The CCTV Spring Festival Gala (央视春晚) is Chinese TV’s Lunar New Year extravaganza, watched by hundreds of millions of people across the country. This year, amid all the acrobatics, musical performances and fireworks, broadcaster CCTV also shone a spotlight on the country’s state-of-the-art AI technologies.
The showcase included self-driving vehicles, intelligent robots, drones and more — and won glowing reviews from Chinese netizens on social media.
China continues to spark technological breakthroughs and establish AI-powered infrastructures for its cities and transportation networks. The government aims to make the AI industry worth US$150 billion by 2030, and is investing $2.1 billion in AI research and development to empower local businesses.
While polls suggest many Americans and Europeans fear AI will take their jobs, the Chinese are much more optimistic about the tech, and 65 percent believe AI will create more job opportunities over the next five to ten years.
The AI innovations at the Spring Festival Gala were choreographed into the show’s performances. Synced has picked out a few highlights.
In a live stream from the Gala’s parallel session in Zhuhai, over a hundred self-driving cars equipped with Baidu’s autonomous driving platform Apollo crossed the Hong Kong – Zhuhai – Macao Bridge. The self-driving fleet included BYD’s new energy vehicles (NEV), King Long’s self-driving micro-location bus, and Zhixingzhe’s self-driving road sweeper and logistics vehicles.
First released last July, Apollo is an open-source platform that gives developers access to a complete set of vehicle, hardware, software, and cloud data service solutions; as well as an API and codes for obstacle perception, route planning, vehicle control, and operating system. Aimed at democratizing autonomous driving, Baidu hopes Apollo will become “the Android of the auto industry.”
Also live from Hong Kong Harbour were a fleet of 81 self-driving boats. A 7.5-meter-long lead vessel led 80 small boats of 1.6 meters in length under the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in the a form of arrow.
The boats were from Yunzhou Tech, a Zhuhai-based company engaged in R&D on self-driving vessels used in water quality monitoring, hydrological mapping, nuclear radiation monitoring and hydrological research. This was the first public appearance of Yunzhou‘s self-driving multi-boat collaborative technology. The company employs a robust and adaptive control system, and for navigation uses high-precision GNSS, inertial navigation, and RTK technology.
A “wow” moment occurred when 300 flying drones “leaped” over the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in a shape of a dolphin. This was China’s first light show of large-scale 3D stereoscopic drones.
Beijing-based drone company ZEROTECH and Shenzhen-based innovative high-tech company Highgreat jointly developed the technology behind the drone show. Their engineers adopted GPS-RTK carrier phase differential positioning technology to improve accuracy to the centimeter level, and used technology from Baidu’s Apollo to enable the autonomous flight.
Robot Dog Jimu
As 2018 is the Year of the Dog, guests at the Spring Festival Gala’s opening were joined by 24 adorable robot dogs who spent the evening dancing, licking paws, wagging tails, and capturing viewers’ hearts.
The “Jimu” robodogs were produced by Chinese robotics startup UBTECH. Jimu has 19 steering gears, over 900 parts, and LED lights as eyes. Steering gears in head, trunk, and limbs simulate canine joint movement.
Skilled Robots on Network Chunwan
Since 2011, the night before the big Lunar New Year show has featured a smaller, run-up show known as Network Chunwan (网络春晚) which celebrates China’s outstanding digital achievements over the preceding year, again incorporating these with on-stage performances.
The theme of this year’s show was AI. Moderator Xun Zhu (朱迅) said 2017 was a year when “AI has rapidly been developing. The Internet plus AI has become a new mode for benefitting people’s lives.”
The evening’s opening performance was a piano battle between seven year-old Chinese prodigy Anke Chen (陈安可) and robot pianist “Teo Tronico.” The bot won the speed play competition, although his 53 fingers clearly gave him an edge over Chen’s 10. Teo Tronic is a proof of concept android built by Italian music and AI fanatic Matteo Suzzi that has previously faced off against Italian classical pianist Roberto Prosseda and Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
Next up was Baidu’s robot Xiaodu, which used audience word suggestions to compose poems and couplets on the spot. AI-powered Xiaodu, who first appeared on the show in 2015, has outperformed humans at multiple tasks on Chinese reality TV shows.
Dobot Magician, a robot arm made by Shenzhen-based robotic startup Dobot, showed off his calligraphy skills, writing the characters for “Chinese Dream.” First introduced at CES 2017, Dobot Magician can perform 3D printing, laser engraving, grayscale engraving, drawing, sorting, etc.
The last AI performer was Wangzai, a popular humanoid robot debuted last year by Chinese search engine giant Sogou. Wangzai transformed still photos of show moderators and performers into dynamic, speaking 3D avatars. Wangzai has a wide knowledge base, and can respond to questions within milliseconds. Last February it defeated a Harvard graduate in the Chinese version of the American game show “Who’s Still Standing?”
The strong focus on AI in China’s most-watched television event of the year was a pleasant surprise for those working in the field, and is bound to encourage many in the country to explore AI and its rapidly emerging technologies.
Journalist: Tony Peng| Editor: Michael Sarazen