Emotibot shows that your next girlfriend could be an AI bot

Do androids dream of electric sheep? Or to be more precise, do AI bots really understand our emotions? To find out, AllChinaTech spoke to the Emotibot founder, Kenny Chien, at the GMIC Beijing. Emotibot is an artificial emotional intelligence chatbot that can be programmed for different platforms and purposes.

“The advantage of the Emotibot is that it truly understand humans, not just linguistically, but also emotions and intentions. It will be able to realize and provide help to humans in a personalized way,” said Chien.

As Emotibot’s PR director Daniel Qin explained, the bot analyzes facial expressions, voice tone and pitch, wording and other ways in which people express feelings. It then combines them together to understand the meaning of the conversation and intention behind it.

Emotibot's Kenny Chien giving a presentation on the Future Innovation Summit at GMIC Beijing 2017.
Emotibot’s Kenny Chien giving a presentation on the Future Innovation Summit at GMIC Beijing 2017.

Chien stated that Emotibot, at the moment, will be mainly used in financial services industry. According to him, involving fewer humans would actually yield in a better customer experience. However, that’s not all. Emotionally intelligent bots could also be used for a variety of day-to-day commercial activities, such as ride-hailing or bookings, in online entertainment and gaming, and as virtual assistants.

“The world is full of content and information and today humans are swamped with that. What we are providing is a simple conversational interface that would be able to connect a person to the world”, said Chien. “With a good understanding of the conversation, we can replace the human in the background so we can relieve humans of the boring, tedious and complicated work and help businesses deliver more services to their customers.”

But the interesting part of Emotibot is that Chien believes it could lead to scenarios similar to the movie Her, where the main character falls in love with his virtual assistant Samantha after his real-life marriage failed.

Founder of Emotibot Kenny Chien.
Founder of Emotibot Kenny Chien.

“This has actually happened. When we were analyzing our products by going through the chat logs we found out that there were users who were treating the bot as a real human,” said Chien “Whether it is an outgoing person or an introvert, everyone needs a companion. That is human nature.”

He also said that in his three and a half experience with AI bots, he found examples of users in Japan, China, and the US that felt the urge to talk to the bots. “If the bot can resonate my feelings, the bot can comfort me. That’s the purpose of the bot being a companion.”

Although Chien said that the possibility of AI returning those feelings or “becoming human” is quite far away, he believes that the idea could be realized.

“In the movie Ex-Machina, the bot thinks it is a human. I think it might happen in the long term,” Chien said. “If humans wanted to try to build a robot that thinks for itself it could happen, but the first thing we need to think about is whether humans would treat bots equally.”

Big data and wearable devices are changing the healthcare industry

Wearable devices such as Fitbit can track a range of biological information, but big data experts and doctors alike are now arguing that a great portion of this data is – useless. In spite of that, the wearable devices fad has been steadily growing with more companies looking to profit from health and fitness enthusiasts.

“In Shenzhen, China, for example, the cost is very low to manufacture or design a new product, but the challenge is to make a medical grade device, ” said Vanessa Xi, founder, and CEO of YONO Health, in an interview with AllChinaTech. Xi, whose company created the first in-ear ovulation predictor, participated on a big data in healthcare panel held at GMIC Beijing 2017.

“Ensuring that the data of the device is at a medical level is very important,” said Xi, who added that wearable health devices can be very useful for hospitals and patients.

iHealth
iHealthcare Summit at GMIC Beijing 2017.Photo by Masha Borak.

“With wearable devices, we can collect data continuously and very conveniently. It’s not like in the hospital where you have to plug in a lot of wires all over your body in order to collect data.”

YONO’s tracker focuses on one specific set of data – women’s Basal Body Temperature (BBT) to help them detect ovulation. The data helps to accurately predict when a woman’s body is in ovulation, and to help women conceive or avoid conception. Earlier, women had to measure their temperature manually as soon as they woke up and if they missed the chance, the prediction might not be accurate.

Sales of wearable devices have been declining recently, but companies such as YONO are optimistic that their products will become widespread and help patients in meaningful ways. Researchers and the health industry in general are already gaining health insights from data collected by wearable devices such as these.

“We are working with two universities in the U.S., ” said Xi. “One is the University of Michigan – the Biostatistics Department. They are using our data for overnight body temperature to predict ovulation. The other one is Northwestern University. They are working on the reproductive health of women that [who] used to have cancer during their teenage years. They are using our device to understand the reproductive health of their patients.”

(Top photo from Baidu Images.)

Machine learning expert Tom Mitchell gives a glimpse of AI’s future at GMIC Beijing

Prof. Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University literally wrote the book on machine learning. He spoke about his work in the field of machine learning, artificial intelligence and cognitive neuroscience at an AI summit at the GMIC Beijing 2017. He also shared his vision of what AI technology can do for us in future.

“I think AI has the ability to vastly improve our quality of life by reducing pollution and congestion in our cities, improving our ability to communicate across languages, our medical care and much more, ” he said.

