Generation 40s – 四十世代

Good articles for buddies


Leave a comment

Why, in the age of artificial intelligence, real wisdom is needed most

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-15

Roland Chin says with artificial intelligence predicted to eliminate most human agency, ethical and social challenges are inevitable. But those can be met through human wisdom nourished by the arts and humanities

At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) is all set to revolutionise our lives, we must ensure this heartless mighty power is enriched with the wisdom of humankind that comes not just from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects but also the arts and humanities – like creative media, music, poetry and literature.

At a UN meeting last month, one question was about how to help people in parts of the world with no clean water, no electricity, and no internet access. Sophia, Hong Kong’s panellist, responded: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed. If we are smarter … AI could help proficiently distribute the world’s existing resources like food and energy.”

Who is Sophia? She is a Hong Kong humanoid robot officially invited to that UN meeting. Created by a local company, Sophia has appeared on TV talk shows and called attention to the digital divide made wider by big data and AI. Those blessed with both will gain huge competitive advantages, and those without will suffer.

But the “haves” are in the minority, and over half of the world has no access to the internet. Internationally, AI is being deployed as a strategic weapon in additional to a nuclear arsenal. But AI is problematic, especially in areas that call for subjective moral and ethical judgment, where the repercussions of growing AI application are at once profound and unknown. In embracing its promises, the scientific community is increasingly concerned about the ethical and social challenges it presents. Recently, two AI robots trained to communicate with each other began talking in a language their creators failed to understand, causing the alarmed scientists to shut down the project. Sophia may not be the lovely creature we want her to be.

It is widely predicted that, within a few years, neuro-electronic chips implanted in our body could hardwire our brain so that we communicate not via text or voice, but through brain signals linked to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. Just the thought of going to an appointment could automatically trigger a driverless car to pick you up. If a mere thought could trigger an action, then we’d better control our thoughts and fantasies. And if our brain signals are tracked just as our mouse clicks are tracked, then our privacy or even our freedom of thought could be in jeopardy.

Ethical AI-related issues are far more complex than technological ones. Given the moral dimensions of technology, we must recognise that we need to give our younger generations not just a solid grounding in STEM subjects, but also in the arts and humanities.

We must be alert to AI’s impact on humanity in all its ethical complexity. If we take humans out of the decision-making, how will driverless cars, and humanoid and AI-based decisions change our world? Should robocops be allowed to kill? Who is responsible for accidents involving driverless cars, or for robots that go rogue and commit crimes, or when autonomous weapons self-deploy? And what about a human falling for a Sophia 2.0 capable of emotion and affection?

Here I recall the words of the late Steve Jobs: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” In the age of AI, liberal arts education is our missing link with the new world.

First, a liberal arts education sharpens our critical thinking, and shapes fresh views and alternative perspectives essential to innovative thinking and to understanding what people really need. Second, it prepares students for change, broadens their horizons, and enables them to face the unknown and the unforeseeable. Third, with its focus on the community, it turns our students into service leaders and civic-minded citizens and moral beings, ready to tackle the digital divide, the AI gap and other global inequalities.

AI turbocharges human efficiency and productivity. People used to say that intelligence sets humans apart. But when intelligence itself is artificial, what makes us irreplaceable is not just brain power, but the human heart. In the age of AI, it is human wisdom nourished through the arts and humanities that can make us whole and our world sing.

Roland Chin, chair professor of computer science and president of Hong Kong Baptist University, has taught and worked in AI

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Hong Kong needs to throw more caution to the wind when it comes to backing start-ups

BusinessCompanies
THE VIEW
2017-09-22
The biggest problem is an acute shortage of angel investors and seed money available, even before any venture capital money becomes involved – we need to take unconventional risks to succeed

The Hong Kong government is trying to transform the economy from its traditional to a new innovative economy, but doesn’t realise that creative failure rather than cautious success will lead the way.

