Artificial intelligence in China: Orchestras but no ultrasounds

Business & Technology

Artificial intelligence is growing rapidly in China, but there are still wide gaps in industrial application.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

AI orchestras but no AI ultrasounds

Last week, Hong Kong Baptist University launched the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) orchestra in a ceremony overseen, via video link, by Hong Kong Chief Executive and former police officer John Lee Ka-chiu (李家超 Lǐ Jiāchāo). The orchestra comprised an AI choir consisting of 320 virtual singers in collaboration with a human orchestra.

Across the water from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, a few days ago, a hospital put out a job advertisement for a sonographer — a healthcare professional specializing in ultrasonic imaging devices to produce diagnostic images and scans. The ad promised a sign-on reward of 300,000 yuan ($44,484).

Ultrasounds are still cumbersome and time-consuming procedures, and there is a shortage of at least 150,000 sonographers in China.

AI seems like an obvious solution to the problem. AI technology has, in fact, been applied to the medical imaging industry, but the focus has been on X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans, and there are currently more than 40 types of AI imaging devices used in the medical industry in China, but there is not a single AI application for ultrasounds. And this is a serious problem, because while there are around 200,000 ultrasound doctors in China, there are around 2 billion ultrasound examinations every year, far exceeding the number of CT examinations of around 200 million per year.

“Little giants” and AI innovation and application

This contrast between the capability of AI to replace human musicians but not ultrasound technicians is the backdrop for a new AI development plan released on Friday last week by the Ministry of Science and Technology and six other government departments. The plan aims to promote economic development with high-level application of AI, driven by “scenario innovation” at leading enterprises operating in key industries, including:

  • Manufacturing: “Industrial brains” (e.g., the one developed by Alibaba Cloud 阿里云), robot-assisted manufacturing, and machine vision inspection.
  • Agriculture: Autonomous machinery and satellite navigation, smart farms, and agricultural drones.
  • Logistics: Robot sorting and handling, and smart warehouses.
  • Finance: Big data financial risk control, smart credit reporting, and smart anti-fraud systems.
  • Transportation: Autonomous vehicles and ships, smart distribution, and smart container handling in ports.

The plan also allocates a key role for China’s emerging class of “little giant” SMEs and technology startups to push AI innovation and application.

AI integration with the “real economy”

In essence, the new plan released by the Ministry of Science and Technology aims to enhance the application of AI to the “real economy.”

Since 2019, China has made rapid progress in developing the full range of the AI industrial chain, from algorithms and microchip development to research and product development. According to Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) data:

  • The scale of China’s AI industry now exceeds 400 billion yuan ($59.31 billion), an increase of more than six times from 2019.
  • There are 3,000 domestic AI enterprises, a 15% increase from 2019.

China already has a range of AI industrial applications in use and leading companies and startups in the fields of drones, speech and image recognition, intelligent robots and cars, and virtual reality, for example:

  • Composite testing of core components of the large new aircraft constructed by Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) 中国商用飞机 is now undertaken by an AI system developed by Alibaba Cloud, shortening a previously expensive and hours-long process to only a few minutes and a cost of only 2 yuan ($0.29).
  • Online retailer 京东集团 has implemented an AI industrial terminal to manage supply and demand (and eliminate idle production) at 600 interconnected factories in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province.
  • The Chinese Academy of Space Technology uses AI algorithms and technology for low-orbit satellite navigation and is working on AI autonomous spacecraft control.

In 2021, the MIIT established two new national AI innovation and application pilot zones — focusing on research and development, training, and innovation — in Beijing and Tianjin, and there are now a total of eight such zones across the country. The MIIT also supports China’s AI industry by developing the policy environment, promoting intelligent transformation in industry, reducing costs and increasing investment, and empowering the “little giants” to undertake innovation and industrial application.

Will government largesse work?

Chinese government spending programs to accelerate the development of industries have a mixed track record: The country’s high-speed rail network is the object of global envy, but the state’s reckless spending on the microchip industry has so far produced mostly chaos and criminality.

Will the new AI plan produce results? One measure of success might be if the program can reduce the need for human ultrasound technicians in the coming months.