A visitor learns about a robot during the Fifth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province. LI JIANMING/FOR CHINA DAILY
From apps to AI, parents turn to latest tech to give their children a competitive edge
On Nov 8, a smartly dressed news anchor spoke to a conference hall in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province.
But while he might have looked and sounded like a human presenter, it was in fact a wholly digital reconstruction, developed by the Chinese internet company Sougou and Xinhua News Agency.
Thanks to artificial intelligence-enabled voice technology, the virtual anchor can produce human-like visual and voice news reporting, from scripts fed into it.
In China, AI is being increasingly rolled out in fields including education, manufacturing, finance, healthcare and autonomous driving.
The push comes as part of Chinese efforts to develop the AI sector. Policymakers have said that accelerating AI's development is key if China is to seize the opportunities presented by the next round of technological revolution and industrial transformation.
The country aims to grow its core AI industries to over 150 billion yuan ($21.6 billion) by 2020, 400 billion yuan by 2025, and 1 trillion yuan by 2030.
Shen Nanpeng, founding and managing partner of Sequoia China, noted at the ongoing Fifth World Internet Conference that new technologies are helping different industries to transform and upgrade.
"Not only internet companies, but also traditional industries including education are in need of internet tools and solutions," he said.
It is not surprising that firms are exploring the use of AI in teaching. Online education is a huge business in China-sales revenue accounted for 281 billion yuan last year, and is expected to rise by another 24 percent this year.
Zhu Qing, a 39-year-old engineer from Beijing, said she is already seeing the impact that AI is having. A pen, an eraser and an exercise book were all she could use when doing her homework 30 years ago. But when it comes to her 9-year-old daughter, it is totally different.
The second-grade primary school student does most of her exercises on an online application. Once finished, the app immediately corrects all the mistakes and is even able to offer tips for future studies.
Homework, which for previous generations was a chore, has now become a more efficient and much happier task thanks to the faster-than-expected development of technologies in the education sector.
In addition, AI is offering more possibilities as livestreaming classes have become another major trend of online education.
VIPKid has built up its business in China by offering children one-on-one English tutoring online, enabling 500,000 children to learn English from 60,000 teachers based in North America.
In addition, two years ago it also launched Lingo Bus, a platform teaching Chinese children overseas.
The company is planning to set up branches and expand both its English and Chinese teaching business in 10 cities abroad including Seoul, Tokyo, London, Singapore, Madrid and Buenos Aires over the next three years.
"To make a world-class product will be a competitive advantage for a Chinese company, and will also be beneficial for children and parents across the world," said Mi Wenjuan, founder and CEO of VIPKid, during this year's World Internet Conference.
Liu Jiehao, an analyst at consultancy iiMedia, said government support, technological progress and a cultural emphasis on education have all contributed to a burgeoning online education market in China.
China has always identified education as a top priority. Since 2016, the government has been investing over 3 trillion yuan a year in education. This accounts for around 4 percent of GDP.
Though this combination of factors has given the country's online education a boost, analysts say Chinese parents are the key driver.
Jing Zhiqiang lives in Beijing. He is 42 and father to a 9-year-old son. He spent 10,980 yuan for a set of 72 classes for his child who attends four classes a week on an online education platform.
The family spends 2,400 yuan per month for an online English course. That's half of Beijing's average per-capita monthly disposable income of around 4,800 yuan.
For Jing, the main reason behind choosing the online course is that his child can take one-on-one personalized tutoring from native English speakers.
"Also, home-based tutoring is a great relief for both my wife and me as we don't have much time to send and collect the child to and from tutoring institutes," said Jing. "Particularly in Beijing where the traffic is often terrible, we actually save a lot of road time ... Time is money, isn't it?"
Not only startups are involved, as traditional companies like TAL Education Group and Sunlands Online Education Group are also establishing a major presence in online education.
TAL showcased its latest technology products and online solutions during this year's World Internet Conference, including a virtual reality product, which allows students to study in a digital world.
The company's online courses also integrate with the latest AI technologies. These can help recognize and analyze student responsiveness, as well as their ability to grasp lessons, which could help teachers adjust their teaching methods.
"The company is striving to advance education through technology, hoping to build a large-scale, low-cost and high-quality online education experience," said Bai Yunfeng, president of TAL Education Group.
Sunlands, another leading education company, is leveraging Mini Programs, part of Tencent's WeChat in-app function, to offer quick-study products. Students can take advantage of small chunks of time to study, either during the break or on the subway.
Liu Botong, CEO of Sunlands, said at the sidelines of this year's World Internet Conference that some educational apps are full of advertisements and complicated functions, and users often struggle to navigate them.
"Through Mini Programs, we aim to help users utilize the product in the shortest time possible since we believe that a good product should be one that can help save time," he said.
Online education isn't only restricted to basic classes but also has interest-oriented courses including online programming classes.
According to market researcher Jingdata, the average spending on programming classes totaled 6,000 yuan per person per year in China, driving the current market size to 10 billion yuan, and is expected to top 50 billion yuan in the coming five years.
The growth comes as education authorities seek to renovate after-school training institutions, and cut excessive academic burdens for primary and secondary school students.
"One reason that online programming is gaining momentum is because it is helping children to develop their abilities, including thinking, which has usually been ignored in the past," said Liu Yiyang, co-founder of Codemao, a Chinese online programming startup.
The industry's profound potential has attracted interest from the capital market. Total fundraising exceeded 15 billion yuan in the first half of this year.
VIPKid raised $500 million in its latest round of financing in June this year, which was the world's largest-ever fundraising drive for the online education sector. It also pushes the company's valuation to over 20 billion yuan, making it the biggest online education company globally.
According to a report by market research consultancy Big-Data-Research, financing in the country's online education industry in the first six months of this year can rival the total fundraising of last year.
A total of 7.4 billion yuan was invested in quality-oriented education in the first half of this year, accounting for 28.9 percent of total investment in the online education industry.
Sectors including language, K12, early education and professional training are some of the other popular areas that investors are looking at favorably.
"Frequent financing has accelerated the accumulative effect of the country's online education segment," said Lyu Senlin, founder and chief researcher at Learneasy Times Online Education Research Institute, an industry research consultancy.
"Industry leaders are contending for bigger market share and pushing small firms out."
Ji Liyin, vice-investment president of Founder H Fund, said at an online education conference: "For investors, they care more about the future direction. On a broader scale, only changes in policy will bring about more room for growth and new opportunities."
Thereby, emerging areas will be the first priority for investors, he said, adding that industries where technologies are lowering work burdens for humans will be a good direction for investment.