Internet & Tech

Found in translation

The world’s sixth smartest company is…


“It must be the language of heaven,” is a Chinese equivalent to the English adage, “It’s all Greek to me”. But for the majority of countries it is Chinese that constitutes the hardest to master language. Thankfully, technology is becoming more adept at translating this most complex of languages. iFLYTEK is one of the firms breaching the linguistic barrier.

Founded in 1999, the Anhui-based company began by focusing on voice recognition software. According to MIT Technology Review, the feature that now differentiates iFLYTEK is its “two-stream model system”, which tackles the aspect of Chinese that makes it so tricky for most foreigners: tone.

Spoken Chinese has both a phonetic and a tonal aspect, whereby the tonal inflection alters the meaning of a sound. iFLYTEK’s “two-stream” system registers both the tone and the phoneme separately, giving greater clarity. According to CCTV, the company’s voice recognition technology tends towards an accuracy of 98%, compared to 90-95% for Siri and Google Now.

In fact MIT Technology Review ranked iFLYTEK as the world’s sixth “smartest company” this year, just one place below Google’s parent company Alphabet and 10 spots above Apple.

Unlike Apple’s Siri, iFLYTEK’s speech recognition software YuDian is open-source. This has made it prolific in China. China Daily reports there were 300,000 start-ups using the technology as of April this year, or 70% of the local market.

iFLYTEK is particularly proficient in English, and Hindi. The firm won first place in the Blizzard Challenge – a competition to test speech synthesis – in both languages last year, as well as in its mother tongue.

Having mastered both English and Chinese, the company has also developed a portable translation device, called Easytrans. At the National People’s Congress this year, the iFLYTEK’s president Liu Qingfeng demonstrated its prowess to a visibly impressed Premier Li Keqiang, having it translate the phrase “Artificial Intelligence is changing the world”.

AI is certainly commanding an increasing share of the smart money’s investment dollars, with most tech giants working on research projects. Some, like Elon Musk, warn against its potential ramifications. He recently described the military potential of AI as a bigger risk than North Korea. But for America, the threat is perhaps not AI itself but rather China’s increasing clout in the field.

The New York Times notes that a White House report on artificial intelligence released last year suggested several times that China is now publishing more research on the topic than US scholars (although, the reliability of China’s academic publications has recently come under fire, see WiC367). The New York Times observes, “The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare.”

Quite a coup then if President Trump invited iFLYTEK to the White House as part of a Chinese delegation, as reported by Chinabyte (which reckons it was the first Chinese AI firm to get such an invite). But iFLYTEK’s Liu thinks President Trump is benefiting his company in other ways too. “About one fourth of the US’ high-tech firms are founded by immigrants, who are upset by Trump’s policies,” Liu reckons. “It’s the perfect time for China to offer an olive branch to attract global talent in AI.”

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