AI could improve our healthcare in future by shedding light on issues that could otherwise be missed. Mitchell, who is the head of the Machine Learning Department at CMU, also highlighted how AI programs could be used to customize online education to each student.

“A teacher only has a certain number of years and a certain amount of experience. But if you have a copy of an AI teaching program used by a 100,000 students, it would give more than a human teacher could in a 100 years of teaching.”

However, Mitchell cautioned against all encompassing adoption of AI. For one, he said he would not like to witness AI for military use or planting of smart AI viruses in computers.

“I will say that just like other technology, it deserves our attention and we need to speak up, especially people who understand the technology and can make the right choices.”

He explained that unlike previous breakthroughs, today we are witnessing the commercial success of AI. Private companies are investing more resources in research and development than governments.

“I’m starting to get a glimpse of AI in China and I think it is very exciting to see it growing both commercially and in terms of real contribution to research”.

(Top photo is Tom Mitchell speaking at the G-summit. Photo from GMIC)

The top 8 AI startups in China

Google’s Alpha Go AI victory over the world’s best Go player Ke Jie in February this year marked a new era in technology. But even before that fateful day, artificial intelligence has been growing with remarkable speed in China. From top academic institutions to China’s tech giants Baidu, Didi Chuxing, and Tencent, everyone seems excited about the possibilities that AI can offer and their efforts are paying off. China now publishes more research on AI than the U.S.

China seems like an especially fertile ground for this technology because of the sheer amount of data that can be used for AI development: China has 731 million internet users, out of which 95.1 percent are smartphone users. As AI investor Lan Xuezhao pointed out, Chinese users have different expectations for privacy than those in the U.S., giving China’s AI companies a competitive edge.

Here are the top startups pushing the edge of AI exploration in China.

1. iCarbonX

iCarbonX founder Dr. Jun Wang, ex-CEO of Beijing Genomic Institute. Photo from iCarbonX.
iCarbonX founder Dr. Jun Wang, ex-CEO of Beijing Genomic Institute. Photo from iCarbonX.

Founded: 2015

Founder: Jun Wang

Financing: USD 145 million (RMB 1 billion) in Series A, April 2016. USD 45 million, July 2016.

iCarbonX sounds like something straight out of a Minority Report movie. This biotech company wants to build a digital ecosystem made out of your biological, behavioral and psychological data, the Internet, and artificial intelligence. It plans to collect health data as well as gene information from millions of people which would help them completely change healthcare and help people live more healthily. Maybe it is not so sinister after all?

iCarbonX has been teaming up with other companies, creating its own Digital Life Alliance which includes bio, health networking, sequencing and artificial intelligence (AI) technology and application companies. For this, it has created the Meum digital health management platform which aims to help people understand their health and themselves better. According to company data, the assessed value of iCarbonX has reached USD 1 billion.

 

2. Mobvoi

Mobvoi's smart rearview mirror, Ticmirror. Screenshot from Youtube.
Mobvoi’s smart rearview mirror, Ticmirror. Screenshot from Youtube.

Founded: 2012

Founder: Zhifei Li

Financing: USD 1.62 million in Series A, 2012. USD 10 million in Series B, February 2014. USD 60 million in Series C, October 2015. USD 1.1 million in a product crowdfunding campaign, July 2016. USD 180 million in Series D, April 2017.

Mobvoi was started by former Google research scientists Zhifei Li and Mike Lei, and later on became a partner of Google’s Android Ware. The company received investments from Google for its Ticwatch smart watches. It also developed a Chinese version of Siri called Chumen Wenwen, and is working on voice recognition, natural language processing, and vertical search technology projects.

The company’s newest project is developing AI for Volkswagen’s cars. Mobvoi plans to improve drivers’ experience with its voice recognition feature and a smart rearview mirror – the Ticmirror. It is currently valued at USD 300 million.

 

3. Face++ (Megvii Technology Inc.)

Face++ face search demo. Screenshot from Face++.
Face++ face search demo. Screenshot from Face++.

Founded: 2012

Founder: Qi Yin

Financing: Undisclosed amount in Series A, July 2013. USD 22 million in Series B, July 2014. USD 25 million in Series B, August 2015. USD 100 million in Series C, December 2016.

Imagine your relationship fell apart and you feel so heartbroken that you want to replace your partner with someone almost identical? This is just a joke, of course. But if you are really that kind of a weirdo, Face++ can make that come true. This facial recognition tool is used by Chinese dating site Jiayuan where you compare a photo of someone you consider attractive with their online database.

Face++ is also used by Alibaba’s online payment app Alipay which scans your face in order to complete transactions, as well as China’s largest ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing, Lenovo, and China’s Ministry of Public Security. Face++ currently works with 15,000 apps covering more than 4,000 monthly active devices.

 

4. Ubtech Robotics

Ubtech robots perform at CCTV's Spring Festival Gala. Screenshot from YouTube.
Ubtech robots perform at CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala. Screenshot from YouTube.