Last week, Hong Kong launched its HK$2 billion (US$256 million) Innovation and Technology Venture Fund (IVTF) to encourage investment in local innovation and technology start-ups in an effort to improve economic activity.

The government is inviting venture capital funds to apply to become co-investment partners of the new fund, said Nicholas Yang Wei-hsiung, the Secretary for Innovation and Technology. The government will only make investments alongside VC funds.

The government is risk averse even though it needs to take more risks to build Hong Kong’s new economy. It does not want to directly and autonomously choose which investments to make because historically, civil servants do not want to take responsibility for losses.

Yet successful venture-capital investing requires the ability to accept and learn from losses. So the IVTF is depending on venture capitalists to do the due diligence and cover the bureaucrats’ collective reputations.

Matching funds are the easy way out for the government because this assumes that venture capitalists in Hong Kong are actually effectively serving the unique needs and problems of the city’s start-up ecosystem. Instead, the government needs to take on the most difficult part of kick-starting a new economy – tech or otherwise.

The biggest problem in funding start-ups in Hong Kong is that there is an acute shortage of angel investors and seed money available before venture money.

VCs prefer to invest minimum amounts of about US$3 million and more. Then, there is so much private equity available globally that private companies like Uber can be valued at US$60 billion and still be funded by private money. VC has grown so big that you can’t tell the difference from private equity.

And that tends to crowd out investment at the smaller, seed levels. As high net worth investors would prefer to make bigger investments in bigger, non-listed companies.

But, the problem in Hong Kong’s funding channel is that many start-ups are looking for less than a million US dollars, more like US$500,000 to roll out their product after a few years of development, or angel money of US$100,000 to begin a business.

Start-ups can attract investments of US$3 million and up if they demonstrate revenue or profits, or have completed a desirable technology. But Hong Kong’s relatively new world of new-economy start-ups require more support at an earlier stage. And only the government has the resources.

Hong Kong entrepreneurs have less experience in developing start-ups and even fewer have the initial capital. Even the GoGoVan founders had to desperately scrape together HK$20,000 each seven years ago. Lack of capital and experience are major problems in Hong Kong.

Incubators in Hong Kong tend to rent or give out shared office space; some may render business advice, but few are capable of actually funding start-ups.

Start-ups and their founders also tend to require lots of attention from their investors. Business plans rarely go according to plan. And turnaround strategies rarely turn around, since so much guidance and intervention is required.

The start-up game requires a tolerance of low-level failure. Using a VC expression, this means it is important to “fail early and fail often”.

The success rate is low for start-ups. And most people should be working for someone as employees rather than running their own business. It takes tremendous self-confidence and determination to launch a business. Historically, it has been much easier to flip property.

Local Hong Kong investors tend to ask start-ups the wrong questions. They ask, “How does it make money?” The right question is “ What problem does this solve?” There’s a big difference in mentality and mission.

It is difficult to raise VC money in Hong Kong. Many of them are interested in businesses that can scale outside Hong Kong, into mainland China and internationally. They are looking to turn a 10-million dollar company into a billion-dollar company in a few years. Mainland China is the only place in Asia where this can happen quickly.

I detect a natural prejudice against Hong Kong Chinese-founded start-ups. Most VCs think Hong Kong Chinese cannot operate successfully in China and are treated like foreigners in China as they need to take on a mainland joint venture partner.

This is especially risky in terms of divergent management attitudes or outright intellectual property theft or misappropriation.

The entire government and local financial community needs to take on more risk if it wants to transform the Hong Kong economy away from property development and traditional industries.

Hong Kong’s financial industry professionals are still divided over how they can remake the city’s stock exchange. Many of the conservative, traditional stockbrokers think the proposed start-up board is too risky in terms of regulation.

But we will need to take unconventional risks to succeed.


