SHANGHAI: From Jack Ma to Pony Ma, the leading lights of China’s internet industry gather in Shanghai this week to showcase the country’s latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI). But the real headliner could be American entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The Tesla Inc and SpaceX impresario features prominently on the opening-day card of the World AI Conference, which kicks off today in Shanghai as a rallying cry of sorts for China’s burgeoning AI industry -- one of the few arenas in which the race for supremacy remains wide open and Chinese achievements have both stunned and spooked Washington.
Musk’s presence at the important Beijing-endorsed AI symposium lends credence to China’s vision of becoming the world leader in the technology by 2030 and comes as Donald Trump wages a campaign to rein in the world’s No. 2 economy. Musk is scheduled to kick things off by engaging Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma in what’s expected to be a free-wheeling debate with one of China’s most lionised corporate chieftains.
Zhang Hongtao, one of the event’s organisers, said Musk’s attendance had been secured “quite early, ” and that Musk would share more on the future development of Tesla’s Shanghai investment with conference delegates. A Tesla spokeswoman confirmed Musk’s attendance yesterday.
Musk tweeted this month he’s in Shanghai to take the wraps off the China chapter of his Boring Co passion project, though he’s expected to tout his other interests while in the financial capital. Tesla, which spent years haggling before it became the first foreign automaker to own a Chinese car-manufacturing facility, views the country as an increasingly important market as US incentives for electric vehicles dwindle.
The Tesla chief executive is doubling down at a time of near-unprecedented uncertainty for American businesses struggling to tap the vast market.
At home, Trump’s threatening to try and oust US corporations from China -- though it’s unclear whether he has the legal wherewithal to do so – and has criticised companies with huge Chinese footprints. Within the Asian nation, Beijing is exhibiting an increasing willingness to clamp down on foreign corporations that don’t play by its rules. Both superpowers are exchanging fire via punitive trade tariffs, exacerbating the global tumult.
Into the fray steps one of corporate America’s most prominent –- and controversial – figures. Musk is personally championing Tesla’s self-driving technology, an “Autopilot” function he hopes to make more capable over time.
It’s unclear why the billionaire is risking his home government’s wrath by granting the Shanghai conference his stamp of authority, but it may have something to do with the fact that Tesla relies on China for about 11% of revenue. It’s erecting a multi-billion dollar gigafactory in Shanghai that will produce batteries as well as cars for the local market.
Musk surely knows the kind of hornet’s nest he may be stirring up. Chinese AI has raised hackles in Washington like no other segment of the country’s vast corporate machine, in part because of the welter of headlines daily proclaiming how it may soon surpass the US.
Broadly defined as anything from autonomous driving and robot waiters to facial recognition systems, names like Megvii Technology Ltd and Sensetime Group Ltd, both backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, are showing the way for the nascent industry. Megvii, backed by some of the nation’s most prominent state firms and tech corporations, filed in the last week for an IPO that could raise as much as US$1bil, in what’s regarded as the industry’s de facto coming-out party. — Bloomberg