October 27 of 2018 was supposed to be a historic day for China’s growing aerospace industry. Landspace, a Beijing-based startup, was set to become the first private Chinese firm to launch a rocket into outer space. Then, at 6:40 pm, a fault occurred. Soon after, Landspace declared the mission a failure. A few weeks later, SpaceX completed its 20th successful launch of 2018. It is unfair to draw sweeping conclusions based on the performance of just two companies, but it does serve as a reminder of how far China has to go before it rivals the US as the world’s leading technological power.
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.
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.
Drone maker DJI made drones, once a high-end toy for rich niche hobbyists, into a mainstream consumer product. Begun 10 years ago in a college dorm room, the company now controls 70% of the consumer drone market. Xu Huabin, Vice President of the Shenzhen-based tech firm, explains how the company’s product-driven philosophy helped the firm grow from a maker of model planes to become the world’s largest commercial unmanned aircraft manufacturer. He also discusses DJI’s future plans for diversification and industrialization—to go beyond only making drones with cameras to developing drones with industry-tailored features for diverse customers including engineers and farmers.
Silicon Valley may hog the artificial intelligence (AI) limelight, but Chinese companies are catching up by implementing AI technologies in real life. According to a McKinsey Global Institute research report, China is one of the leading global hubs of AI development and its advantages include the vast population and a diverse industry mix that has the potential to generate huge volumes of the data needed to feed AI systems. That population not only provides an enormous market for AI-related products, but also, with the large number of internet users, about 731 million, China generates more data than most other countries—a key to AI innovation.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is “a fusion of technologies” that blurs the lines “between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” according to Klaus Schwab, the founder of the Davos Forum. This fusion of so many fields will ultimately see 4IR change the world far more fundamentally than the first three industrial revolutions. Any analysis of the many technological breakthroughs that now define this new 4IR business world is incomplete at best if it misses the China factor. At the dawn of the 4IR era, China is much better positioned than in the past to seize the opportunities offered by an industrial transformation.
As people imagine the future of transportation, the first thing they think of is driverless cars. There are still many questions to consider, however, and not just at the level of personal safety. How will transportation networks adapt? What about laws and regulations? What will be the impact on logistics and employment? Many technology firms and automakers have had their prototypes, but none which could be commercialized for public use. Wu Gansha, a veteran engineer and former director of Intel Labs China, suggests a rapid way to commercialize driverless cars. He claims that the car produced by his startup will commercialize in two years.
The Chinese internet industry has developed at an amazing speed with a number of tech firms becoming “unicorns” worldwide. A major force behind those fast-growing companies and young CEOs is the venture capital firms who play a crucial role in spotting and supporting innovative models. Over the past 10 years, VC has evolved from a non-mainstream form of finance to one of the hottest areas in the Middle Kingdom. Ramon Zeng, with a number of successful investments in “unicorns”, talks about his observation of the industry and what the next big trend will be.
Chinese people love to try new technologies. Over the past year, virtual reality exploded across the country, attracting attention as well as investment from people who see a potential wave of the future: Analysts predict that China’s VR market will be worth $8.5 billion by 2020. But the real-world business of VR, which surged largely on the back of heavy investment, is less solid than it could be. Some people expect the technology to bring revolutionary changes to many industries like gaming, films and shopping but currently a huge portion of the VR market is still for video games and the business model is not yet solidly defined.
Most of us have heard that the secrets of our lives are hidden in our genes. As the technology advances, genetic tests have become common in certain situations, such as prenatal tests and medical treatment. Also, from genetic test results, professionals can read things like your personality, talent and health risks. Many Chinese companies, though with no intention of becoming “fortune tellers”, are luring people to do genetic tests and offer easy-to-read talent results–and public demand is running high. Startups are receiving millions in funds for making this technology accessible to ordinary people. But is the model of selling cheap genetic testing services sustainable? And are these tests accurate?