November 1, 2023
BEIJING – Startups bring wide range of fresh business opportunities
A platform powered by artificial intelligence and launched by a 13-year-old quickly went viral among middle school students after making its debut in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, last month.
AI-Button, the platform founded by middle school student Qiu Yumo, who entered the eighth grade this year, enables students to customize learning guidance by simply uploading material.
With ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by United States company OpenAI, taking the world of technology by storm, Qiu used the large language model — a key ChatGPT technology — for the first time to develop her learning platform.
The AI revolution, which many technology industry experts believe is underpinned by ChatGPT, is driving a new form of entrepreneurship, described as “smaller, faster, cheaper and weirder” by Nathan Baschez, co-founder of US daily newsletter startup Every Inc.
Along with Qiu, young people from China, especially those born in the 1990s and 2000s, are increasingly plunging into AI entrepreneurship.
Qiu, who was born in 2010, started programming when she was 6. She wrote a computer game one year later, which triggered her interest in developing complicated software.
With the idea of making a small learning tool for herself, she used the large language model and other emerging AI technologies to create AI-Button earlier this year.
“It was only after ChatGPT began to take off that I sensed the opportunities brought by the new AI generation, and I realized that such technologies can change the world,” Qiu said.
ChatGPT is driving the AI revolution, which a Goldman Sachs research report said has the potential to bring sweeping changes to the global economy, and could produce a rise of 7 percent, or almost $7 trillion, in global GDP, over the next decade.
Buoyed by this trend, a new form of AI startups has emerged. In China, unlike previous such startups that needed star founders, huge amounts of financing, and dozens of employees, the advent of ChatGPT offers a new chance for all entrepreneurs.
For example, Qiu formed a team of students from her middle school and those in the neighborhood to help her. Some team members were in charge of testing and optimization, some were responsible for promotion work, while others helped with external liaison and cooperation.
Inspired by online public welfare projects launched by tech giant Tencent Holdings, Qiu and her partners encouraged students to use AI-Button. Students can initiate and take part in public welfare projects and receive benefits from them, which can be used for learning on the platform.
All the team members attended weekly meetings to ensure progress was made. After several months of development and product optimization, AI-Button finally became a mature project and registration began for users.
“For the first time, I realized that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” Qiu said.
Baschez, from Every Inc, said in a note that AI startups in this new age begin small. “They use open source and cloud computing to get off the ground quickly and perform recurring tasks. Thanks to AI, they will stay smaller for much longer, and the most successful will achieve staggering results with only a handful of employees,” he said.
His comments are supported by the example of Midjourney, a system that uses AI to generate pictures from text descriptions. The Midjouney team at his beginning comprised only 11 full-time employees, with four of them students who had yet to graduate and were not studying at leading universities.
Baschez said, “More important, this new type of organization can try out fresh ideas.
“The entry barrier is already lower than ever, but now that AI is good enough to design interfaces, write code, and execute marketing campaigns, we’re going to see a whole new set of experiments come online.”
In China, Miaoya Camera, an AI-powered digital product that generates self-portraits online, launched as a mini program on WeChat in July, just five months after the launch team of six Chinese software professionals, who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, conceptualized and developed the product.
To obtain an AI portrait by using Miaoya Camera, users pay 9.90 yuan ($1.40) and upload at least 20 recent portraits to get a digital clone. They then turn the clone into different types of portraits, such as ID photos, business photos, or those in an ancient Chinese style.
Users can train the AI to make the portraits more lifelike. Industry experts said this is the logical outcome of AI, where a generative model takes what it learns from examples to create something new.
During peak times, more than 6,000 people wait online to use the product. Some even wait for more than 15 hours to obtain a digital clone. Within a month of its launch, Miaoya Camera was viewed by market observers as a potential disruptor of the AIGC, or artificial intelligence-generated content, niche market arising from the arrival of ChatGPT.
AIGC uses AI algorithms and technologies to generate high-quality content, including articles, blog posts, product descriptions and social media updates.
Zhang Yueguang, leader of a group of students who graduated from Tsinghua University in 2012, said the portrait generator’s market performance is way beyond his expectations. He attributes part of this success to the new wave of AIGC, with a large number of consumers looking forward to applications that use ChatGPT-related technologies.
“I think the business logic of AIGC and the internet is fundamentally different. Business on the internet is essentially about information flow, channels and platforms. But the essence of the AI era can be compared with building a factory. Technologies that point to market demand are more easily accepted by customers,” he said.
Wang Peng, a senior researcher at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, said that when ChatGPT delivers further technological advances, more Chinese consumers will be willing to embrace such technologies, resulting in further success for applications such as Miaoya Camera.
A poll carried out by the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu found that 72 percent of young users preferred a profile photo created by Miaoya Camera to one taken by Tianzhenlan, a major professional portrait photography chain.
Wang said: “More important, AIGC is lowering the threshold for entrepreneurship. The US may have taken the lead in the AIGC race with ChatGPT, but China now stands on the same starting line with the US.”
He added that this also means that Chinese AI entrepreneurs are catching up fast with their US counterparts in the new AIGC era.
Zhao Zhiyun, head of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Technology, said the US and China have led global development of large-scale AI models, the key technology behind ChatGPT, contributing to 80 percent of them across the world.
“Development of China’s large AI models is booming, with breakthroughs being made in several technical areas at the same time,” Zhao said.
Zhou Yu, chairman of Beijing Fanyu Technology Co, a leading natural language processing products and services startup, said that as the stakes are high, Chinese and US startups appear to be taking different approaches to developing large language models that drive generative AI.
“Founders of US startups put more emphasis on the research and development of underlying technology and groundbreaking innovations. The US is a world leader in terms of hardware and deep learning frameworks,” Zhou said.
“Chinese AI startups focus more on applications, and those launching these startups are better at adapting technology to various industries, and commercializing different applications. They are also more flexible in creating personalized products and innovations, especially in niche sectors, thus giving the younger generation more opportunities.”
A report by the China Foundation for Youth Entrepreneurship and Employment said those in the 19-23 age bracket in China comprise the main group of young entrepreneurs. Nearly 70 percent of them started a company with less than 100,000 yuan ($13,680). More than half have experienced fluctuations in profits and losses, but 70 percent of them began making a profit within three years.
Another report, from the Chinese Academy of Labour and Social Security, said rapid development of the digital economy has attracted a large number of young people, especially those under the age of 35, to start a business.
Such entrepreneurship is mainly due to digital technologies that lower the entry barrier to starting a business and offering good employment conditions. As a result, rapid development of the digital economy has helped drive a new form of employment for young people, the report said.
For example, those younger than 35 account for more than 73 percent of mini-program developers on major social media platforms, the report said, adding that the younger generation has become an indispensable force for the development of the digital economy in China.
Chen Yuheng, a cofounder of SenseTime, a Hong Kong-listed Chinese AI pioneer, was born in the 1990s. He has witnessed the development of the internet and AI in China, and the way in which ChatGPT has triggered the nation’s AI boom.
Shortly after graduating from Tsinghua University in 2013, he and several friends founded SenseTime. Chen rose from being No 3 employee at the startup to cofounder of the first listed AI business on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
SenseTime started by focusing on computer vision, before expanding into more business areas, including autonomous driving technologies.
The company is flexing its technological muscle amid the AI boom triggered by ChatGPT.In August, SenseChat, its large language model, officially opened to the public for registration after being approved by the authorities.
SenseTime devoted numerous resources to researching and developing InternLM, a pre-trained large language AI model developed in collaboration with several leading domestic research institutions, including the Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Chen said, “I am fortunate to grow with the development of AI, but I now also need to keep up with these changing times.”