Leave a comment

香港創科發展造就多贏

2017年8月26日

信報財經新聞
經管錦言
2017-08-26

洪文正

經濟共享已經不是新鮮的話題,然而有人質疑香港的法例未能跟上這個大趨勢。創新及科技局局長楊偉雄早前出席一個講座時表示,政府正積極配合改變中的營商環境,強調「法治與創新並非對立」。他表示創科局會繼續致力推動創新科技發展,在尊重法治的大前提下,以社會整體的長遠利益為依歸,與立法會及社會各界合作,確保政策和範圍能夠與時並進。

事實上,政府正在做「拆牆鬆綁」的工作,例如透過「資料一線通」網絡,將與生活相關的公眾資料,以數碼格式開放給市民,讓社會大眾免費使用。另外,政府亦鼓勵開發創新的應用程式及解決方案,為市民帶來更優質和方便的生活,令公共數據開放,整個社會一起創新。

另外,城市規劃委員會已擴大了工業和其他指定用途的工業樓宇及辦公室樓宇的經常准許用途範圍,令實驗室、檢查測試中心、數據中心等用途不需要另行申請規劃許可。

金融科技沙盒銀行先試

金融科技方面,香港金融管理局發出了13張儲值支付工具的牌照,目的是推廣本港的電子支付服務。香港的電子支付以信用卡為主,不過政府希望與時並進,做到另類的電子支付。

金管局去年推出了「金融科技沙盒(sand box)」,讓銀行以先導形式應用新科技而推出。現時有8間銀行試用18項科技項目,其中10項已經完成,並陸續推出市場。為什麼只讓銀行先試用?因為本港有超過170間銀行,其中有80間名列全球百大銀行之內,比紐約和倫敦都多。而且本港最值得驕傲的是金融服務業備受國際信任。要經營金融服務,沒有信任是做不到的,所以由銀行率先帶領,是希望沙盒可以帶出創新科技的成果。

政府亦聘用了顧問公司,於6月底就香港智慧城市的發展藍圖提交報告,提及6個方向:智慧出行、智慧生活、智慧環境、智慧市民、智慧政府及智慧經濟,提出了具體的建議,當中有不少建議具備了共享經濟的元素。

香港絕大部分的公司是中小企,創新科技對中小企的長遠發展十分重要。隨着鄰近的城市急速發展,不少中小企都希望利用創新科技改善營運效率,提升競爭力,發掘商機。中小企的資源有限,而未能採用最新的科技方案,因此創科局於去年11月推出了科技券計劃,目的是資助本地中小企使用科技方案,提升生產力或升級轉型,加強長遠的競爭力。

科技券推出短短8個月,中小企的反應非常積極,申請數字不斷上升。截至7月中,已經有超過2000間中小企在計劃的網站登記。申請的企業來自各行各業,包括批發和零售、進出口貿易、工程、專業服務等等。當局已經遞交了130份申請給科技券委員會評審,當中有120份得到委員會支持撥款,成功率高達92%,總額達到1600萬港元。英國的Innovation Voucher,在首年批出了大約400個項目,當中倫敦市有60個。相比之下,香港的中小企較其他地方更加積極善用這資源。

創科局予中小企自由度

科技發展日新月異,科技券計劃並沒有預設受資助的科技服務類別,委員會會按個別的情況加以考慮。計劃提出了25種可涵蓋的典型科技方案,給中小企參考,包括最常採用的企業資源規劃方案、流動文件管理系統、大數據及雲端分析方案等。

就挑選服務供應商方面,創科局給予中小企相當大的自由度,不設科技服務供應商的名單,供應商也沒有地區和經驗的限制,即使是初創企業也可以使用。中小企只須按業務需求,並依照計劃上的採購程序,自行挑選最適合的供應商,初創企業都可以成為供應商。政府保持開放態度,希望令大眾受益。

科技券計劃全年接受申請,而且預留的資金到目前仍然充裕。希望讓計劃能夠推動本港中小企檢視業務、狀況和模式,採用合適的創科服務和方案,去提升業務效率。同時為本地科技服務提供者締造商機,達至雙贏的局面。創科局會繼續向社會各界推廣科技券計劃,並且在適當時候檢討計劃的成效及運作模式。