Founded: 2012

CEO: Eric Huang

Financing: USD 20 million in Series A+, January 2015. USD 1.4 million in product crowdfunding campaign, 2016. USD 100 million in Series B, July 2016.

Ubtech is the company behind this 540-strong synchronized robot performance at CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala in 2016. But Ubtech does not want to simply create a robotic version of plaza-dancing middle-aged Chinese women. China’s only robotics unicorn wants to create an intelligent AI companion for every home. The idea seems to have caught on: in 2016, Ubtech’s Alpha 2 model raised almost USD 1.4 million through crowdfunding, 13 times its initial funding target.

So far, it has launched three robot lines – Alpha, Cruzr and the do-it-yourself robot kit Jimu. The Cruzr is a cloud-based humanoid robot which can be used in customer service, while the Alpha and Jimu robot lines are made for children to play and learn. The company recently decided to combine Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant Alexa with its own voice recognition and natural language processing functions to create a more life-like robot named Lynx.

 

5. CloudMinds

Cloudminds' helmet for the blind META. Photo from Baidu Images.
Cloudminds’ helmet for the blind META. Photo from Baidu Images.

Founded: 2015

Founder: Bill Huang

Financing: USD 3 million in angel round, July 2016. USD 28 million in Series A, January 2016. USD 100 million in A Series, February 2017.

CloudMinds may sound like a hippie era band, but this company has very futuristic aspirations. According to their press release, the company has just started its upgrade from AI exploration to CI, or cloud intelligence, aiming to build robots with “cloud brains” which resemble the neural network of humans.

The company has made only one product so far, a guide helmet for the blind called META. With localization, mapping, visual and voice recognition technology, CloudMinds’ helmet helps visually impaired people to “see” their surroundings. CloudMinds is also working on a housekeeping robot which should be launched in 2025. We cannot wait!

 

6. SenseTime (Shangtang Technology)

Photo from SenseTime.
Photo from SenseTime.

Founded: 2014

CEO: Xu Li

Financing: Undisclosed amount in Series A, November 2014. USD 120 million in Series B, December 2016. USD 60 million in Series C, April 2017.

SenseTime is another AI and deep learning company that focuses on face recognition. It has an impressive list of partners – China Mobile, UnionPay, NVIDIA, Huawei, Xiaomi, Sina Weibo, Iflytek, and JD.com (Jingdong Mall), and more than 300 other enterprises. Much like Face++, SenseTime focuses on face recognition technology that can be applied to secure transactions and picture analysis.

The company’s latest round of funding came from Sailing Capital which has also invested in Mobileye, an Israeli company developing vision technology for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving. SenseTime is currently working on a similar technology.

 

7. Roobo

Roobo's Pudding and Dogmy. Photo from Roobo.
Roobo’s Pudding and Dogmy. Photo from Roobo.

Founded: 2014

CEO: Liu Yingbo

Financing: USD 100 million in Series A, September 2016.

When you have a robot named Pudding, you know that you are in for a cute overload. Pudding was created by Roobo to be your child’s best friend – it tells stories, plays music, teaches facts and vocabulary, and even reminds them to brush their teeth. Roobo also has a robotic dog named Dogmy that is a lot smarter than real dogs, but unfortunately not fluffy enough. Dogmy uses face recognition technology to warn if there is an intruder in the house and has a number of other intelligent features.

But cute robots are not all that Roobo does. The company manufactured an intelligent drone, a cordless VR headset, and a smart bone conduction headphones. It has recently teamed up with Nuance Communications to develop intelligent speech and language recognition for its robots.

 

8. Unisound

Photo from Unisound.
Photo from Unisound.

Founded: 2012

CEO: Huang Wei

Financing: USD 1.6 million in angel round. USD 15 million in Series A, June 2013. USD 50 million in Series B, December 2014.

Carrying out conversations are one of AI’s biggest challenges, but Unisound CEO Huang Wei is certain that conversing will be the next big way to interact with devices. His company designs voice recognition, language processing, and big data technology for a range of industries including the health industry where Unisound enables doctors to save precious time by using voice input instead of typing words to save the medical records.

According to Huang, Unisound is the largest independent third party voice cloud platform in China, and it supports more than 100 million devices offering services to 180 million users. The company works with Gree, Haier, and Hisense on smart home appliances, and with LeEco on smart televisions, and with robotics company Canbot.

(Top photo from Face++.)

Tech Junction: Your guide to GMIC Beijing 2017

Tech Junction is launching a new column that will bring you reports on the most watchable and insightful tech related events in Beijing. Our goal is to establish a tech community which connects thinkers and dealmakers around the world, and to exchange ideas in short and sharp dialogues among startups, tech and media professionals in China.

Our first event covered in this new column is GMIC Beijing 2017. GMIC is a global tech conference network, and its Beijing conference is the largest in scale. Last year, it welcomed more than 700 speakers, 490 exhibitors, and hosted an astonishing 100,000 participants at its G-festival which showcased the newest highlights of the tech industry. This year, GMIC will welcome 40,000 innovators from 60 countries. The theme of the conference is artificial intelligence.

