Internet & Tech

What happens in Vegas…

China flexes muscles at world’s premier product innovation show


Lu Qi: the Baidu group president discusses ‘weaponised’ driverless cars

The 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life held in Paris was a highly-charged event. Dazzling pavilions devoted to the scientific wonders of the time – from cinema and radio to refrigeration and flight – were all overshadowed by the outsized structures mounted by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Russia crowned its display with a stainless-steel sculpture of a worker brandishing a hammer, sided by a peasant with a sickle. (The statue was later moved to Moscow.) Germany presented an eagle fanning out its wings while clutching a swastika. They faced each other across the main boulevard at the Trocadéro Garden on the Seine, foreshadowing the full-blown armed conflict that would occur four years later (which would see Hitler’s troops cause around 27 million deaths in Moscow’s Communist empire).

Fast forward to the twenty-first century where the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has also now become an arena for ambitious powers to flex their muscles – most notably the US and China. Both countries’ tech firms are now in a race to develop artificial intelligence, connected devices, robotics, autonomous cars, augmented reality, drones, high-resolution televisions, digital printing, as well as 5G technology. That is to say, both governments want to ‘own’ the future.

Of the 4,500 exhibitors from around the world this year, US firms accounted for 39% and Chinese 34%, according to the South China Morning Post. Perhaps more significantly was the latter’s growth rate: company exhibitors from China quadrupled versus 2011. Shenzhen looked to be the most represented city, with 482 companies featuring from the southern tech hub.

China’s impressive turnout, along with its headline-grabbing products, has even prompted tech consultant Duncan Clark (author of Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built) to declare that the CES ought to stand for the “China Electronics Show.” Indeed, under the auspices of the local Chinese consulate, a “China Night” gala dinner with over 100 guests was held at the Bellagio Hotel on the first day of the weeklong event.

“China’s big-name internet giants are in Las Vegas in greater force than ever before,” was the breathless verdict of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, noting that Alibaba had taken out a major display area at the trade show.

Numbers aside, China seemed to have also shrugged off the shanzhai stigma of old, that denigrated its innovations as merely second-rate copycats of Western originals.

One of the most discussed products this year was the 2.0 version of Baidu’s autonomous driving platform, Apollo. In offering more high-definition mapping services and cheaper sensor solutions among its various upgrades, the open system will support the efforts of all the major hardware providers engaging in the production of autonomous driving chips, namely Nvidia, Intel, NXP and Renesas.

“Apollo is an example of ‘China Speed’,” commented Lu Qi, Baidu’s group president, in reference to the rapid speed with which it had been developed and upgraded. (Lu also did a good job of taking control of the news agenda at this year’s CES, grabbing worldwide headlines when he said self-driving cars would become a national security issue in countries like the US and China, as they could be “weaponised” by those who might want to use them, for example, for terrorist purposes.)

Another hot product was Byton’s concept car, which featured a gigantic screen stretching across the entire dashboard, as well as another display within the steering wheel.

Meaning “Bytes on Wheels,” Byton is led by former executives from BMW and Nissan, and backed by the Jiangsu government, which has listed Byton’s Rmb11.07 billion ($1.72 billion) facility in Nanjing as among the province’s major projects.

(Analysts are hoping that Byton will not become another Faraday Future. That Chinese-invested firm has fallen foul of the Nevada government due to the insolvency of Jia Yueting, its main backer and founder of the embattled firm LeEco.)

It was also the first time that Anhui-based iFlytek said ‘hello’ to CES. It develops Siri-like speech-recognition applications and translation software (so innovative it even caught the attention of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang). It debuted a range of products including portable translation machines and smart speaker systems at the CES (see WiC377 for more background on iFlyTek and it ambitions to lead in the digital assistant space).

Last but not least, Facebook’s virtual reality unit Oculus said it would co-develop a VR headset with Qualcomm and China’s Xiaomi (it will make a special variant of the product, known as Mi VR Standalone, especially for China).

Tech leaders from South Korea were reportedly marvelling at China’s CES achievements. “South Korea’s telecommunication technology is really lagging behind China’s,” SK Telecom’s chairman Jang Dong-Hyun lamented to local media.

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