作者為香港科技大學工商管理碩士校友會會員


Leave a comment

Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are being left defenceless against the robot onslaught on future jobs

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-08-18
Kelly Yang fears that, with creativity and soft skills neither fostered nor rewarded in a test-focused system, the city’s children will be left without the tools necessary to survive in the age of AI

If there’s one thing Asian schools excel at training kids to do, it’s copious amounts of boring, repetitive tasks. Here in Hong Kong, schoolchildren are given tremendous amounts of homework at very young ages. The assignments are not creative. They do not call for innovative or imaginative thinking. They are simply busy work – designed by educators from decades ago to keep children occupied and prepare them to be good followers.

But children these days face a radically different future, where artificial intelligence is predicted to wipe out 40 per cent of jobs by 2030. If we do not adapt and change the way we teach, there will not be a future for Hong Kong children.

If you’ve talked to a Hong Kong child recently, you might have noticed that they seem different during the summer. They don’t look quite as defeated – one might even say they look happy. That’s because they’re out of school, and not subject to the daily mountain of mindless homework.

There used to be a time when such homework served a purpose. It instilled in children a good work ethic, time management skills, the ability to sit at a desk and perform a task, however boring, for hours on end. That used to be what companies looked for in employees. But, increasingly, machines are able to do that better than us humans.

As artificial intelligence surges in computing power (expected to surpass that of human brains in 2040), we have to face facts. We’re never going to outcompete robots on work ethic, time management, or anything that involves crunching numbers or knowing facts, codes or rules.

The robot will always do all that better, which is why jobs in accounting, telemarketing and sales are so vulnerable. Think computer science jobs are safe? Think again. According to Toby Walsh, professor at the University of New South Wales, “AI programmes will likely be better coders than humans.”

Ultimately, I think the only industries “safe” from AI are the service and creative sectors.

There will always be jobs in the service industry because humans are social creatures and we need social interaction. Robots, though more efficient and cheaper, simply cannot replicate the emotional connection and comfort that humans can provide. As such, jobs like those of nurses and therapists are probably going to be around for a while.

Likewise, creative jobs will probably increase. Computers can’t write stories that make people weep, or create shows or movies that make hearts sing. With ever increasing numbers of people out of work, their lives and sense of self-worth interrupted by AI, we’re going to need a lot of entertainment.

Thus, the people who are going to thrive in the next century are those who are super creative, with excellent people skills and communication skills. Currently, not one of these three skills is being taught in Hong Kong schools.

Creativity is neither fostered nor rewarded in the Hong Kong education system, nor is having people skills such as empathy or tolerance, or the ability to think about something from multiple points of view and come to a compromise. Because these are not “testable” skills, sadly, they have no place in the current education system.

And while Hong Kong children are constantly being asked to copy passages, and write and recite things, they are not being taught how to properly communicate in a global language (that is, English). They’re not taught how to get their point across effectively, much less in a moving, emotive way, which will increasingly be the standard for humans.

Hong Kong parents realise this, and so some send their children to after-school programmes for “enrichment”. But there are only so many hours in the day. And it’s expensive. And sometimes the kids have already spent so many years learning how to write in the most boring, formulaic way, utterly devoid of imagination, that it takes an incredible amount of time to unteach them.

This summer, I was teaching creative writing to a group of 12-year-olds. They were gung-ho creative writers. They loved reading and writing stories. Still, it took me weeks to get them to come out of their shell, to take a risk with their writing and really let their imaginations go. When they finally did it, I was so proud of them. We all stood and clapped as the kids read their stories; I was moved to tears.

It is my greatest hope as an educator that more schools in Asia teach kids to work smart, not just work hard. We’re never going to be able to work harder than robots, so having our kids grind away, doing endless dictation and revision, is pointless.