Here is a short tour through GMIC’s best events which are open to the public. All tickets except for the G-festival can be booked here.

 

G-festival

When: Apr 29 – May 1, 10 AM

Where: National Stadium – Bird Nest Warm Up Ground

Tickets: RMB 80/120/150, available here.

For most GMIC visitors, this is the place to be. The G-festival is a huge carnival with something for everyone: VR fights with ninjas and zombies, battles between giant robots (seriously), and live performances from top DJs. Visitors can expect a showcase of products which border on tech, entertainment, and art. But what is more important is that they can expect plenty of fun.

Photo from GMIC Beijing 2016. Photo from Baidu Images.
Photo from GMIC Beijing 2016. Photo from Baidu Images.

GMIC Exhibition

When: Apr 27 – Apr 29, 9 AM – 6 PM

Where: China National Convention Center

Tickets: USD 30

Another great event for the tech curious is the GMIC Exhibition which will host booths dedicated to every tech industry you can imagine. A special treat for the geeks out there will be the New Product Area that will enable visitors to try out the most cutting edge technology.

Aside from the booths, there will also be a special G-Stage Open Speech where industry leaders will share the latest trends and showcase their newest gadgets. Do not miss the Tech Show where you can attend live presentations on AI, VR, robots, and other exciting innovations.

 

Global Thought Leader

When: Apr 27, 9 AM – 5:30 PM

Where: China National Convention Center

Tickets: VIP Pass USD 2,500 / Gold Pass USD 1,600

The title of thought leader has been thrown around so much that it barely means anything anymore, but this convention does not gather the usual business gurus and aspiring TEDx speakers. GMIC’s Global Thought Leader event aims to bring people who can share truly valuable knowledge. The most famous one among them is none other than Steven Hawking, one of the most influential physicists of our time. News about other speakers are still scarce, but we have no doubt that it will be an interesting lineup.

Photo from GMIC.
Photo from GMIC.

AI Open Class

When: Apr 28 – Apr 29, 9 AM – 6 PM

Where: China National Convention Center

Tickets: USD 175 (lectures) / USD 320 (lectures + tutorials)

The AI Open Class will cover lectures on AI and hands-on coding lessons which will help sharpen your AI skills. Both options will provide you the opportunity to learn from AI industry experts from Google, Amazon, IBM and Intel along with academic leaders from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, USC and other prestigious universities worldwide.

 

Global Future Entertainment Summit

When: Apr 28, 9 AM – 5:30 PM

Where: China National Convention Center

Tickets: VIP Pass USD 2,500 / Gold Pass USD 1,600 / Silver Pass USD 500

What is the future of games, animation, film, literature, and art? Find out at the Global Future Entertainment Summit which aims to connect entertainment and technology. The summit will include the Global Entertainment Forum, Mobile Games Summit, Home Entertainment Summit, & IP Roadshow.

 

Other Summits and Forums

When: Apr 27 – Apr 29 (please check agenda for individual events)

Where: China National Convention Center

Tickets: VIP Pass USD 2,500 / Gold Pass USD 1,600 / Silver Pass USD 500
GMIC will host special events dedicated to hottest areas in tech, inviting a range of experts to share their insights. The most interesting ones will try to uncover the future of technology like the Future Innovation Summit, and events like the Going Global Summit will help companies expand their reach. Other events will cover fields such as intelligent learning, fintech, AI, mobile marketing, cloud computing, and many more.

(Top photo from GMIC.)


 

What is Tech Junction?

A meetup group in Beijing with a stated goal of exchanging ideas in short, sharp dialogues among startups, tech and media professionals, in order to shed light on the tech scene in China. Our goal is to establish a tech community to connect with thinkers and dealmakers around the world.

Join our Meetup.com group and view this and other events by following this link.

Follow Tech Junction on WeChat:

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Top 6 most innovative 3D printing companies in China

China has been hailed as a future 3D printing leader because of its fast developments. Although the biggest advances are coming from industries such as manufacturing, health care, and construction, Chinese companies have also been pushing through different frontiers in 3D printing technology, and are even bringing these complex machines into our homes. Check out China’s most innovative 3D printing companies.

 

Sichuan Revotek

Revotek's bioprinting machine. Photo from Sichuan Revotek.
Revotek’s bioprinting machine. Photo from SIchuan Revotek.

Sichuan Revotek is a company that is bringing science fiction to life with its 3D bioprinting – creating living tissues and organs. Their biggest breakthrough was in January 2017 when they successfully 3D printed blood vessels and implanted them in rhesus monkeys. The monkeys are doing well so far, which means that the technology works. This is a crucial step towards creating 3D printed organs for humans.

Located in Chengdu,  Sichuan Revotek is the world’s first producer of 3D printed blood vessels. Their 3D bioprinter uses a cloud computing platform, and stem cell bio-ink technology which can be adapted to each individual patient. The company was founded in 2014 as a subsidiary of Sichuan Languang Development Co., Ltd.

