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China's Siri-like iFlytek unveils smart microphone for home appliances

source:Global Times release date:2017/10/27 hits:232

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer the future, it is the present. It has now penetrated almost every aspect of daily life.

A car equipped with an audio guide has become the driver's assistant. A doctor can precisely diagnose certain conditions with image analysis technology. When people step into their home, they can turn on lights and their air conditioner (AC) by using only the sound of their voice.

Those are just a few example scenarios given by industry insiders at a recent tech conference that demonstrated how AI is transforming people's lives.

The comments were heard during a key tech conference held by China's Siri-like voice recognition services provider iFlytek on Tuesday in Hefei, capital of East China's Anhui Province.

iFlytek, which has been ranked as one of this year's 50 smartest companies worldwide by MIT Technology Review, has been shifting its focus from software to hardware over recent years with the aim of responding to the rising demand for the application of AI technologies.

The voice recognition services provider has just launched its first smart microphone called MORFEI, which combines speech recognition technologies with mini-sized hardware. The surround sound microphone is designed for 5-meter sound pickup and can be integrated into other smart home appliances such as the refrigerator, AC, and TV.

MORFEI is the latest smart voice device since iFlytek and Chinese tech giant JD.com Inc came up with a voice-enabled AI product called DingDong two years ago, which is considered China's answer to Amazon's Echo and Google's Home.

Backed by its human-computer interactive interface AIUI, MORFEI can help start-ups design different features in accordance with customer demand.

"This [product] is part of the AI plus industry, for example, a manufactured smart home appliance can use this device to create voice command features," said Wang Wen, senior director of the smart hardware department at the consumer business group under iFlytek.

Established in 1999, iFlytek has become a major player in the voice recognition field and has prevailed in well-recognized global competitions such as the Winograd Schema Challenge and the NIST Speaker Recognition Evaluation.

"But only making technology breakthroughs is not enough," said Hu Yu, executive director of iFlytek, noting that AI should also be utilized in real-life scenarios and be used to solve industry challenges.

As a major tech provider, iFlytek's core technologies, including voice recognition, multi-language processing, machine translation and other smart customer services, have been used in the automobile, finance, home appliance and education fields.

Shift to hardware

As such technology, particularly language understanding and precise language translation, continues to mature, more and more tech firms in turn will continue coming up with innovative business models and unprecedented consumer products that are adopted on a wide-scale basis.

For example, Beijing-based consulting firm Analysis International forecast that speech automobile interaction systems will become a must for passenger cars in the next five years.

Furthermore, in 2016, iFlytek established three new business groups which focused on smart education, smart cities and consumer products.

"Diversifying its business will enhance iFlytek's competitiveness in the voice recognition sector," Feng Chao, analyst at Analysis International, told the Global Times.

In recent years, iFlytek has unveiled a series of services and products that can be used in real-time scenarios. For example, its dictation system called iFlyrec, which has been used in 271 courthouses nationwide, can listen to, recognize and then transcribe speech instantly.

Also, the company's speech recognition system has helped local police track telecom fraud and prevented potential losses of up to 500 million yuan ($75.37 million) in Anhui Province.

Besides DingDong, the company has launched other consumer products since last year. For instance, one of its devices can translate not only Putonghua into five other foreign languages, but also into other languages of China's ethnic minority groups, hinting a future without interpreters.

As such, 50 percent of jobs might be replaced by AI in 10 years, Liu Qingfeng, chairman of iFlytek, said at the conference on Tuesday.

"We might only need to work five hours a day. But although AI could take over some of our jobs, we could do other more valuable and creative things instead," he said.

Smart hardware and devices are only at the earliest stages of development, Wang Mengxuan, an analyst from Beijing-based industry consultancy iResearch, told the Global Times.

That meaning, for example, MORFEI will soon enable iFlytek to grab market shares in the smart speaker sector, which will further boost the AI industry's overall growth in the coming years, she noted.

The market scale of the country's speech and voice recognition market alone is forecast to surpass 100 billion yuan by the end of 2017, with a year-on-year growth of 69.8 percent, according to a report released by Analysis International in April.

Ongoing foreign competition

"Because voice and speech recognition technology is increasingly being used in Chinese consumer products nowadays, we hold optimistic views on the rapid growth of tech firms in China," Feng said.

However, despite the domestic industry's recent spike in development, foreign companies are currently still leading in the smart device world, she added.

For instance, U.S. tech giant Google Inc has applied its AI learning system TensorFlow to four of its major services - Google Home, Google Map, Google Glass and Google Assistant.

"Customers in overseas markets have much better user experience with smart devices, which are also more accepted," Feng noted.

But as an innovation-driven company, iFlytek will soon develop in a similar way that global tech giants such as Google and Intel have grown, Hu said. "We won't do everything on our own, we will team up with players in different sectors by offering voice-related solutions and attracting more start-ups to our open platform."

Further internationalizing its business is also part of the company's corporate strategy. However, it must accumulate abundant foreign language resources for its database, as noted at the conference.

It takes time to build up an ecosystem as the industry has not yet fully developed, Wang, the analyst, said.