It’s time to stop preparing them for a future that will not exist when they graduate. We need to give them the gifts of creativity, empathy, imagination, people skills and excellent communication skills in a global language, so they will actually have a future.

Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.


Leave a comment

Inside the AI revolution that’s reshaping Chinese society

NewsChinaSociety
2017-06-29
Artificial intelligence, once a novelty, is now being applied in everyday life. From academia to business, government and the military, ambitious China is betting big on AI, raising US suspicions yet offering opportunities for collaboration

Seven-year-old Chen Jiahao has a problem sum he can’t solve and he can’t wait to get home from school to pose the question to his all-knowing maths tutor.

His tutor is amazing, the boy says. Just snap a photograph of the question and the tutor will provide every possible approach to solve the problem, step by step – all in a split second.

Jiahao’s tutor is inside his mother’s smartphone. It is, in fact, an app that draws on artificial intelligence (AI) technology to solve challenging maths problems for primary school children.

And it’s just one of many AI-enabled apps Jiahao uses daily on his mother’s phone. When the boy started primary school in Beijing, his teachers recommended that his parents install the apps on their phones. The software give out school assignments, grade pupils’ work and even generate unique sets of exercises for each child based on their areas of weakness.

“Jiahao likes his AI teachers,” said his mother, Yu Ting, adding that her son spends at least two hours on the AI apps every day. “He greets my phone as eagerly as he greets me.”

AI society

Jiahao’s story shows how AI is shaping modern Chinese society as the technology shifts slowly but surely from the realm of mere novelty towards common, everyday application.

On Chinese social media, video-sharing platforms and shopping sites, AI technology is already widely used to cater specifically to individual tastes and preferences.

For example, online news aggregator Toutiao provides a selection of articles tailored for its users based on information such as their age, gender and location. Video-streaming website iQiyi recommends programmes based on users’ search and viewing history.

Ali Xiaomi, the AI-powered customer service chatbot of tech giant Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, can reply to a million text queries and takes thousands of phone calls from online shoppers every day. The use of AI has cut e-shops’ customer service costs by 90 per cent, according to Alibaba.

That’s not all. An AI traffic controller introduced on trial in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province last year eased vehicle flow on roads, allowing cars to pass at speeds of up to 11 per cent faster than usual, state-owned broadcaster China Radio International reported.

A missing man from Fujian province was reunited with his parents thanks to AI analysis of facial recognition data. Photo: Handout

In April, search giant Baidu’s AI system reunited a couple in Chongqing with their long-lost son. The machine analysed a photograph of the six-year-old boy, who went missing 27 years ago, and matched it to the face of a 33-year-old man in Fujian province, the Beijing Evening News reported. DNA tests confirmed the match.

What, exactly, is AI?

Popular culture, especially in the West, often either romanticises the notion of artificial intelligence – such as in the 2013 Hollywood film Her, in which a lonely man falls for his “female” AI operating system – or portrays it negatively, as in the hit US television series Westworld, where oppressed androids in an AI theme park turn murderous against their abusive human guests.

In reality, AI technology – at least in its current stage – is both less romantic and frightening, but its possibilities may be every bit as boundless as imagined in the movies.

AI refers to a computer software that mimics intelligent human behaviour. Creating such intelligent systems requires teaching machines to learn for themselves – an application of AI known as machine learning – rather than manually teaching them everything there is to know.

Machine learning involves feeding computer systems with large volumes of data and programming the systems to interpret the information for themselves through pattern recognition. The machines hence “learn” by calculating probabilities and drawing conclusions from patterns found in the data at its disposal.

A powerful form of machine learning is deep learning, which categorises information according to hierarchical layers of concepts. The arrangement allows systems to interpret complex data with greater flexibility, speed and accuracy.

“AI is like a child,” said Professor Feng Jufu, a machine learning scientist at Peking University’s school of electronics engineering and computer science. “The more people use it, the faster it learns. The more it learns, the faster it improves.”

United States’ rising rival

China, whose population of 1.38 billion people makes it the world’s biggest user base and data pool, is a “paradise” for machine learning technology, Feng said.

