Vrch.io is more concerned with getting its product out in overseas markets first. It will wait until large models—most likely, those developed by Chinese Big Tech companies—become available before it rolls out in its home market.
The economic environment is also throwing a shadow over the tech sector. Slower growth, falling consumer spending, problems in the real estate market and concerns over local government debt have contributed to an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. The Chinese government has stopped reporting statistics on youth unemployment in urban areas, one indicator of a general economic slowdown.
“Starting a company in this economic environment, I have to pick very specific, low-hanging fruit problems,” says Pei Hao, founder of AI startup Lingua Technologies.
His company is aiming to compete with translation companies in Beijing, and professional editors in the UK and US who charge fees to Chinese scholars to help make their work legible to international audiences.
Hao says that partnerships between Chinese academics and non-Chinese counterparts are often hobbled by the extra workload given to native English speakers. “There’s so much cognitive load associated with fixing these papers, some of which are five to ten thousand words,” Hao says.
This, he thinks, is a problem which is easily solved by AI, or smoothed. Human editors will still need to check the final papers, but AI will be able to deal with time-consuming adjustments to things like formatting. “The biggest thing that will happen is that the costs associated with knowledge work will be driven downwards,” Hao said.
Companies are looking to keep their costs down by using AI to replace laid-off workers, which might be helping to boost startups that can automate labor-intensive functions, or help companies to introduce chatbots to their services.
On June 30, China-focused health care startup Medlinker held a human-versus-robot livestreamed contest in a bid to show that its AI doctor, “MedGPT,” could hold its weight against real doctors. The company is aiming for a public beta release of MedGPT in October, according to company representative Zhang Hongliang.
While Zhang touts this technology as ushering in the next phase for the development of internet hospitals, there are issues. In the contest, MedGPT asked more questions than a human doctor would after establishing that the patient’s situation was critical (though it reached the same diagnosis). The company is banking on its AI chatbot channeling more patients to its existing infrastructure of hospitals. In raising its latest round of investment, Zhang said that Medlinker was “mainly reliant” on MedGPT as the company’s selling point.
A VC from a leading venture capital fund in China, who asked to be referred to as Zhao, since he was not authorized to speak to the media, told WIRED that he was personally more positive about startups that were adding AI components to their existing products, if they could show that they had their own data and could continuously improve their models.
The macroeconomic environment, he says, means investors are “more careful about how they choose investments, because there’s more potential downside.” But he didn’t think that they had moved on. The lull after the hype, in his view, was more to do with the nature of AI and its long cycle. “VC triggers have been pulled,” Zhao says. “We’re waiting to see the competition.”