As artificial intelligence becomes part of the national strategy boosted by the central government, it is being widely applied in the process of city planning as well as smart city building, covering transportation, healthcare, government affairs, education, finance and almost all aspects of society.
The Chinese government has proposed plans to make the second-largest economy the global leader in AI by 2030, with capital and resources to be poured into research. Private companies and local regulators have jumped on the bandwagon to promote the technology.
Xiao-i Robot Technology, a Shanghai-based AI technology solution provider, is a market pioneer in the struggle to reshape the corporate and customer world through AI applications. The firm’s history over the past 18 years is synonymous with the history of AI, during which the latter has experienced a series of twists and turns.
While Apple unveiled the Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface, or Siri, in 2011, the third wave of AI has brought the whole industry into more diversified new heights as more and more firms shift in favor of another direction, named “narrow AI”, a category that current commercial AI technology falls in, Yuan said. Xiao-i is no exception.
When it comes to the full picture of AI, there are three components interlinking with each other — perception, brain and motion, Yuan said.
Obviously, every related business could be matched with an appropriate seat, such as iFlytek and Sense Time lying in the perception part, Xiao-i sitting in the brain part, while robot manufacturers Pepper, Ina and Nao are within the motion part.
According to the Top Ten Technology Trends for 2017 released by Gartner, the report regarded Xiao-i, together with other international giants Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo, as world-leading conversational systems that provide intelligent interactive cloud capability to the corporate world.
Also in 2011, seven years after Xiao-i was started from scratch, the startup’s management team made a resolute decision. Before, the firm stuck with the general AI direction that was being imposed on customers. Afterward, the focus was changed to explore how to transform technology into productivity and how to attract clients.
“Before 2015, almost nobody in the world talked about AI technology,” Yuan said.
“At that time, we had an iconic chatbot on the MSN platform in 2004, underpinning our future development.”
Xiao-i 001, the first automatic chat product published on MSN, came out when customer demand for instant messaging was strong in 2003.
The nights were serene and quiet when all his friends on MSN were offline, Yuan recalled. To address this “loneliness” problem, Yuan came up with an adventurous idea — why can’t I create “somebody” to chat with me?
Eighteen years later, Xiao-i has accumulated more than 1,000 clients, teamed up with 100,000 developers in its ecosystem and provided services to more than 800 million end users around the world, with an eye on rewriting how they work and live.
Last year, Xiao-i opened its Asia-Pacific headquarters and AI+ experience center in Hong Kong. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, told the opening ceremony:“We have emphasized the importance of technological innovation in the two policy addresses that I have delivered since becoming chief executive, and there are many opportunities for technological development in Hong Kong.”
Yuan said the firm is planning an initial public offering, but the specific timeline is yet to be decided as the global equity capital market has experienced a correction since May 2018. That is making the company’s IPO pace more prudent and more reliant on its long-term development strategy.
“One thing I have confidence in is that Xiao-i has already met the float requirements of many different capital markets,” Yuan said. “And I also believe the next 10 years will be the golden period for AI.”
Like the saying “Each age brings forth new genius on this noble land, each will rule its own domain for years to come,” the future of AI must be full of talented technological titans and giants to further blur the line between the physical and virtual worlds, Yuan said.
“We will find a most appropriate timing for our company going public,” Yuan said.
AI is everywhere, and coming up with a slew of business opportunities in areas such as customer service, finance, office, city and healthcare.
Xiao-i’s website showed the company has cooperated with Bank of Communications in serving customers and providing financial services through SMS, websites and WeChat, and implementing physical and digital chatbots to handle daily inquiries, account management, repayments and transfers across a variety of channels. Other partners include the four largest State-owned banks on the Chinese mainland, plus the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp.
In respect to the AI+City, Xiao-i created the first AI online mediation platform in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in Southwest China, to provide legal advice, record the mediation process and facilitate the dissemination of photo and voice files. That strengthens the local environment for reporting complaints and setting the standard for consumer mediation.
With more and more players rushing to the AI ecosystem, the market is testing the market size and its boundaries. Yuan said AI is not an industry, but like air or water that people need to live in their everyday lives. Thus, no one in future will be able to dominate the whole system, whose development will call for collaboration and cooperation of all mankind.
“When it comes to how we co-exist with other players, we hope to allow our brain to spill over into every channel, such as online platforms, robots, and internet of things products, in a bid to facilitate them with a ‘soul’ interacting with every human being,” Yuan said.
En route to building such an ecosystem, Xiao-i tends to pair up with partners and strategic investors across the entire value chain.
So far, it has attracted some strategic investors such as Hangzhou-based e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, which raised eyebrows globally when it became the biggest shareholder in Swedish truck and construction giant Volvo Group by acquiring an 8.2-percent stake in 2017.
“We believe Xiao-i will tie up with more strategic partners, both domestic and international, in the future,” Yuan added. “To meet this goal, we set out three business strategies: from big to small; from soft to hard; and from inside to outside.” That better summarizes the client size from stat-owned giant to a shop waiter, the business format from mobile to internet and even internet of things, as well as the “company vision” from China market to the world’s 7.5 billion people.
The future of AI will be full participation and engagement from all human beings, he added.
“It’s that AI chose me, not that I chose AI,” he said.
“Almost all outstanding entrepreneurships began with an inexplicable idea without any reason,” Yuan recalled when talked about how he founded Xiao-i.
With the original success of Xiao-i 001, MSN’s automatic chatbot, the young team shot to prominence in 2004. That followed with a strong burst of venture capital to inject into further expansion.
“In case we didn’t have a sustainable business model at that time, our money would have run out and our investors fled,” he recalled. Being an entrepreneur whose journey has been more than 10 years, the person must have experienced every kind of moment, depression and thrill.
All he wanted at that time was to shift, and to run for cover. Then in 2011, Xiao-i started seeking a slice of the commercial AI pie, which was a turning point for the firm and helped it rise.
“If somebody were to ask me whether he should start a startup or not, I would tell him not to do that because an entrepreneur is born for it, but not instructed by others,” Yuan said.
Keeping alive is never easy for an entrepreneur, whose journey tends to be a long one, he said.