China set to hire more ‘virtual’ workers after firm names AI robot as top employee in 2021

Yaling Jiang, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 21 2022 01:45 PM

The growth potential for artificial intelligence (AI) applications in China appears to remain strong, following property developer China Vanke’s recent move to name its in-house-developed virtual debt collector as a top employee for 2021.

The software robot named Cui Xiaopan, represented by a lifelike female avatar, was bestowed the honour of “2021 Vanke Headquarters Outstanding Newcomer Award”, according to China Vanke chairman Yu Liang’s WeChat Moments post on December 20, which has since become widely cited in Chinese social media. He credited the AI employee for proving much more efficient than human beings in terms of pressing debtors and reminding them to pay.

That development has become a prime example of why China, which plans to be a world leader in AI by 2030, is predicted to deploy more virtual employees this year, according to a report by consulting firm Analysys published this week.

China Vanke’s virtual debt collector is one the latest AI applications to generate plenty of buzz on the mainland in recent years, after the likes of Tencent Holdings’ robot reporter “Dreamwriter”, which can churn out 1,000-word stories in 60 seconds, and the AI television news anchor of state-run Xinhua News Agency.

There will emerge “more virtual employees who have both business and technological capabilities among the companies that are equipped with robotic process automation, low-code development platforms and artificial intelligence technologies”, the Analysys report said. “With these virtual employees setting examples with their high performance, other employees will also be encouraged to improve their skills, which will eventually drive the digital transformation of these companies.”

China Vanke, the country’s third-biggest home seller by sales with about 140,000 employees, is already known for rapidly implementing technology, including robot cooks to prepare lunch, at its various projects on the mainland to save on human resources and maintain a high level of standard for its services.

The Hong Kong and Shenzhen-listed property group’s founder and former chairman, Wang Shi, said in 2015 that 40 per cent of its property management services – from sweeping floors to guarding its estates – would be done by robots in 10 years.

On the credentials of the firm’s virtual employee, China Vanke’s Lu said in his social media post that Cui recorded “a 91.4 per cent success rate in collecting accounts receivable and overdue loan repayments”. Cui was developed by China Vanke’s Longtaitou unit using Microsoft Corp’s Xiaoice AI system.

In China’s AI software market, applications for AI robots or virtual humans have become one of the most popular, according to tech research firm IDC. It forecast the value of this software segment to reach 23 billion yuan (US$3.6 billion) by 2030.

Use of virtual humans has already become popular in the fields of retail and entertainment in China. Virtual idols, for example, have caught the imagination of the Chinese population after initially blazing a trail in Japan in the 1990s.

From Ayayi, with more than 121,000 followers on lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu since launching last May, to Ling Yuezheng, who likes to dress and wear make-up in traditional Chinese style, virtual idols have gone mainstream in the world’s second-largest economy. Companies such as personal health care chain Watsons and cosmetics giant L’Oreal have their own virtual idols used to communicate with consumers.

“Virtual influencers are extremely popular among younger fans and in particular Gen-Z consumers who are curious to experiment and try new things,” said Mei Chen, Alibaba Group Holding’s head of fashion and luxury for the UK, Spain and Northern Europe, in a South China Morning Post report last October. Alibaba is the parent company of the Post.

China’s virtual idol market is expected to reach 12 billion yuan this year, up from 1.2 billion yuan in 2018, according to data from market research firm iiMedia.

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