COVID-19 Has Given China’s AI Industry a Shot in the Arm

Cars line up for self-driving test. (Source: Xinhua)

The artificial intelligence (AI) industry is thriving in China, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been turbocharging it. As frequent observers of Chinese news headlines have seen, AI has been widely used to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, from contact tracing systems to driverless food delivery and medical supply vehicles. The raging pandemic has accelerated the pace of AI adoption across China, giving the industry a shot in the arm.

Throwing the global economy into a tailspin, the pandemic continues to upend the world. In contrast, the AI industry in China is one of the few sectors to represent a strong headwind amid the sluggish economy. The scale of China’s AI infrastructure market reached $3.93 billion in 2020, an increase of 26.8% compared to the figure in 2019 before the outbreak, according to the 2020-2021 China Artificial Intelligence Computing Power development report, jointly conducted by market research firms IDC and Inspur. China’s AI servers accounted for about one-third of the global total in 2020. The report predicts that China will maintain a high speed of growth to reach $7.8 billion in 2024.

Another report conducted by iiMedia research, a big data institution, shares a similar perspective. The sale of China’s core AI topped over 150 billion yuan and is expected to exceed 400 billion yuan in 2035, making China the world’s largest AI market in the future.

The promising developments explain why capital increasingly favors the Chinese AI industry. Other data from iiMedia research shows that the financing scale of the Chinese market grew to 140.2 billion yuan, 32.4 billion yuan higher than before the outbreak.”

2020 is the year of AI in which the industry experienced explosive growth,” wrote iiMedia research.

Chinese AI companies that aim to take the lead in the industry are in full swing, advancing technology and rolling out pilot projects as their rivals sit idle because of the pandemic.

The transportation and medical sectors are two of the most popular locales for the application of AI amid the pandemic, with figures accounting for 45.5% and 40.5%, respectively, iiMedia’s data revealed.

Both Chinese tech giants and start-ups are delving into the booming autonomous industry, pushing the technological breakthrough. Employees from these companies have been working around the clock, snatching a few hours’ sleep to advance their research in driverless cars. Since September 2020, Chinese Internet giant Baidu has been rolling out its self-driving taxi service “Apollo Go” in Beijing, in which passengers can hail the autonomous cabs online. Baidu is not the only company that received a go-ahead for such projects from the government. According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China has issued more than 400 licenses to companies for self-driving tests, with the total road test mileage exceeding 2 million kilometers at the start of 2021.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic put China’s AI industry into a fast lane,” said Zhou Zhen, the Associate Vice President for Enterprise Research at IDC China. In addition to the strong support from the government and matured 5G technology, the coronavirus has fueled the smart industry as it illuminated AI’s ever-growing value and immediate need.

As the most populous country globally, the top priority of China in the fight against COVID-19, which can be transmitted by air, is to avoid mass gathering and unnecessary human-to-human interaction, and that’s how AI comes into the spotlight. AI technology could be seen everywhere a year ago when the country was hit hard by the pandemic. From distributing medicine and ferrying medical workers to patrolling and disinfecting, autonomous vehicles, one of the most well-known applications of AI played a key role in the fight, “[saving] the human labor and [lowering] the risk of cross infection,” said Li Lanjuan in a TV interview, one of the top epidemiologist in China.

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AI has also been applied to other fields such as disease diagnosing, contact tracing and mass temperature measurement. The pent-up demand for AI brings unprecedented opportunities for tech giants and start-ups to enlarge their applications and roll out tests, which would move them forward quickly by racking up more real data and increasing public trust.

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With the widespread adoption of AI in public, the “Chinese people began to accept and realize the necessity of it. What we can imagine is that in the post-pandemic era, people will get more familiar and more comfortable with AI applications, such as fully driverless vehicles, and we are ready to push that,” said James Peng in an interview to CNBC, a founder and CEO of Pony.ai, a driverless car start-up.

To fully achieve mainstream adoption of AI, there is still a long way to go. Challenges such as technology advancement, regulation, and consumer acceptance remain to be solved in the future.