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World News Day: Marrying AI with 5G to transform industries in China

In Fuzhou, capital of east China's Fujian province, a white, 5G-enabled, sensor-rich agricultural robot moves between two rows of leafy greens in a greenhouse, collecting data about the plants and feeding it back to the control room.

The pictures and data it transmits from the farmland arrive almost in real time, thanks to its compatibility with super-fast fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile communication technology. The latency, or time lag, is no more than one-hundredth of a second. This allows the data to be analysed by computers in the control room - which are driven by artificial intelligence, or AI - more efficiently, according to the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Fujian Newland Era Hi-Tech Co, the two entities that developed the robot.

As if to soften the edge of its high-tech innards, the robot sports the eye-pleasing appearance of an adorable cartoon character. Its smooth, round base, hiding wheels underneath, adds to the overall cuddly effect.

Moving smoothly and fluidly, its motions jerk-free in all directions, the robot can inspect farms automatically and collect data samples used to power various applications.

It can determine plant health and decide if pest-control measures are warranted. Odds are, in the not too distant future, this 5G super robot will even be able to pick fruit with one of its bionic hands.

It is part of a broader trend in China that involves tech companies teaming up with a variety of industries - agriculture, automotive and healthcare - to explore possibilities in combining 5G and AI to revolutionise traditional sectors of the economy. Some of its uses have been to conduct the first 5G-enabled surgery on a human and transmit ultra-high-definition TV content through 5G networks to self-driving buses and cars.

The high-tech push is expected to accelerate in the wake of the nation kicking off the 5G era in June.

Yang Kun, an expert at the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a research institute based in Beijing, said 5G enables data transfers at speeds that are at least 10 times faster than 4G, making it possible to gather high-quality data quickly, which is necessary if AI is to be effective.

"AI applications have existed before the commercial use of 5G, but it is the super-fast speed, gigantic computing capacity and massive device connectivity of 5G that will spawn the use of AI in more sectors and on a far larger scale," Yang said.

Professor Lyu Tingjie of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications agreed, noting that 5G's responsive speed can empower mission-critical applications that were impossible with 4G networks.

"When a needle pricks your finger, it takes one hundredth of a second for you to feel the pain. And the theoretical latency of 5G is one-tenth of that. Only with such speed can remote surgical procedures and autonomous driving see wider applications," Prof Lyu said.

With technological support from Huawei Technologies Co and China Mobile, a doctor in Sanya in the Hainan province remotely operated surgical instruments to implant a deep brain stimulator known as a "brain pacemaker" into the patient in Beijing, about 2,500km away.

Dr Ling Zhipei, chief physician of the First Medical Centre of the Chinese PLA General Hospital, who was in Sanya on a work rotation, conducted the three-hour surgery.

"The 5G network has solved problems like video lag and remote control delay experienced under the 4G network, ensuring a nearly real-time operation," Dr Ling said.

On June 6, China granted commercial 5G licences to China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom, the nation's top three telecom carriers by subscriber numbers. State-owned China Broadcasting Network Corp also received a licence.

The country is expected to invest US$184 billion (S$254 billion) in 5G by 2025, according to a report released by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association, which represents the interests of more than 750 mobile operators worldwide.

Such investments are expected to power China's big AI push through a development plan to build a one trillion yuan (S$193.6 billion) AI core industry by 2030 which is expected to stimulate related businesses to the tune of 10 trillion yuan.

Digital technologies such as AI, next-generation network security, robotics, blockchain, Internet of Things, 3D printing and virtual reality all depend on data, and 5G can address the need for data collection and its quick, smooth transmission, said Mr Zhong Zhenshan, vice-president of emerging technology research at the China branch of International Data Corp.

Professor Wang Xianchang of Jilin University said the most important use of AI is to allow machines to automatically make decisions - for instance, in self-driving vehicles.

5G will allow such decisions to be made effectively and more reliably.

When a car encounters emergency situations, like a pedestrian suddenly stepping onto the road, a delay in seconds of data transmission among sensors in the car could cause a serious accident. 5G technology should prevent such things from happening, Prof Wang said.

Currently, self-driving buses are undergoing trials in a string of cities across China, including Shenzhen in Guangdong province and Changsha in Hunan province.

Chinese online search engine operator Baidu announced plans as early as in December 2017 to mass-produce autonomous buses for designated areas. It will partner bus manufacturer Xiamen King Long United Automotive Industry Co.

In east China's Anhui province, carmaker Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co has teamed up with Baidu to develop cars with autopilot systems.

Mr Xiang Ligang, director-general of the Information Consumption Alliance, said the commercial use of 5G would impart further momentum to AI, but more discussions are needed about the legal and ethical issues surrounding its wider applications.

China took a step in that direction in June when it issued new guidelines for scientists and lawmakers to promote the "safe, controllable and responsible use" of AI for the benefit of mankind.

Professor Xue Lan, dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University and chairman of the committee that issued the guidelines, said AI has raised many new and complex issues, like data privacy, machine ethics, safety, risks and misuse such as the creation of "deepfake videos" that spread misinformation, and AI-manipulated footage.

But AI is not as uncontrollable or mystical as some people imagine, experts said. Regulatory or supervisory mechanisms could steer it in the right direction and still leave enough room for exploration, course correction, remedies and calibrated growth, analysts said.

• This story was originally published on July 8.


China Daily took a broader look at the potential for 5G mobile technology to transform industries beyond the telecommunications sector, in an article that appeared in Business Weekly on July 8.

The report, a collaboration between journalists Ma Si in Beijing and Hu Meidong in Fuzhou, examined how the fifth-generation technology is being increasingly put to work in industrial applications that also exploit advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

While consumer-oriented applications of 5G have monopolised the headlines, the report by the journalists shed light on the commercial uses that are being explored for the technology.

The marriage of 5G and AI is also being championed as a means for China to promote their safe and responsible use for the benefit of mankind.

With sectors offering interesting contrasts, the report led with the use of 5G in agriculture and healthcare. Agriculture has been seen as a laggard in the uptake of cutting-edge advances, while caution is at the forefront of people's minds when it comes to the medical establishment's adoption of new practices enabled by scientific breakthroughs.

As they interviewed experts in diverse fields, the reporters were impressed by the extent of progress made by Chinese scientists and the readiness of entrepreneurs to embrace their work.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2019, with the headline Marrying AI with 5G to transform industries in China. Subscribe