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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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++.)