The AI startup behind talking products: an interview with Huang Wei, CEO of Unisound

The success of Amazon’s Echo AI speakers has caused a mushroom cloud-effect in the field of Chinese AI products. One outspoken entrepreneur thinks that almost no Chinese company has made an AI speaker which is as satisfying as the Amazon Echo.

Huang Wei, CEO of Unisound, a startup that provides speech recognition services, also sees it as an opportunity to make a difference in the industry. His company is behind many Chinese AI speaker makers.

As he sees it, Chinese AI speaker makers, especially big ones, run into problems because they piece together different technology from disparate contractors and try to put them together to make AI speakers within a short period of time.

“Their experience is incoherent and terrible,” Huang said.

Inspired by Siri

The process of making a good AI speaker is like a slow dance–just ask Amazon.

It took Amazon years to release the Amazon Echo at the end of 2014. The company had to invent all of the Echo-related technology and seamlessly combine it to create a streamlined experience, Huang said.

Founded in 2012, Unisound has evolved into an eye-catching AI startup in China, with up to 300 employees. It now provides speech recognition, big data analysis, and other AI services to nearly 30,000 enterprises.

Huang Wei, CEO of Unisound. Photo from Unisound

Several years ago, Huang did not expect AI to thrive and the company to grow so quickly. He said that, despite the fact that AI has become a hot topic in both the academic and industrial sectors, it spent a long time on the sidelines.

“It was difficult to even publish a paper related to AI back then,” he said.

It was Apple’s Siri that inspired Huang to start his company. When the late Apple founder, Steve Jobs, was still alive, the silicon-valley-based tech giant purchased Siri Inc. in 2010 and released it as a voice assistant together with the iPhone 4S one year later.

Huang thinks highly of Jobs’ legacy. After the iPhone’s big-screen interactive experience took down Nokia, Jobs predicted that voice would be the next generation’s mode of interaction, and bought Siri Inc. before he passed away.

“As a practitioner in the tech industry, I realized that voice recognition and AI technology are about to change,” he said.

Siri was enlightening for Huang, and so was his previous professional experience. Before founding Unisound, he worked for Motorola and Shangda Group–both of which were leading tech companies in China for years–specializing in voice recognition research and development.

Huang saw the commercialization of the industry becoming possible.

Empowering other industries

According to Huang, Unisound’s products and services mainly focus on two sectors: smart life and smart service.

In the smart life sector, Unisound provides a voice control system for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, ranging from TVs to air conditioners, and from desk lamps to kitchen ventilators. In June, the company introduced the voice central control system, Pandora, allowing hardware manufacturers to develop voice-enabled devices in six months.

Unisound also provides its audio and AI technology to partners in other industries so that they can provide smart services to users. Huang said that his company is mainly collaborating with organizations and enterprises in medical and educational industries.

Unisound is working with Peking Union Medical College Hospital, a renowned hospital in China, to free-up doctors from inputting patients’ medical records manually and to assist their medical research.

Huang said that his company is collaborating with hospitals by providing voice recognition, big data, and other technology.

“Traditionally, doctors input their patients’ medical records manually. But now they can use our voice input system to do the work,” he said.

“As medical records accumulate, we will be able to trace the relationship between different pathogenesis and symptoms and build knowledge maps of different diseases.”

He said that their sound system is valuable for developing medical cures, medical care policy-making, and medical students.

Unisound’s audio technology helps doctors input patients’ medical records. Photo from Unisound website

In the education industry, Unisound is now partnering with Hujiang, Boxfish, and other education companies by providing voice input and analyzing services. It also offers voice-related products for smart car mirror manufacturers and map navigation companies, among others.

Competitors and the future of AI

Unisound is not the only AI company in China that specializes in audio technology. iFlytek and Mobvoi are among Unisound’s tough competitors.

Founded in 1999, iFlytek is the most prestigious audio company in China. It was listed in the mainland Chinese stock market in 2008 and currently has a capitalization of RMB 63.2 billion (USD 9.4 billion). In the past, it provided its voice-speech synthesis and recognition technologies to business clients (B2B). Now, it is expanding its services directly to consumers by developing smartphone keyboards and recording apps.

Mobvoi was established in 2012 and later received investment from Google in 2015. Unlike Unisound, which focuses on B2B, Mobvoi has developed a wide range of consumer products, including ticwatch, ticmirror (an in-vehicle robot), and the Chumenwenwen mobile voice search app.

“We view iFlytek as our major competitor. It owns good technologies and talent developing systems from which we need to learn,” Huang said.

Speaking of the burgeoning AI industry, Huang said that it is overheated and full of bubbles.

“The bubbles were huge last year, with tons of forums and events lecturing audiences on what AI technology is,” Huang said. “But this year, people are beginning to question how exactly AI will bring changes to our life. That is actually a sign that the bubbles are bursting.”

Last month, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, had a quarrel with another Silicon Valley tycoon, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla. The former is positive about AI robots while the latter warns that AI might be a threat to humans.

Huang tends to side with Zuckerberg, claiming that AI will not threaten human beings, at least not in his lifetime.

“AI doesn’t have the ability to self-evolve and is not able to think, associate, and create things like us. So I believe it will change and benefit our life in the coming decades instead of ruin it,” he said.

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