China's target of becoming a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) has placed its capital and third-most populous city at the forefront of global AI innovation. Beijing, a city with a history stretching back more than three millennia, is now looking toward a future fueled by AI innovation, investment and development.
Home to the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, the city has in more recent times been building temples to its modern culture of innovation, with huge AI centers popping up throughout the metropolis.
According to the Beijing Artificial Intelligence Industry Development white paper, published by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology, Beijing is home to 1,070 AI companies. Asia Times reported that as of early May 2018, the number of AI companies with venture capital actually totaled 1,237, representing 35% of the total number of AI enterprises in China.
The Asia Times report revealed that of all Beijing-based AI firms, 29% were at the A-round of funding, with 6.7% in Pre-A round. Angel investors had provided funding to 18.5% of these firms, while 2.7% had received funding from seed investors.
According to the white paper commissioned by the Beijing authorities, the Chinese capital has five competitive advantages for AI companies looking to base themselves in the city: related policies; talents capital; innovation and entrepreneurship capacity; software R&D; and patent protection.
Challenges remain, however, and the white paper singled out four challenges the city needs to overcome to continue its rapidly increasing influence within the global tech sphere: weak initiate innovation; lack of chips, sensors and critical components; lack of high-end talent; and cost disadvantage and regional competition.
China's Silicon Valley
Zhongguancun, Beijing's tech hub, is home to hundreds – if not thousands – of AI enterprises, having grown quickly over the past decade to become China's undisputed home of technological innovation. A report released by business resource company Expert Market listed Zhongguancun top of its Top 10 Tech Hubs to Live and Work In , ahead of Berlin's Silicon Allee, the Bay Area's famed Silicon Valley and Austin's Silicon Hills.
Expert Market lead researcher Sophia Patsikas says: "Over the last few years, China has made a concerted effort to put itself on the tech map and Beijing now plays host to some of the world's biggest tech giants."
Formerly a graveyard for eunuchs until the late Qing Dynasty, in the 1980s and 1990s, Zhongguancun became known for its large-scale electronics markets. Today, the tech hub is abuzz with tech giants, unicorns and startups. Zhongguancun Science Park has one of the highest concentrations of educational resources in China, with approximately 40 higher educational institutions and more than 200 national and provincial research institutions located within the park.
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Disrupting the news cycle
On this website alone, coverage of the Chinese AI market has increased exponentially over the past 12 months, with Beijing sitting right at the heart of tech disruption, innovation and financing.
While not always positive, such as the banning of services and platforms popular in the West, the vast majority of news coming out of the Chinese tech space appears to demonstrate the country and its large tech organizations are continuing to innovate, invest and collaborate on key AI developments.
In September, Alibaba announced it would launch an AI inference chip in 2019, as Chinese businesses attempt to avoid an overreliance on US-made technology. In July, Hyundai Motor Group teamed up with Baidu to enhance AI-operated car developments by utilizing the Chines tech giant's AI in-car operating system, Xiaodu. In the same month, Chinese retail giant Suning Holdings Group teamed up with German software giant SAP SE to develop technological solutions for China's retail, financial and sports industries, with a particular focus on AI and IoT innovations.
The global focus on China's AI industry has helped to fuel interest and encourage investment, while also providing authorities and businesses working in the AI sector with the confidence to continue innovating and developing new AI solutions. By making its mark on the global tech news agenda, Beijing and China's other tech hubs are demonstrating that AI innovation does not exclusively reside with the West's established tech giants.
Read more on China's rapid adoption of AI:
"Bigger than the internet"
With many Western websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Google unavailable in China, Chinese tech entrepreneurs have been indirectly tasked with creating Chinese equivalents, and with a huge potential domestic audience to target, the scale and size of the Chinese tech industry presents a myriad of opportunity.
Beijing itself is home to the likes of Xiaomi, LeEco and Baidu, while many North American and European companies have their APAC bases in the city, including Google and Intel, while Microsoft Research Asia, Microsoft's fundamental research arm in the APAC region, is located in Zhongguancun. Despite its search engine being blocked behind China's firewall, Google remains very active in the country announcing earlier this year its intention to launch a Beijing-based AI research team which will target local research talent.
Beijing authority also recently released blueprints for an autonomous driving zone, which will be dedicated to testing and developing local autonomous vehicles, on the outskirt of the city.
To accommodate the growing number of startups and international players moving into the city, Beijing officials announced a plan to build a $2.12bn AI development park in the west of the city. Set to house up to 400 businesses, the AI park will have an estimated output of CNY50bn ($7.19bn). According to Chinese news agency Xinhua, project developer Zhongguancun Development Group will partner with foreign universities to build a national-level AI lab in the area. Xinhua revealed that the new park would aim to attract enterprises working in the areas of cloud computing, big data, deep learning and biometric identification.
With one eye on future disruptive trends, many Chinese companies are innovating in ways that compete and at times differ to the way the Googles and Amazons of the world innovate. In September 2018, Robin Li Yanhong, CEO of Baidu, said that "AI will be bigger than the internet" highlighting that AI represents more than just progression within the world of big data and the cloud.
During an event in New York, Li said: "The internet changed a lot of our daily lives but did not have much impact on the 2B industries. I think AI will change that." Baidu, which will be hosting its own conference in Beijing on November 1, will be unveiling its latest AI portfolio at the event, focusing on how AI applications can transform different industries, everyday life and contribute to social good.
Jie Liu, Principal R&D Architect, Autonomous Driving Technology at Baidu, will be speaking at the upcoming AI & Big Data Innovation Summit in Beijing on November 21–22, 2018. Register for tickets today to hear the latest insights from Jie Liu and a host of leading names within Asia's bustling AI and big data scene.
Adversity over fear
As Beijing continues its march toward global AI prominence, fears remain over a future dominated by AI solutions and systems. With a population topping 20 million to provide work for, and with numerous traditional industries concerned at the scale of upheaval expected from the mass adoption of AI and machine learning technologies, Baidu's Li offers some reassurance to Beijing's concerned residents. He predicts that while AI will replace many human roles, the increasing use of automation will also create many new jobs.
"It's hard for me or anyone to imagine what new job opportunities will be created" he added. "However, I see more opportunities than threats."
And as a hub with global clout, Beijing's AI industry will likely see even more international players collaborating with companies in the city. At a conference in Shanghai in September, China's vice-premier Liu He stated that the future of AI would depend heavily on a more collaborative approach across nations.
"We're hoping that all countries, as members of the global village, will be inclusive and support each other so that we can respond to the double-edged-sword effect of new technologies," he said.
"AI represents a new era. Cross-national and cross-discipline cooperation is inevitable."
To hear the leading names in the Chinese data and AI fields share their latest insights, and discuss the challenges and opportunities AI presents, visit the upcoming AI & Big Data Innovation Summit in Beijing on November 21–22, 2018.
Register today here.