TIANJIN, CHINA – The award-winning virtual reality film “Tree” offers a rare multisensory experience of becoming a rainforest tree from a seedling in just 15 minutes. Reading a short speech into a microphone analyzes your voice and tells who you are — your sex, height, skull type, personality and emotional state. A high-resolution video camera identifies you from 500 meters away.
These computational imaging and artificial intelligence-driven technologies were all on display at the World Economic Forum’s conference in Tianjin, China, last week. Some 2,500 leaders from politics, academia and a range of business sectors, including many startups, from around the world gathered in the city for the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2018 — often dubbed the “Summer Davos” — where they experienced these advanced technologies and discussed how those such as AI and blockchain will influence society in the coming years.
Until recently, the undisputed world leader of innovative technologies had always been the United States, but this year’s conference showed how other countries, including China, are catching up quickly.
“People often refer to Silicon Valley when they talk about new technologies, but I think Silicon Valley’s uniqueness has, relatively, become small these days as innovation is happening everywhere in the world,” said Nobu Okada, founder of Astroscale Pte. Ltd., a Singapore-based company that develops technologies to solve space debris problems. “I got inspired by a lot of people here. Everyone has a unique story.”
Okada, for example, cited a Brazilian entrepreneur he met at the conference. Using blockchain-based software, Chicko Sousa, founder and CEO of Plataforma Verde, created a system for companies and retailers to track the final destination of waste.
“People in Japan or Singapore usually expect the collected waste will be properly incinerated or recycled, but in some countries, it is hard to know what happens to the waste,” Okada said. Sousa made the whole process transparent, including when the waste was collected and where it went. “What’s more impressive is that such transparency prompted people to take recycling more seriously,” he said.
Rita Singh, a Carnegie Mellon University scientist who developed the voice recognition device showcased at the event, noted China’s presence in the world of science is rapidly increasing.
“China is getting way ahead in AI. If you go to any conference in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, many Chinese scientists are there, sometimes dominating,” she said. “China is coming up really fast. It already has exceeded the U.S. in terms of biometrics and self-driven cars.”
According to Tsinghua University’s China AI Development Report 2018, China ranked first in the number of AI-related patents, most of which focus on AI applications. The report also said that by the end of 2017, China had over 18,000 people working in AI technology research, accounting for 8.9 percent of the world’s total and second only to the U.S., which accounted for 13.9 percent.
China AI Top 50 ranking, which was released by China Money Network last week, also revealed that behind the rapid growth of the Chinese AI industry is the support of the Chinese government and big technology companies.
Released after analyzing the data of over 1,000 Chinese AI-related companies and interviewing numerous people in the industry and experts around the world earlier this year, the report said that 27 of the 50 companies in the AI industry are backed by Chinese government-related funds, the technology giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, or both.
“In the world of AI and big data, there is good chemistry between the one-party political system and big data,” said Fukuoka Mayor Soichiro Takashima, one of the Japanese leaders who attended the Tianjin meeting.
“Whether it is good or not, companies supported by the Chinese and Russian governments will become unicorns,” he said, referring to privately held startup companies valued at $1 billion or more.
The WEF meeting also came at a time when the U.S. and China are at loggerheads over bilateral trade, and some participants expressed concern that if the trade dispute escalates and further damages the Chinese economy, it will have a ripple effect in the global economy.
U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods and retaliatory tariffs by Beijing on $60 billion worth of U.S. products took effect on Monday.
“Japan and the U.S. have held trade talks for a bilateral deal. The U.S. also has negotiated with the European Union, Canada and Mexico. But it seems the U.S. and China don’t have a channel for such trade negotiations,” said Yasushi Akahoshi, president of the Japan External Trade Organization.
“Right now, we don’t see a major impact on companies, but if it continues, it might impact large companies on both sides. Before that, the two countries will have to find a solution,” Akahoshi said.
During the event, which has been held alternately in the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Dalian, the country’s growing influence was visible in many aspects, including sessions on the China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, its space economy, its financial opening and those with business leaders such as Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma. And instead of English, many sessions were conducted in Chinese, with simultaneous English translations, a departure from last year’s conference, where almost every session was conducted in English.
Japanese business and political leaders who attended the conference said Japan should speak up more to share the knowledge and experience it has accumulated in the newly emerging sectors.
Mike Kayamori, CEO of Quoine Pte. Ltd., a Tokyo-based firm running a bitcoin exchange, was a panelist at one of the sessions on cryptocurrency. He told The Japan Times that Japan’s experiences with cryptocurrency should be shared with other countries as it was the first industrialized country to regulate cryptocurrency exchanges.
Under a law introduced last year, exchanges have to register with the Financial Services Agency, which closely scrutinizes them to root out money laundering and prevent cyberthefts.
Although the regulator has been conducting on-site inspections and handing out business improvement orders to many companies, there were two major cases of cyberthefts this year: at Coincheck Inc. in January and Tech Bureau Corp. earlier this month.
“There are other countries that regulate cryptocurrency exchanges, but they are all small countries, like Malta or Gibraltar. It is important for us to tell what’s happening in Japan at this kind of global conference,” Kayamori said.
“If cryptocurrency becomes the mainstream means to procure funds or financial settlements in the future, would the world want to refer to the regulations of small countries? The initiative should be taken by big economies like the G20 or G7 nations, and among those nations, Japan should be the key player,” he said.
Another sector many people said Japan has a competitive edge in is technologies to cope with an aging society.
Fukuoka Mayor Takashima said his city is welcoming many companies to test their next-generation technologies in the city, including a project to monitor the health conditions of elderly people living alone just by placing a sensor on the ceiling.
“The sensors can even catch the movement of one’s internal organs. If the person fell sick or collapsed in the room, his or her health information will be sent to an emergency center for immediate rescue,” he said.
He believes Japan should focus on areas where it can excel in the world and invest its limited resources selectively.
“Japan has so many issues that need to be tackled, including the aging society and health care issues. These problems actually give Japan an advantage to show its presence on the global market,” said Takashima.