The internet is poised to be segregated into two parts – a censored version run by the Chinese government and its democratic brethren run majorly by the United States. However, Chinese tech leaders are already busy drawing a visual map of the future in the post-Internet era. According to them, while the previous 20 years belonged to the internet, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will shape the coming three to five decade. The need to focus on basic science that can aid the development of indigenous AI was one of the main topics that were brought forward by them at the 5th World Internet Conference, hosted in the picturesque canal town of Wuzhen in northern Zhejiang province.
The World Internet Conference attempts to bring together government officials and local and international company executives for discussions on the impact of internet and technology. Due to the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S., the 2018 segment witnessed low participation from American and European tech leaders. It was predominantly a local affair, as top executives from Chinese tech firms like Baidu and Tencent participated in the event along with some of the rising stars of the Chinese tech world giving their opinions.
Baidu, which operates China’s largest internet search engine, is a so-called AI national champion. Along with the central government endorsing its efforts in AI, Baidu also become the first Chinese company to join an international AI ethics group, alongside members such as Apple and Alphabet’s Google. At the conference, Baidu CEO Robin Li Yanhong said, “AI will not only impact the consumer Internet but will completely change most industries and services to business.”
Such sentiments were also shared by Pony Ma Huateng, founder of Tencent – whose consumer-facing platform WeChat has enabled connectivity across China. Laying out the company’s industrial internet ambition plan, Ma said, “Most industries have not achieved ‘digitization’ and Tencent will play an assistant role to help digitize the industrial Internet process.” Ma also stressed the importance of fundamental science such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry that’s bound to play a key role in the development of AI technology. “Breakthroughs in fundamental science have a significant impact on the consumer and industrial internet we have today. They won’t happen out of thin air. We need these breakthroughs to make [new technologies] possible,” Ma said. “Only when we have basic science can we cooperate with different industries.” To aid advancements in fundamental science and cutting-edge core technologies, Tencent announced an allocation of $140 million to establish a “scientific exploration award” for young researchers.
In the conference, Ma spoke highly of for brain-computer interface technology, stating that “It will change the way we use the Internet and AI. Communications can work without conversations.” Baidu’s Li, meanwhile, was skeptical of the technology, stating that it was still a long way off and it would be “boring if we just sit here quietly and communicate with each other without talking.” Li, instead divulged that medical applications of AI have a large potential as it can prolong lifespans of human beings and improve their quality of life.
The tech leaders also spoke of building a complete digital economy in China in the forthcoming decade. Wang Xing, the founder of China’s food delivery service platform Meituan Dianping, said the digital economy can only become complete “when the supply side finishes its digitalization.” The conference underpinned Beijing’s ambitions for technological dominance in areas such as AI and basic science under its Made in China 2025 industrial policy which has become a lightning rod in the escalating trade war between the US and China.