. Data

Not only money and research are crucial in this competition. At least as important is data. The developers are constantly feeding the AI algorithms with new information and thus forcing the deep learning of the connected machines. This is about everything: from personal information, preferences and hobbies, about buying and eating habits to friends, acquaintances and work colleagues. The more data, the better. For example, the success of Facebook and Google is based on this simple fact. And this is where China is already far ahead of the USA.

In 2016, Chinese people used their smartphones to make $ 5.5 trillion worth of transactions - about 50 times as much as in the US, according to iResearch, a Shanghai-based consulting firm. Of course, mobile payments are steadily increasing in America, but in China there are currently around 750 million people online. Ninety-five percent of them use a mobile device, according to China Internet Network Information Center. They use programs like WeChat, Baidu or Weibo - China's WhatsApp, Google or Twitter - and leave new data every time.

5. Useful applications

China and its people embrace new technologies and are open for applications that make life easier, for example through AI facial recognition: In the Chinese metropolis Hangzhou and in Beijing customers of the food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken pay their bills with their face. After ordering, a 3D camera quickly scans the customer's face and identifies it. The process takes little more than a few seconds. The "Smile to Pay" project was developed by Ant Financial, the financial subsidiary of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. There are such developments that show in everyday life: The US is still the world leader in technology, above all thanks to ideas and innovations from Silicon Valley. But China has begun to catch up and is starting to leap.