AI competition heats up at World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai

AI competition heats up at World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai

Chinese large language model (LLM) developers such as SenseTime and Alibaba Group Holding announced fresh progress in developing their artificial intelligence (AI) technology at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China’s largest annual industry conference, in a sign of deepening competition in the country’s largely closed-off market. Premier Li Qiang addressed the opening ceremony, stressing that China is ready to work with other countries to promote artificial intelligence to better serve global development and the well-being of humanity, moving toward a brighter intelligent future. On the theme “Governing AI for good and for all”, the three-day event has attracted government officials, heads of international organizations, business leaders and researchers from around the world. Premier Li highlighted the significant progress in AI development since the inaugural World AI Conference in 2018, and acknowledged the new challenges AI poses in areas such as law, security, employment, ethics and morality. He also said that the “intelligence gap” needs to be bridged. Nations should work together to foster a “fair and open” environment for AI development so that more countries can benefit from the emerging technology, he added. Li mentioned that some 2.5 billion people in the world are still offline, and many developing countries “have not really benefited from the development of artificial intelligence”.

Li’s call came just days after the UN General Assembly adopted a China-sponsored resolution urging the international community to ensure that developing nations have equal opportunities to benefit from AI, and calling for a “free, open, inclusive and non-discriminatory” business environment for AI development. The non-binding resolution – co-sponsored by more than 140 countries, including the United States – also called for global cooperation to assist developing countries facing “unique challenges” and to ensure that “they will not be further left behind”.

SenseTime released a series of updated versions of its SenseNova LLMs, including SenseNova 5.5, its latest foundational model, which the company claims has a 30% improved performance compared with the previous version released in April. SenseTime Co-founder and CEO Xu Li said at the conference that SenseNova 5.5 has surpassed GPT-4o in five of eight key metrics, citing data from OpenCompass, a platform for benchmarking large models. At the same time, SenseTime's stock price plunged 16% in Hong Kong on July 5. It is among Chinese Big Tech companies that have sought to use WAIC as an opportunity to boast about progress made in developing LLMs amid heightened competition in the domestic market.

Alibaba’s cloud computing unit, the developer of the Tongyi Qianwen LLMs, also boasted of an increase in new users. In the past two months, downloads of the open-source Tongyi Qianwen models doubled to more than 20 million. The number of customers served by Alibaba Cloud Model Studio, the company’s generative AI development platform designed for corporate customers and partners, also increased by over 150% to 230,000, according to Zhou Jingren, Alibaba Cloud’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Zhou asserted Alibaba Cloud’s commitment to open-source initiatives. “Two years ago, we released the Tongyi model series at WAIC. At that time, we announced that Tongyi’s core model would be open source,” he said. “Today, Tongyi Qianwen has achieved full-scale and full-modal open source in the true sense, narrowing the gap between open-source and closed-source models.”

Yan Junjie, Founder and CEO of Shanghai-based AI start-up MiniMax, said that despite red-hot competition in the global LLM market – China alone has more than 200 such models available – only five companies will be making these models in the future. “How many of these will be in China, that’s a question I can't answer,” Yan said. MiniMax is one of China’s so-called AI Tigers, alongside Zhipu AI, Baichuan, and Moonshot AI – all based in Beijing. The group’s unofficial name represents a belief that they are China’s best hope in rivaling overseas start-ups like Microsoft-backed OpenAI and Anthropic, the developer of Claude. In his speech at WAIC, Yan said that AI models needed to improve their accuracy before playing a bigger role in traditional industries, the South China Morning Post reports.

The Global Times adds that Chinese AI companies are showcasing their latest upgrades of large models, challenging ChatGPT-4 in response to OpenAI's recent decision to suspend access to its application programming interface (API) to Chinese developers from July 9. The move is seen as a push from the U.S. to hamper China's technological development. However, at the WAIC, many Chinese AI companies have unveiled plans to help developers and businesses smoothly transition to domestic solutions and see this as an opportunity to attract more users and propel the domestic development of large models. iFlytek recently unveiled the large model SparkDesk V4.0, which has made significant advances compared with GPT-4 Turbo in the fields of text generation, understanding language, answering knowledge questions, logical reasoning, and mathematics.

Chinese companies are also making significant efforts to meet the growing demand for domestic AI large model training, despite being blocked by the U.S. from accessing advanced AI chips. During the WAIC, Moore Threads Intelligent Technology, designer of GPUs tailored for AI training, announced a major upgrade of its flagship AI data center solution KUAE. “Chinese self-developed AI chips are quickly gaining ground and filling the gaps left by U.S. restrictions. I think there is a growing consensus in China that NVIDIA's chips are not the first choice anymore. There are several other options that are now being considered,” a staffer from the Moore Threads booth told the Global Times.

Covering an exhibition area of 52,000 square meters, the WAIC focused on key fields such as large language models, computing power, robotics, and autonomous driving. It showcased the latest achievements in “AI+” applications and unveiled numerous highly anticipated innovative products. Over 500 companies participated in the event, with more than 50% coming from outside Shanghai or overseas. More than 50 new products, large language models (LLMs) or related systems of Chinese AI enterprises debuted at the conference. They, along with many other innovative and technical exhibits, jointly showcased how China's fast-developing AI technology is bringing convenience, efficiency and a better quality of life to not only Chinese people, but people all over the world. The scale of China's core AI sector has surpassed CNY500 billion, and the number of related enterprises has exceeded 4,300. By 2035, the scale of the country's AI sector will reach CNY1.73 trillion, with a global share of 30.6%.