China entered 2016 with a struggling stock market that made many analysts question the strength of the world’s largest economy. Despite this economic omen, China closed 2015 with a pretty stellar year in artificial intelligence and robotics, sparking what may be the beginning of a revolution.
Baidu is China’s answer to Google. Despite being relatively unknown and unused outside of mainland China – where the government blocks access to many of the Internet’s most popular websites, including most other search engines – Baidu proved itself a worthy competitor to the tech giants around the world. One of the company’s AI supercomputers reportedly outperformed Google’s own system at image recognition. Baidu later admitted it’d broken some rules surrounding the friendly challenge it raised against Google’s software, but the achievement nonetheless ranked Baidu as a major player in artificial intelligences.
A few months later a driverless, modified BMW 3-Series could be seen weaving around Beijing. Performing all the basic feats necessary from a self-driving vehicle – turning in both directions, pulling u-turns, changing lanes, and merging – Baidu’s BMW completed an 18.6-mile tour around China’s capital. The car was a product of Baidu’s deep learning research lab, which had been developing the technology since 2013.
But Baidu isn’t simply following in Google’s footsteps. Instead, the state-owned search engine is even innovating the concepts behind technologies and how they will be applied. Where a company’s approach to self-driving cars typically falls within one of two types, Baidu has taken a third approach.
The first type includes automakers who add self-driving features, piece by piece, to current consumer cars. The second approach – Google’s approach – is to build a self-driving car that is completely driverless by the time it reaches consumers. Baidu’s approach is a middle ground to develop self-driving cars that “advance incrementally through different environments, rather than through different levels of driving autonomously.” In other words, Baidu’s self-driving vehicles will be built to serve specific routes and specific locations, like a shuttle bus from the airport to the train station.
AI was a big year for Baidu and China but shouldn’t overshadow the country’s vow to automate millions of jobs in the coming year. In 2013 the People’s Republic became the world’s biggest importer of robots. The International Federation of Robotics bets that by 2018 China will house more than a third of all industrial robots installed worldwide.
This prediction is made in part because of China’s “Made in China 2025” plan to develop an infrastructure to support an innovative and sustainable economy. At the nation’s first robotics conference, Vice President Li Yuanchao commended the event’s organizers and reviewed the country’s plan to double per capita income in the next four years – a plan that considers automating millions of manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, embracing the country’s open door policy, Yuanchao welcomes neighbors and all to participate in the country’s robot revolution. “China would like to welcome robot experts and entrepreneurs from all over the world to communicate and coӧperate with us,” he said, “in order to push forward the development of robot technology and industry.”
Image credits: Tomohiro Ohsumi—Bloomberg/Getty Images