 

Regenovo Biotech

3D models of human organs. Photo from Regenovo Biotech.
3D models of human organs. Photo from Regenovo Biotech.

Regenovo, known as China’s Organovo, is another company trying to bring 3D printed organs into our bodies. In 2015, scientists at Hangzhou Dianzi University announced that the Regenovo bioprinter has brought them one step closer to a functional 3D-printed liver by printing out its building blocks. Other breakthroughs from the company include 3D printing of human ears and other tissues which can be used for experiments.

Regenovo Biotech was founded in 2013 by Xu Mingen, a professor at the same university. Following a Series B investment round, Shining 3D came to hold 50 percent of the company’s shares. The company went public in 2014.

 

Tiertime

Tiertime's desktop 3D printer Upbox. Photo from Tiertime.
Tiertime’s desktop 3D printer Upbox. Photo from Tiertime.

3D printing could be available on our own desktops soon, and Tiertime is the company in China trying to make it happen. Last year, Tiertime came up with a compact 3D printer that could be used in schools, offices, and even at home. It has been working on introducing 3D printing to students around China.

According to its  website, Beijing Tiertime Technology is Asia’s biggest 3D printing solution provider. It raised USD 1.65 million in a Series A financing round in January 2014. The company was created in 2003 by a Tsinghua University professor Yan Yongnian, who is recognized as the first person to explore 3D printing in China.

 

Shining 3D

3D-printed jewelry. Photo from Shining 3D.
3D-printed jewelry. Photo from Shining 3D.

Despite the fact that the company shares the same name with a well-known Stanley Kubrick horror movie, there is nothing nightmarish about Shining 3D’s products. The company has so far filed hundreds of patents connected to 3D printing including dental implants, digital hearing aids, and even digital jewelry. It has even started a project on developing 3D data models of historically significant artifacts and artworks from museums around the globe.

Founded in 2004, Shining 3D has 10 subsidiary companies in China, and is working with top Chinese universities and international companies. It is now hoping to expand globally.

 

WinSun (Yingchuang Building Technology Co.)

Winsun's 3D-printed villa. Photo from Baidu Images.
Winsun’s 3D-printed villa. Photo from Baidu Images.

Shanghai-based WinSun is the company behind the construction of the first functional 3D-printed office building which was opened in Dubai in May 2016. It was finished in 17 days for only USD 140,000.

WinSun started out as a building materials supplier, but today its wants to change construction to a zero waste industry with the help of 3D printing. It first made a splash in the headlines in 2014 with a batch of 10 houses printed out of recycled construction material and assembled in Suzhou. Since then, it has managed to 3D print an entire 6-storey apartment building, and an 18th century styled villa fit for European royalty.

 

HuaShang Tenda

3D-printed villa made by Huashang Tenda. Photo from Baidu Images.
3D-printed villa made by Huashang Tenda. Photo from Baidu Images.

While WinSun has made a name for itself by printing out 3D modules and then assembling them, HuaShang Tenda decided to change the game by printing out an entire 400 square meter, two-story house at once. With walls as thick as 8 feet (2.43 m), it is designed to withstand the strongest earthquakes. The result is not very pretty, but it is certainly impressive.
The Beijing-based HuaShang Tenda is a part of a larger company called HuaShang Luhai that was founded in 1989 and deals in construction as well as electrical and mechanical equipment.

(Top photo by Creative Tools via Flickr.)

Xiaomi’s offline stores suspiciously resemble Apple stores

Ever since Xiaomi started conquering China’s market, it has been labeled a copycat – the “Apple of China.” Whether it is the product design, user interface or branding, it is quite obvious that the Beijing-based company has been very inspired by Apple’s products and has likely chosen its design strategy because of Apple’s huge popularity in its home market.

Though Xiaomi has denied these allegations in particularly its former Vice President of International, Hugo Barra, the signs are hard to miss. CEO and co-founder of Xiaomi Lei Jun has repeatedly been compared with Steve Jobs because of his presentations and the iconic “I just came from fixing my car in the garage” style choice. At one point, Chinese netizens even labeled him a Steve Jobs protégé by adding “-bs” to his last name.

Steve Jobs (left) and Lei Jun “Leibs”. Photos from Baidu Images.
Steve Jobs (left) and Lei Jun “Leibs”. Photos from Baidu Images.

Xiaomi’s latest design gaffe is its physical store layout. The minimalistic white walls and wooden display tables suspiciously reminded us of Apple stores.

Xiaomi's store in Beijing.
Xiaomi’s store at The Place in Beijing.
Apple's store in Beijing.
Apple store in Sanlitun Beijing.

However, what differentiates Apple’s from Xiaomi’s stores is the sheer number of different gadgets. Apple has been somewhat conservative in expanding its scope of products, choosing to invest in quality over quantity.

