In September of 2018, iFlytek, a Chinese technology company and world leader in A.I. — particularly in voice recognition software — was accused of disguising human translation as machine translation during a tech conference in Shanghai. The whistleblower was an interpreter, Bell Wang, who was doing live translation at the conference. He noticed that iFlytek was using his translations as live subtitles on a screen next to the company’s brand logo. This gave the appearance that the translated output was produced by their A.I. system, rather than by Wang.
The company was also broadcasting the translations live online using a computer-synthesized voice, instead of the original human interpreters’ voices. Wang took pictures and videos as evidence. Then, he posted them to Zhihu, a Chinese blogging platform, and accused iFlytek of fraud. This led to a media frenzy and debate over the iFlytek’s PR and marketing tactics. The company claimed to have developed cutting-edge technology — but Wang’s report threw all that into question.
You may not have heard of iFlytek. In 2017, MIT Technology Review named it the world’s “sixth-smartest company” — the highest ranked company from China, just after Google but higher than Intel (13th), Apple (16th), and Facebook (23rd). Microsoft was ranked 27th. It’s listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. At its peak, iFlytek had a market capitalization of US$12–13 billion. It controls more than 70 percent of China’s voice recognition market.
At best, the September 2018 incident was an unfortunate accident. At worst, iFlytek was deliberately misleading the public about the quality of its A.I. translation technology in exchange for positive PR and a higher stock price.
While lauded A.I. technologies are not fake, they may be less “artificial” than Silicon Valley wants us to believe.
If the latter is true, one might easily claim this is an isolated practice — one Chinese company trying to generate good publicity by allegedly counterfeiting A.I. However, a closer look at the PR efforts by other leaders in A.I. — particularly Microsoft and Google — reveals a similar trend. While lauded A.I. technologies like Google’s search algorithm and AlphaGo are not fake, they may be less “artificial” than Silicon Valley’s PR machine wants us to believe.