All the big, familiar tech giants are working on artificial intelligence, particularly for their respective assistants: Siri, Alexa, Assistant and Cortana. Still, users are skeptical about the topic as it creeps its way into our daily lives and discussions. But, you may not know that there's a lot happening with AI in China, as well.
I've been following conversations on Facebook about digital assistants and AI, and my own journey with smart home technology has been an exciting experience. It began with tracking power consumption and led me to, of course, questions about surveillance, government monitoring and advertising. It's easy to associate the likes of Phillips Hue and Amazon Alexa with state control and George Orwell's 1984.
At the moment, AI is used to interact with humans via speech - which naturally involves microphones, as well as biometric authentications that require cameras and fingerprint scanners. It's entirely logical that AI requires a lot of user data to make sense and be helpful, but that requires the willingness and consent of the user. The value of AI falls if a user won't give it data, and that defeats the whole purpose of the technology.
Baidu brings up the topic of Artificial Intelligence
Apart from the prominent US companies working in China right now, Baidu is also taking on AI. It's a comparably large firm, yet less well known in the US. At the helm is Qi Lu, who worked at Microsoft as CEO Satya Nadella's right hand man on Cortana and AI. In an interview with Wired, Lu gives an outlook on what sets Baidu's approach apart from the competition.
Technically, Baidu has caught up with the competition on the subject of AI, Lu emphasizes. A few years ago it was far behind Microsoft and Co., but that's no longer the case. The Chinese firm works on all aspects of AI under the umbrella name "Baidu Brain". Baidu is the only well-known group that treats the two levels of perception and cognitive processing separately. In other areas, both disciplines are grouped together.
Even more important than the technology behind Lu is the underlying ecosystem and its associated services. Amazon's Alexa is also based on this idea of the ecosystem, with solutions that aren't technically better than the competition, but nevertheless offer the most functionality and revenue opportunity. Baidu is number two globally, just behind Amazon.
Refrigerators with AI from Baidu
This is also due to the fact that Baidu has attracted a large network of partners who bring their own technology to all kinds of devices, like refrigerators or air-conditioning systems. For the software, Baidu uses its own creation: DuerOS.
Baidu has not really really focused on the US market, especially in the case of assistant systems, largely due to the different sizes of people's homes compared to Chinese apartments. Apartments in China are often much smaller and less comfortable than in America or Europe, which makes other demands on the technology. Since this is also the case in Japan, India or Brazil, Baidu stands a better chance there than the competition. Global expansion, especially in these countries, is hard to prevent.
Lu also stresses that AI is not just a technology, but that it has an impact on the environment, society and politics. The protection of privacy must be priority to gain the trust of users. For example, private conversations are not likely to find their way into the cloud. The customer ultimately decides, says Lu, whether the advantages or disadvantages prevail. This applies not only in China, but everywhere.
Rules are important
Last but not least, the charismatic Tesla boss, Elon Musk, has his own AI research team with OpenAI. He believes that, as exciting as the technological development of artificial intelligence is - and we are still at the very beginning - it can also be dangerous.
The social issues and the opportunities brought about by ever-increasing networking require appropriate regulations which should apply across all countries. In view of the speed with which international agreements and regulations are made: don't expect anything soon.
Caution is absolutely necessary, as governments and companies already have high hopes when it comes to the possibilities of AI.
While fear and skepticism shouldn't be allowed to completely shape technological and scientific progress, we also can't accept every innovation enthusiastically and uncritically. As AI continues to be a topic of discussion, we should welcome debate over both the risks and opportunities that lie ahead in order to find the right way forward.