Xiaomi's store in Beijing.
Inside of Xiaomi store at the Place.
Apple's store in Beijing.
Inside of Apple store in Sanlitun.

On the other hand, Xiaomi has been heavily investing in gadgets. After establishing its Exploration Lab in 2016, the company has invested in 77 smart gadget startups with plans to build a Xiaomi Ecosystem. The new toys have caught the eyes of the public. From VR sets to air purifiers, drones, power banks, smart bands, Mi TV, Mi Notebook Air, smart e-bikes, washing machines and rice cookers (which also brought accusations of copying competitors’ design), Xiaomi has filled its stores with all kinds of goodies waiting for customers to try them out.

Xiaomi's VR headset.
Xiaomi’s VR headset.
Apple's Macbooks.
Apple’s Macbooks.

The interesting part is that Xiaomi has been able to keep up with the clean, minimalistic style it has defined in the beginning of the company’s quest to bring high quality phones at low prices. Now that the Xiaomi brand is recognized both in China and abroad, it seems strange that the company would insist on ripping off Apple’s designs, even when it comes to something low tech as tables!

(All photos by Masha Borak/All China Tech. All rights reserved.)

Car sharing – the next big sharing craze in China?

Judging from the latest headlines, after Uber vs. Didi and Mobike vs. ofo, the next big rivalry in China might be car sharing. Car sharing is a cheap, convenient, and environmentally friendly way of traveling around the city. But more importantly, it is definitely sexier than public transportation. We descended upon the streets of Beijing to find out whether the new trend is indeed catching on in the busy capital of China.

Our first contestant was a lovely German by the name of Mercedes, who relinquished her maiden name and is now known as Daimler. Daimler AG’s car sharing service Car2Go has been operating since 2009 and has drawn 2 million users in 30 locations on three continents.

The company entered the China market in 2015 with two services featuring gas-fueled smart cars: Car2Go, a free-floating car sharing service, and Car2Share (Suixinkai) which is station based. Since then, it has announced the merger of the two services, but only the free-floating service is still available in Chongqing. Nevertheless, Car2Share which has 60 stations around China with 20 located in Beijing had largely positive reviews.

Car2Go's Smart car parked in one of Beijing's business districts. Photo by Masha Borak.
Car2Go’s Smart car parked in one of Beijing’s business districts. Photo by Masha Borak.

“It’s convenient and quite cheap,” a young man who preferred to be called Jiemu told us. Car2Share only charges RMB 99 for registration, RMB 12 per hour, and an additional fee of RMB 1.5 per kilometer, insurance and gas included.

“I use it for work because my office is close to the station. The only trouble is that I cannot leave the car anywhere else. Parking is a problem,” he added.

This opinion was echoed by another Car2Share user who said that the service is great, but only convenient for those based around the business districts where the stations are located. Many people live in the periphery where rent is cheaper but for them, the service is not very convenient.

Car2Share did prove useful for another reason, and that was avoiding Beijing’s strict driving restrictions. Jefferson Zhang told us he was using the service because he was not allowed to take his own car on the road that day due to the city’s traffic control rules. In order to fight congestion and air pollution, many Chinese cities limit the number of cars on the road by taking out one group of vehicles each day a week according to the end numbers of their license plates. This made us wonder – car sharing may be good for the drivers, but will it really help to fight congestion in the long run?

Our second contestant is of Chinese descent, a born Beijinger. GoFun Chuxing was founded in 2016 by a state-owned auto leasing company Beijing Shouqi Group. It has so far spread its station-based car sharing services to four cities in China. It currently has around 1,100 electric cars in Beijing and is planning to add more this year.

GoFun's Chery eQ electric car. Photo from Baidu Images.
GoFun’s Chery eQ electric car. Photo from Baidu Images.

The company has ambitious plans – it wants to cover 20 cities and provide 15,000 cars by the end of 2017. But for now, the service is still a novelty for consumers. To introduce its services, GoFun organized a special event on Valentine’s Day and placed a random 100 cars on the streets of Beijing to offer free rides and coupons.

“I used it because it is a new thing in China,” said Liu Ying, a young woman who has only used the service once. “I think it is convenient that I don’t have to pay for parking.”

Liu owns her own car, but what attracted her to GoFun was that she does not need to pay for maintenance and other costs with a car sharing service. The service was also cheaper than taking a taxi when she used discount coupons. GoFun charges a refundable deposit of RMB 699, but the rates are only RMB 1 yuan per kilometer and 0.1 yuan per minute for a ride.

“The disadvantages are that it is not easy to find the cars in the city. You can only find them in a few richer areas and you can only park them at certain places.”

Maddie Liu has been using the service for some time to drive her son for lessons in a remote Beijing suburb every weekend. Another measure implemented by Beijing to fight congestions is the licence plate lottery which is notoriously hard to obtain.

“I’m still planning to buy my own car, but it is so difficult to get a licence plate number now,” said Maddie. “GoFun is much cheaper than calling a taxi.”

Car availability in Beijing Car2Go vs. GoFun.
Car availability in Beijing Car2Go vs. GoFun.