And the nation – from its computer scientists, tech businesses, the government and military – is exercising its competitive advantage.

For decades, AI initiatives have been launched and developed in the United States and the field dominated by American experts. But now, the balance appears to be tipping as China’s AI technology comes up neck and neck with that of the US.

There was no clearer demonstration of this shift than what occurred at the annual meeting of the world’s biggest AI research community this year.

The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence rescheduled its yearly event in New Orleans, originally set in January, to the following month after finding out that the dates conflicted with China’s Lunar New Year holiday, The Atlantic magazine reported.

“Our organisation had to almost turn on a dime and change the conference venue to hold it a week later,” the association’s president Subbarao Kambhampati was quoted as saying.

The clash might not have mattered in the past, but with Chinese scientists now producing more research papers on deep learning than Americans, the meeting would have been pointless if the Chinese could not attend, according to the association.

An artificial intelligence backed by face recognition function which can used in mobile payment is demonstrated in Wuhen on Nov. 16, 2016. Photo: Simon Song

“The race is tight,” said Li Xiaowei, executive director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ State Key Laboratory of Computer Architecture in Beijing. China has only one main competitor – the US – and its goal was to beat its rival on the other side of the Pacific, he added.

Li said he and colleagues were developing computer chips, built specifically for machine learning, that would significantly boost the speed of an AI system, running “as fast as a car against a bicycle” compared with existing AI machines on traditional CPUs.

Chinese researchers have already developed AI chips with faster performance on specific tasks such as image recognition and natural language processing, but they still consumed more energy and tended to be less reliable than American-made chips, Li admitted.

Chinese ambitions

While US experts are still making most of the fundamental AI breakthroughs, this may soon change as Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, with access to the vast amounts of data needed for AI training through their millions of customers, inject massive investment into the technology, setting up their own AI research laboratories to create new products at a speed and scale never before seen in the West.

China was the world’s second biggest investor in AI enterprises last year, injecting US$2.6 billion into the sector, according to Chinese think tank the Wuzhen Institute. The US topped the list with US$17.9 billion.

Smaller firms aren’t passing up the chance to make a foray into AI either. This month, AI robots owned by two Chinese education-tech companies sat the maths section of the nation’s notoriously difficult college examinations.

Press gathered in Chengdu earlier this month as a robot sat the maths test for the national college entrance exam. Photo: Xinhua

One, which took the test in an isolated room at a technology park in Chengdu in Sichuan province, scored 70 per cent, spending about 20 minutes completing the questions. The other, which sat the test in Beijing and was connected to the internet, scored 90 per cent in less than 10 minutes. The second bot’s score was good enough to gain admission into China’s top universities.

“Artificial intelligence has undergone several waves of hype over the past decades, but this time it’s different. This time, it may really come alive,” said Feng, the Peking University academic.

Over in the public sector, the Chinese government has pinpointed AI as a key area for advancement in its latest five-year plan. Top technology official Wan Gang said in March a national development plan was being drafted that would see AI technology adopted in areas including “the economy, social welfare, environmental protection and national security”.

Last year, the Chinese government said it would create an AI market worth more than US$15 billion by 2018. Beijing has already sunk millions into studying AI in universities and research institutes around the nation. It is also already applying the technology across the full spectrum of governance.

Traffic authorities in the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province this month began using an AI coach in a driving school. The system monitors students’ driving behaviour and detects mistakes they make, instructing them through a speaker and rating their performance, the Jiaxing Daily reported. The passing rate of students who learned with the AI coach was 20 per cent higher than those who had human coaches.

Over in China’s most innovative city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, the use of a tiny chip in public surveillance cameras has helped police crack hundreds of cases and find several lost children. The intelligent chip whittles down the speed of human facial recognition to just a few seconds.

