Artificial Intelligence speaks Chinese

From the 33rd floor of the office building has a breathtaking view. Toward the north, visitors look at densely forested hills. In the south, are the enticing sea and Hong Kong. “We want to remain attractive to our employees through our new location,” said BING Xia, Deputy Chief Executive for International Business at the Chinese startup Malong, headquartered in Shenzhen.

The company is just four years old. However, it has expanded so much that it had to move into new premises. The company operates additional offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Arkansas. Furthermore, Shenzhen City Government also supported the company in moving into the new premises. Chinese cities like Hangzhou, Xian and Shenzhen compete with each other and have a lot of attractive offers for innovative startups.

The company, founded by American Matthew Scott and Chinese HUANG Dinglong – the company name Malong is made up of their first names – deals with computer-aided vision, a subfield of artificial intelligence. “We are just in the early stages of development and cannot predict what computer vision will be able to do one day,” says BING Xia.

Nowadays, everyone is talking about facial recognition, in which China, with young companies such as Megiiv Technology and Sense Time, is leading technological development. Instead of identifying faces, Malong focuses on product recognition and works with retailers and consumer goods manufacturers worldwide. “Such cooperation is helpful for both sides. We understands the needs and difficulties of each industry better and our partner’s benefit from our services,” adds BING Xia.

Until now, consumers are faced with the problem that if they like a piece of furniture or clothing, for example, during the holidays, back at home, they are lacking the right words to describe shape, colour and pattern and are unable to find the item in search engines or in stores. Malong offers a solution: Consumers photograph the products and then upload the photos in an app. In a matter of seconds they can see which comparable models Malong’s partners have on offer. The product can then simply be ordered through the app. This technology also describes patterns and colours of fabrics of fashion designs without them having to manually describe them. Product descriptions can therefore be produced more efficiently and faster.

Malong has already taken new paths to gradually conquer the vast field of computerised vision. For example, with this technology, it will be possible to take less than a second to determine which parts of the brain are affected by a stroke based on computed tomography scans. According to Malong, this procedure is 308 times faster than the human eye. For patients and health insurance, the technology offers great opportunities. Diseases are diagnosed faster and more accurately than traditionally.

Recently Malong announced a cooperation with the University of Bern. The cooperation is a result of the agreement between the Canton of Bern and Shenzhen nearly four years ago. Both sides want to promote economic cooperation. In mid-November last year, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Shenzhen in the presence of Bern’s Economics Director Christoph Ammann. In the future, synergies between artificial intelligence and brain tomography will be explored in two research institutes in Bern and Shenzhen.

Attractive Prospects

 The company’s international reputation is in part due to its hiring choices. Malong has attracted international talents such as HUANG Weilin who leads the research department. Previously, HUANG Weilin obtained his doctorate in the prestigious Visual Geometry Group at the University of Oxford where he worked as a postdoctoral researcher. HUANG listed several reasons why he was drawn back home, despite his promising academic career. “At Malong, I can help people with my developments,” he emphasises. In addition, working with Malong does not have the anonymity of universities or large companies such as Alibaba or Tencent. Furthermore, his move to Malong did not mean leaving academia. About half of the published studies come from the research departments of companies, HUANG Weilin estimates.

Startups like Malong may one day be financially attractive. The employees are involved in the young companies through stock options. If the IPO or the company is sold, a lot of money can be generated. Just over a year ago, venture capital firm Softbank China Capital invested RMB 220 million (£25 million) in Malong. In August of last year, it was announced that Accenture, one of the world’s leading management consultancies, invested in the Chinese startup and signed a cooperation agreement.

Race between America and China

In parts of the Western world, there is still the persistent misconception that China is a world champion in copying and imitating and is unable to develop and bring innovative ideas to the market. But times have changed. Shenzhen, with young companies like Malong, is a stronghold of innovative and modern China.

China has just recently started play a role in artificial intelligence research. The theoretical foundations for artificial intelligence were created in American, British and Canadian institutes. Now, the next step is to develop business models. And that’s where China is leading.

According to Lee Kai-fu, who previously headed Google China and now invests in young Chinese high-tech companies as the head of Sinovation Ventures, China leads the future in artificial intelligence.

China has more than 800 million internet users who reveal a lot about themselves on the Internet

So far the practical application of artificial intelligence has faced the problem that there were not enough data and computers with high computing performance. This has now changed. China, with more than 800 million internet users sharing much about themselves online, provides the ideal environment to test the theoretical foundations of artificial intelligence. In addition there are powerful technologies and ambitious entrepreneurs who want to fulfil their dreams.

China has a moved ahead in all these fields of foreign competition. Malong is aware of this. “In the past, China had to catch up with foreign countries on already pre-tracked paths. Those days are over. Now we pave the way for the rest of the world.”