GoFun is currently in negotiations to secure more parking lots for its little Chery EVs. It has recently announced a partnership with the Beijing Municipal Road & Bridge Group which will help the company achieve that. This is an important accomplishment knowing how rare and expensive parking spots are in the capital. Whether or not Chinese drivers will abandon their traditional penchant for car ownership will depend on how convenient and affordable new car-sharing services will be. After all, bike-sharing in China only took off when bikes were literally everywhere. However, it is possible that not all cities will be keen on welcoming additional cars on their streets.

Despite these issues and the somewhat lukewarm reception from consumers, other companies are betting on the rise of car-sharing. BAIC Motors has recently launched its own car-sharing service while LeEco has also joined the game with LeShare. Let’s just hope that the potential upcoming car-sharing war doesn’t bring the same chaos to China’s parking lots as bike-sharing did.

(Top photo from Baidu Images.)

Poker AI outbluffs China’s top poker players

Lengpudashi, the “Cold Poker Master,” arrived in Hainan to face the top Texas Hold’Em players in China for a USD 290,000 winner-takes-all purse. His opponents were serious players – Team Dragons was led by Yue (Alan) Du, a venture capitalist and amateur player who was the first Chinese mainlander to win a trophy at the World Series of Poker. But none of them was a match for Lengpudashi, an artificial intelligence bot developed by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.

The event, organized by former Greater China President of Google and venture capitalist Kai-fu Lee, followed an earlier showdown in January where Lengpudashi’s older version Libratus beat four of the world’s top poker professionals in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Dragon Team with Alan Du second from the left. Photo from Baidu Images.
The Dragon Team with Alan Du second from the left. Photo from Baidu Images.

Unlike Google’s AlphaGo’s triumph over 18-time world champion Lee Sedol last year, there was not so much fanfare in this event. But the implications of the AI’s victory are equally interesting – computers have successfully learnt how to bluff, something which was previously thought only humans could do.

“Poker has been one of the hardest games for AI to crack, because of the large state space and that you see only partial information”, said former Google and Baidu’s AI top expert Andrew Ng. “There is no well defined optimal move, but instead the player has to randomize its actions”.

Tuomas Sandholm and Kai-fu Lee holding the RMB 2 million prize won by Lengpudashi.
Tuomas Sandholm and Kai-fu Lee holding the RMB 2 million prize won by Lengpudashi. Photo from Baidu Images.

Unlike chess and Go where players can see everything going on the board, the information is hidden from players in poker – what game theorists call imperfect information. Players cannot judge whether a move is good or not, and they have to rely on complex betting strategies – bluffing – and what we call intuition. Until now, scientists thought that it would be hard for an AI to read a bluff or predict a strategy in a way that humans do.

“I am very excited to take this new kind of AI technology to China,” said Tuomas Sandholm, professor at the Computer Science Department at CMU who created Libratus and Lengpudashi with Ph.D. student Noam Brown in a statement. “I want to explore various commercial opportunities for this in poker and a host of other application areas, ranging from recreational games to business strategy to strategic pricing to cybersecurity and medicine”.

Tuomas Sandholm, professor at the Computer Science Department at CMU who created Libratus and Lengpudashi with Ph.D. student Noam Brown. Photo from Carnegie Mellon University.
Tuomas Sandholm, professor at the Computer Science Department at CMU who created Libratus and Lengpudashi with Ph.D. student Noam Brown. Photo from Carnegie Mellon University.

Sandholm also explained that the AI did not learn from mimicking human poker players and analyzing historical data, but from game theory. The machine mainly relied on a trial-and-error form of AI known as reinforcement learning. Unlike AlphaGo which analyzed millions of games played by other players, Libratus began from zero – learning from its own mistakes and developing its own strategies. The AI still needed help from humans – its creators helped it to randomize bluffs, making it hard for other players to follow.

In the future, an AI which can crack games with imperfect information could become a valuable asset in predicting potential moves by opponents and planning strategies, especially in economics and diplomacy. With stakes like these, we are betting that investments in game-playing AI are only going to rise.

The next big human-AI showdown will be held in May between AlphaGo and world’s number one Go player Ke Jun.

(Top photo from Baidu Images.)

The top 8 carsharing platforms in China

China’s sharing economy has been drawing attention with the latest bike-sharing revolution, but it looks like there will be more changes. After a period of lagging behind the Western urban centers, China’s car-sharing companies have begun their march to the market, expanding services and waging price wars.

Traditionally, Chinese consumers prefer to own their cars, as it is considered a symbol of higher social status. However, there are a number of reasons that have increased the appeal of car sharing. Those reasons include the restrictive car plate allocation system, congestion, and the air pollution among others. Authorities have also started supporting this mode of transportation, seeing it as a way to boost China’s electric car industry and reduce traffic. Here are the top car sharing companies in China.

1. ATzuche (Auto)

ATzuche car. Photo from Baidu Images.
ATzuche car. Photo from Baidu Images.