And in Jiangsu province’s city of Nantong, an AI judge will be put into use later this year to organise and analyse legal documents and material as well as perform paper work to lighten the workload for human judges. The system is expected to speed up the handling of legal cases by 30 per cent, the Nantong Daily reported.

US suspicions (and collaboration)

China has also ventured into AI on the military front. The nation is developing cruise missiles with “a very high level of artificial intelligence and automation”, the China Daily quoted a senior missile designer as saying last August.

As the country’s AI capabilities grow, so have US suspicions. The Pentagon had concerns about Beijing’s access to US-developed AI technology, the Reuters news agency reported this month.

Citing a leaked document, the report said the US defence department recommended blocking Chinese organisations from investing in some American start-ups working on cutting-edge technologies. The report suggested Washington fears that its advanced algorithms might be re-purposed for Chinese military use.

Individual Chinese AI researchers might also have become a concern for the US government, according to Zhang Lijun, an associate professor of computer science with Nanjing University’s learning and mining from data group in Jiangsu province.

“Each time we go to the US for an academic conference, we encounter extensive background checks by the US embassy,” Zhang said. But if the US stopped issuing visas to Chinese AI scientists, the move would do as much damage to America as it would to China, he added.

Despite Washington’s concerns, American companies are still flocking to join hands with their Chinese counterparts in AI research given the sheer amount of funds injected into the industry. And the collaborations have seen considerable progress in the field.

In May, Google’s AlphaGo AI programme – developed to play the Chinese board game Go – defeated world champion Ke Jie in a series of three matches, all of which the machine won.

The strategy game, played on a 19×19 grid board with more permutations than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe, was previously believed too sophisticated for the machine to handle. Scientists had predicted AI would take at least a decade to decisively conquer the game; the final match took less than four hours.

The same month, Microsoft’s Chinese-language chatbot Xiaoice published the world’s first collection of AI-authored poems in a book titled The Sunlight That Lost The Glass Window. The book caused a stir among China’s literary circle, with some poets hoping the technology would revive appreciation of the art. Pirated copies have already appeared on Chinese websites, reflecting interest in the book.

“The US is good at coming up with new ideas in fundamental research while China is good at implementing these ideas in applications. International collaboration has played a key role in the rapid development of AI technology in recent years,” Zhang at Nanjing University said.

The future

All these advancements are just the beginning of an AI revolution, according to the Peking University academic Feng.

“The only limit is your imagination,” he said, adding that AI technology could have even broader and deeper applications in people’s lives.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ expert Li concurred. The AI user experience of the future would be vastly different from today, as with software and hardware upgrades newer AI machines would become far faster and more human-like.

The collection of AI written poems, The Sunlight That Lost The Glass Window. Photo: Handout

For instance, Feng said, today’s exam taking robot could be developed into an exam-setting machine. Like AlphaGo considered permutations never conceived by human players in the past, the AI system could pose students challenging questions that would push them to achieve results beyond what they thought possible.

“If you can answer maths questions designed by machines, you should then be able to easily tackle questions designed by humans,” he said.

But Professor Li Qingan, an educational psychologist at Beijing Normal University, cautioned against the unregulated use of AI in schools.

“Artificial intelligence may create super students, but it can also turn them into cold-blooded creatures with little care for how others think and feel,” Li said. “Thirty years from now, we may regret giving our children over to AI.”

There is also a limit to AI systems, according to professor Huang Biqing, a robotics scientist with Tsinghua University.

“If human-generated data can no longer improve an AI system’s performance, the machine will treat it as noise,” Huang said, adding that this meant the system would regard human input as no longer necessary and could evolve based on its own machine-generated data.

Chen Yi, the father of Jiahao the primary schoolboy who loves his AI tutors, recalls his childhood addiction to Nintendo’s Game Boy as he observes his son interacting with the apps on his wife’s smartphone.

“This is different from my childhood addiction,” Chen said, referring to Jiahao’s attachment to the AI-enabled programmes. “Jiahao’s condition is more like, I don’t know, a kind of dependence?”