Robin Li: AI to Drive Growth as China’s Netizen Boom Hit Plateau

5 min read 

“The growth rate of Internet users in China exceeded more than 50 percent a decade ago, but today it’s down to 6 percent,” Robin Li, chairman and CEO of Baidu, said at the Wuzhen Summit. Over the past four years, China’s population of Internet users has grown at a slower pace than its GDP.

The Internet in China no longer has a demographic dividend.

But Li stressed that although the days of demographic dividends are gone, artificial intelligence may be a new driver for growth. Artificial intelligence is at an early stage today, very similar to the Internet of 10 years ago.

The following is a transcript of the speech:

Hello everybody. It is my great honor to be here today and share with you my point of view. Previous guests didn’t use PowerPoint presentations with their speech, but I think it will be clearer in my case. Please look at the picture first. The picture is growth rates of the number of Internet users in China and China’s GDP over the past decade. What we see from the chart is that the growth rate of Internet users in China exceeded more than 50 percent a decade ago. But today, it’s about 6 percent. In fact, over the past four years, Internet users in China have grown at a slower pace than China’s GDP. That means the Internet in China no longer has a demographic dividend.

Last year, I said the era of wireless Internet was over, but most people didn’t agree with me and thought we were just entering the second phase. This year, I saw that everyone who thought we were in next phase began to talk about artificial intelligence, so my next slide is about that.

The netizen dividend is gone, but there is still a driver of growth: artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is at an early stage today, very similar to the Internet of 10 years ago. A dozen years ago, I said there were three forces driving China’s Internet development. First, there was the growing number of Internet users. Just as in the picture you saw, the growth rate was more than 50 percent. The second was increasing hours of surfing the Internet. At the first beginning, people only surfed on the Internet for a few minutes each day, and then more than 10 minutes. Today, they may be browsing for several hours. Everyone is spending more time online. The third is the increasing amount of information online. So, these three forces drove Internet growth in China and even the world as a whole.

When the demographic dividend vanished, we found a technological dividend. That is to say the technology innovation represented by artificial intelligence will help the digital economy to constantly develop in the future. This too has three parts. The first is algorithm. Artificial intelligence algorithms, especially for machine learning, are developing rapidly in the past few years with constant innovation. It develops from deep learning, DNN to RNN and then to CNN. New inventions are constantly coming out.

The second is calculating force. The cost of computing is falling continuously. Servers are becoming more and more powerful. In the past, we felt that artificial intelligence was not practical because there wasn’t enough calculating power. We couldn’t afford it. Thus, we found it useless. Today, calculating power has reached a critical point where many artificial intelligence applications are practical and available. The third is data. Data are still developing at very high speed, especially for the Chinese Internet. The Chinese Internet is unique. All its 750 million Internet users speak the same language, live in the same culture and abide by the same laws. The big crowds and big market generate big data constantly, which further promotes the innovation of algorithms and creates a demand for computing power. These three factors are continuing their upward trend, and I am very optimistic that China’s digital economy will be driven by artificial intelligence in the future. And that means artificial intelligence will develop at a very fast speed.

Another difference between artificial intelligence and the Internet is that AI has strong vertical integration. We are a community with a common future in cyberspace. In the past, Internet software companies were mainly based on software, while today we see an integration of hardware, software and services in most strong companies. Take the automobile industry for an example. The car industry enjoys a history of 100 years, but today it is changing dramatically due to artificial intelligence. AI will not only influence manufacturing, but also upstream and downstream industries from taxi-hailing providers to chip fabricators. Bosch and vehicle manufacturers, such as Ford and Daimler, have joined Baidu’s Apollo open platform.

Many companies both upstream and downstream can benefit from AI, but they can also be threatened by AI. The car industry is a large industry, and in China it accounts for about a sixth of the GDP. But this industry – which has remained unchanged for a century – will change dramatically over the next few years. It is conceivable that the changes brought by artificial intelligence technology will affect all industries.

I’m just using the car industry as an example. Every industry that you can think of will change because of technological innovation, and will evolve because of AI. No matter whether it is finance or real estate, education or health care, logistics or energy. In this sense, I think we are living in a very great era as we have the opportunity to witness or even participate in artificial intelligence, a technological revolution comparable to the industrial revolution. AI development will surprise everyone. We also expect AI advancement will bring constant surprises to each of us. Thank you for your attention.

This article originally appeared in Neteast Technology and was translated by Pandaily.

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