Founded: 2014

Founder: Chen Weiyu

Financing: RMB 400 million (USD 58 million) in Series C, February 2017; RMB 95.5 million (USD 14.7 million) in a crowdfunding campaign, October 2016; undisclosed amount in series B+, June 2015; RMB 300 million (USD 46.3 million USD) in Series B, November 2015; RMB 69 million (USD 10 million) in Series A, October 2014.

ATzuche is a P2P car rental startup that broke the crowdfunding record in China in May last year by acquiring over RMB 95.5 million (USD 14.7 million) through JD Dongjia, JD’s private equity crowdfunding platform. The platform allows users to rent out their idle car and provides several services such as 24/7 customer support, roadside assistance, and car delivery. It also specializes in providing luxury cars. ATzuche claims it has 3 million users, and 100,000 registered cars in 14 Chinese cities.

2. Baojia

Screenshot from Baojia's website.
Screenshot from Baojia’s website.

Founded: 2014

Founders: Li Rubin, Yinming Ren

Financing: RMB 207 million (USD 30 million) in Series A financing, December 2014; RMB 34.5 million (USD 5 million) angel financing, May 2014

Baojia is another P2P car rental service that has a variety of services, such as test driving, long term leases, and products and technology connected to driving. In 2016, Baojia announced the development of a carsharing cloud platform to connect car rental companies, third-party travel platforms, automotive technology researchers, big data and cloud computing service providers that will build the country’s largest car sharing network. According to a report from 2015, the platform had 30,000 registered vehicles.

3. KuaiKuai

Screenshot from KuaiKuai Zuche.
Screenshot from KuaiKuai Zuche.

Founded: 2015

Founder: Eric Liu

Financing: RMB 60 million (USD 8.6 million) in A Series, May 2015 P2P car sharing platform

Kuaikuai was founded by Eric Liu, one of the early employees at Vipshop which used to be the leading online discount retailer for brands in China. It also has a car rental service and is the largest online car rental brand in South China. The company also offers leasing services, with at least 20,000 cars in their fleet currently.

4. Yi Wei Xing (Feezu)

Screenshot from Feezu's video.
Screenshot from Feezu’s video.

Founded: 2014

CEO: Yang Yang

Financing: Undisclosed amount, October 2016, RMB 60 million (USD 8.6 million) in a pre-A round of financing in April 2015

In October 2016, General Motors shared the news that it will invest in the car sharing tech platform provider Yi Wei Xing and its app Feezu, a timeshare rental car service similar to Zipcar. By taking a stake in the company, GM plans to expand its own car-sharing service Maven. The company has recently announced a strategic cooperation with Yi Du, a Beijing-based timeshare rental service, with a focus on electric vehicles.

5. Car2Go

Mercedes' Car2Go SMART car. Photo from Baidu Images.
Mercedes’ Car2Go Smart car. Photo from Baidu Images.

Founded: 2015

CEO: Chen Bing

Mercedes has recently decided to merge two of its car sharing services, Car2Go and Car2Share that together have over 250,000 users in China. The company has both free-floating and station-based car sharing services that offer SMART cars. Mercedes is also hoping to bring self-driving cars to China in partnership with Uber. The company might soon face competition from BAIC Motors that has recently launched its own car-sharing service.

6. EVCard

EVCard station. Photo from Baidu Images.
EVCard station. Photo from Baidu Images.

Founded: 2013

EVCARD is the first electric car sharing service in Shanghai. The project was launched by Shanghai International Automobile City, a demonstration zone, with SAIC Motor Corp. The cars can be rented at 50 designated stations by swiping a card. As General Manager of Shanghai International Automobile City Rong Wenwei explained, the project is not meant to bring much profit but fill some of the gaps in the city transportation system and to promote the use of green vehicles.

7. GoFun

GoFun's electric cars. Photo from Baidu Images.
GoFun’s electric cars. Photo from Baidu Images.

Founded: 2016

GoFun Chuxing is another timeshare platform that aims to promote car sharing services set up by state-owned Beijing Shouqi Group, a leading auto leasing company. GoFun plans to spread to 20 cities and provide more than 15,000 cars around China by the end of this year and it is making deals with city authorities to secure parking and charging stations. GoFun’s chief operating officer Tan Yi recently said that the company hopes to start turning profit in two to three years.

8. LeShare

Screenshot from LeEco's LeShare website.
Screenshot from LeEco’s LeShare website.

Founded: 2016

LeShare, founded by LeEco Holdings, is another new addition to China’s sharing economy. LeShare has ambitious plans to expand its fleet of electric vehicles to 200,000 vehicles across 100 Chinese cities by 2019. The car sharing branch was set up under the Internet Ecosystem Institute led by Yidao Yongche.

Yidao Yongche, which came under LeEco in 2015, provides ride-sharing and car-hailing services. Aside from China, it is also present in 20 cities in the U.S. where it caters mostly to Chinese tourists.

(Top photo from Baidu Images.)