For a company whose software speaks to more than half a billion people, iFlytek tends to keep its voice low. Founded by a group of researchers in 1999 and headquartered in the relatively sleepy eastern city of Hefei, the company was ranked as the 6th smartest firm in the world in 2017—just one place below Google—by MIT Technology Review. Over the past two decades, iFlytek developed software that can understand several Chinese dialects fluently—a feat Apple’s Siri still struggles with. It can transcribe it into text, and translate it into English instantly. In this interview, Jiang Tao, Senior Vice President of iFlytek, who joined in the firm at the very beginning, explains how the company reached this point and how it keeps hold of its world-class researchers.
Chile’s Atacama Desert is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Situated 2,300 meters above sea level and encircled by mountains, the region receives almost no rainfall and the blinding sun singes exposed human skin within minutes. But 40 meters below the salt flats lie our planet’s largest and purest reserves of the chemical element lithium. Lithium, the lightest of all metals, has the best electrochemical potential. This makes it perfect for rechargeable batteries, a technology that powers our smartphones and is expected to become even more crucial in the future. Now, a Chinese firm is attempting to gain control of the Atacama reserves.
People love video games. They feel relaxed and entertained in the virtual world. However, there is a trend towards games that are practical and serious—games that are used to teach and train for certain skills. Soldiers, surgeons, securities traders and workers in many other professions train with specialized games. The Brookings Institution estimates that the US military alone spends more than $6 billion a year on video games. “Serious games allow a safe way of rehearsing actions and learning about their consequences as well as transferring previously learned knowledge in as efficient and effective a way as possible,” says computing expert Dr. Andreas Oikonomou.
Few people have had the opportunity to watch the rise of video games as an economic and cultural force as closely as Jordan Mechner, who began making video games while in high school in the 1970s. He had his first hit, Karateka, in 1984 while he was still in college, and later went on to create the Prince of Persia franchise, which to date has sold over 20 million copies. In a wide-ranging interview over Skype from his office in Montpellier, France, Mechner, who is also a successful screenwriter and graphic novelist, talked about the evolution of game design and where games might head next.
Few people outside China will have heard of Bytedance, the Beijing-based software startup that creates fiendishly addictive content apps using world-leading artificial intelligence technology. However, more than 200 million people in China—or over one in four of the country’s mobile users—use Bytedance’s products every day, and now the company has ambitions to hook the rest of the world on its apps too. Huge traffic brings customized contents to Bytedance users, which is the magic code for its success. But copyright lawsuits and competition from the BAT companies are just two of the challenges Bytedance faces.
In the early seventies, mechanical pinball games still dominated the arcades, as they had since the Great Depression. Then in 1972, Allan Alcorn, a 24-year-old designer in Sunnyvale, CA, developed a two-dimensional electronic table tennis game and installed it in a local bar. Pong was an unexpected hit at Andy Capp’s Tavern, and soon became so popular that it spawned an entirely new entertainment medium, the videogame. As Devin Griffith put it in his 2013 history of the videogame, Virtual Ascendance, “[t]hree vertical lines and a bouncing square of light. That’s all it took to change the world.” Flash forward 45 years and annual videogame revenue now exceeds $100 billion.
China’s financial sector used to be famous for its poor service and imperviousness to innovation. Even today, when customers go to make a transaction at one of the country’s big state-run banks, they often take a bag of snacks with them—they know they’re in for a long wait. But things are changing fast in the Middle Kingdom. A new generation of digital finance firms is taking the country—and the global markets—by storm in everything from digital payments and micro-lending to insurance and wealth management. How will China’s lumbering state-run banks react? Will tightening regulation nip this revolution in the bud?
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
Imagine a city where commuters are chauffeured to work by self-driving cars and artificial intelligence systems control every power plant, traffic light and light bulb, making road accidents, power cuts and even traffic jams a thing of the past. Thanks to 5G, the latest protocol for mobile communications, this vision may be realized soon. The world’s leading telecoms companies are already testing the next generation of wireless internet and the first 5G services could be rolled out in 2019. China and the US are locked in a furious battle for control of this and the winner will gain a big economic advantage for years to come.
Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa have been catching on very quickly. Google reports that it sells a voice-controlled speaker every second. While this could just be a fad, some analysts argue that the voice-activated speakers may mark the biggest shift in consumer technology since the smartphone. “Humans don’t really communicate that effectively using text,” says Richard Watson, a futurist in London. Vocal computing should speed up a lot of queries, given that most people can speak much faster than they can type. What has voice-control changed? What are the new opportunities vocal computing will offer?