Beijing’s Summer Palace is where tourists and visitors to the city normally go, getting their mind blown away gazing at the imperial garden. But I decided to spend my time at a lesser known park about four kilometres south of the palace on my trip to the Chinese capital last month.
The 40-hectare Haidian Park has a play area for children, an open field where people fly kites, a running track, and lots and lots of trees. But I was not there to be with nature. Only a few days ago, the park had made headlines, as the world’s first ‘AI-park’.
Installations by Chinese technology giant Baidu show off some of its latest tech in the park. The main attraction here for me was an autonomous bus called Apollo developed by Baidu. You could get a free ride on it. It would be my first on an autonomous vehicle if you discount the rides I’ve taken on buses back in Kerala that I suspect drive themselves at times.
For the uninitiated, Baidu is China’s largest search engine company. It is one of the three companies that the Chinese government has appointed as a national champion of artificial intelligence technologies (the other two are Alibaba and Tencent). Once the government in China decrees, things get done fast and that’s how Haidan Park became the world’s first ‘AI-park’.
As I wrote earlier this week, in Beijing, AI solutions are being deployed rapidly in real life. And Haidian Park, a few kilometres from Zhongguancun, known as China’s Silicon Valley, is one place where you’ll see much of it come together. As a tech journalist and a science fiction enthusiast, looking into the future excites me like nothing else.
As you enter the park, you’ll notice a digital leaderboard of sorts. It’s part of an ‘intelligent’ jogging track that runs along the park. Stand in front of the board, get your picture clicked, sync with your phone, and run on the track. Cameras will scan the run and record details of your run at the end of a lap. If you do well, you’ll be on the leaderboard.
Walk along the smart running track – I was not in a mood to run with a full backpack and a camera bag – and you’ll eventually find a tiny bus stop. This is where you board the Apollo. The bus can carry eight people at a time and isn’t much to look at from the outside. But knowing that you’re probably standing only a few feet away from what could be the future of transportation, you feel excited. I was about to experience tech that will take several years to become mainstream but could alter the way everything moves on earth.
At this stage, Apollo runs autonomously in closed environments like this park. By 2019, Baidu wants it to run in city roads that are ‘geo-fenced’. The year after, the company wants it to run on its own on simple city roads. And by 2021, it wants the bus to run on highway and city roads all by itself. That’s the holy grail of autonomous driving.
Baidu has over 100 partners, including companies like Bosch, BMW, Daimler, Ford, Honda, Microsoft, and Nvidia. It has also set up a fund to invest in startups in the space.
After waiting for a few minutes, I was told that the bus is booked until later in the afternoon. But I wasn’t quick to give up. I was told that I could get a ride on the bus on its way back. So I walked up to another bus stop and waited. More than an hour passed and the bus never showed. People waiting with me got angry at the staff and left after some more. I was told that the bus had broken down and won’t be able to run that day – much like the buses back home.
I, too, left to see what more the park had in store. A bit deeper into the park, you’ll notice a white building. Next to it is a virtual Tai Chi trainer. It’s really a giant screen equipped with a camera and motion sensors. You’re supposed to stand in front of the screen and follow the Shifu’s prompt. The better you follow the Shifu, the more points you make.
Access to the white building is gated with a face recognition system. A vending machine sits in front of the building. The automat runs on face recognition. Once inside, you’ll see some virtual reality gear, a walking, talking robot which looks a bit like R2D2 from Star Wars, more screens and cameras that can track your moves.
On my cab ride back to the hotel, “driver Yin” didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Mandarin. He was excited to meet someone from India. I was happy about my time well spent at the park. Only, it did cross my mind that if Baidu succeeds in making autonomous driving possible, Mr Yin might lose his job.
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