china's rapid advances in artificial intelligence -- 6/12/19

Today's selection -- from AI SuperPowers by Kai-Fu Lee. China has likely surpassed the U.S. in voice recognition software:

"The year 2017 marked the first time I heard Donald Trump speak flu­ent Chinese. During the U.S. president's first trip to China, he showed up on a big screen to welcome attendees at a major tech conference. He began his speech in English and then abruptly switched lan­guages.

"'AI (artificial intelligence) is changing the world' he said, speaking in flawless Chinese but with typical Trump bluster. 'And iFlyTek is really fantastic.'

"President Trump cannot, of course, speak Chinese. But A.I. is in­deed changing the world, and Chinese companies like iFlyTek are leading the way. By training its algorithms on large data samples of President Trump's speeches, iFlyTek created a near-perfect digital model of his voice: intonation, pitch, and pattern of speech. It then recalibrated that vocal model for Mandarin Chinese, showing the world what Donald Trump might sound like if he grew up in a vil­lage outside Beijing. The movement of lips wasn't precisely synced to the Chinese words, but it was close enough to fool a casual viewer at first glance. President Obama got the same treatment from iFlyTek: a video of a real press conference but with his professorial style con­verted to perfect Mandarin.

"'With the help of iFlyTek, I've learned Chinese,' Obama intoned to the White House press corps. 'I think my Chinese is better than Trump's. What do all of you think?'

"iFlyTek might say the same to its own competitors. The Chinese company has racked up victories at a series of prestigious interna­tional AI competitions for speech recognition, speech synthesis, image recognition, and machine translation. Even in the company's 'second language' of 'English, iFlyTek often beats teams from Google, DeepMind, Facebook, and IBM Watson in natural-language process­ing -- that is, the ability of AI to decipher overall meaning rather than just words.

"This success didn't come overnight. Back in 1999, when I started Microsoft Research Asia, my top-choice recruit was a brilliant young Ph.D. named Liu Qingfeng. He had been one of the students I saw fil­ing out of the dorms to study under streetlights after my lecture in Hefei. Liu was both hardworking and creative in tackling research questions: he was one of China's most promising young researchers. But when we asked him to accept our scholarship offer and become a Microsoft intern and then an employee, he declined. He wanted to start his own A.I. speech company. I told him that he was a great young researcher but that China lagged too far behind American speech-recognition giants like Nuance, and there were fewer cus­tomers in China for this technology. To his credit, Liu ignored that advice and poured himself into building iFlyTek. Nearly twenty years and dozens of A.I. competition awards later, iFlyTek has far surpassed Nuance in capabilities and market cap, becoming the most valuable AI speech company in the world."



Kai-Fu Lee


AI Super-Powers


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company


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