Bottom line: Google’s launch of a China AI lab marks the latest step in its campaign to curry favor with Beijing, which could give it a 50-50 chance of being allowed to sell its Pixel phones and open a China Google Play store in 2018.
Chronicling Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) slow march back to China has been a bit like watching grass grow these days. It’s been a painfully slow process, including the latest announcement that the company will open an artificial intelligence (AI) lab here in Beijing. Put more cynically, one might call this the world’s longest brown-nosing exercise in the brief history of the Internet, due to unique conditions that prompt many to say that Beijing is in some ways creating its own made-in-China 1.1 version of this medium of the 21st century.
That internet version 1.1 includes features like China’s notorious firewall that filters out sites that Beijing doesn’t like for the vast majority of the country’s more than 700 million web surfers. A corollary of that is that anyone who operates an officially-registered website inside China tacitly agrees to abide by the nation’s vague laws that require all operators to self-police their sites for sensitive content.
That self-policing condition is what led Google to finally say “enough is enough” and shutter its China-based search service in 2010. But it quickly began to realize the market was too big to ignore, especially when there were other areas that were less sensitive and held big potential.
The country is the world’s largest smartphone market, and Google just happens to be the creator of the world’s most popular smartphone operating system, Android. What’s more, Google is trying to play up its own brand of smartphones, with the recent launch of its Pixel brand to replace its older, discontinued Nexus phones. Neither of those brands ever made it to China, nor did the company’s Google Play app store.
With all that background in mind, let’s zoom in on the latest headlines that say Google has announced it will open its China AI center that will be led by two big names. (English article) One of those is Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford professor who ran the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and the Stanford Vision Lab. The other is Jia Li, head of research and development for Google Cloud and former head of research for Snap Inc.
There’s not much more in the reports, except to say that Google hopes to cooperate with more local Chinese AI experts through the center. Formation of this center was actually hinted at a few months ago, when Google posted ads for a number of senior AI scientists to be based in Beijing. (previous post)
Google has also made headlines in China over the last two years by staging two headline-making matches pitting human masters against its AI-powered AlphaGo machine playing the ancient Chinese board game of Go. The computer won in both instances, including in this year’s match against the world champ, who was Chinese. (English article) While some might say this was a loss of face, I might argue that Beijing was quite pleased with this outcome, as it seemed to justify the central government’s near obsession with promoting AI at home over the last year or two.
All that brings us back to this “watching grass grow” game that has Google playing all the right notes in an effort to show Beijing it is towing the party line in its bid to get the green light to “re-enter” China. Google often points out that it never really left China after the 2010 blowup, since it has operated sales offices here all along selling its offshore ad services to Chinese companies. This AI presence also shows that Google is still very much alive and active in China.
Having shown all that goodwill, and equally important having it received and accepted, it really does seem like just a matter of time before Beijing finally gives the nod for Google to enter the China smartphone and related app store markets. Google launched its current Pixel phones a year ago, so that fresh foray into the space would provide a logical entry for both its phones and an accompanying Google Play store.
I’ve predicted this development for quite a while, and each time it doesn’t happen. But perhaps with this latest AI center opening, Google is inching closer to its goal. Since we’re nearing the end of 2017, I’ll go out on a relatively broad limb and venture that perhaps Google will finally get the green light it has been seeking to sell its phones and open a China Google Play store in 2018. But given my past record of failed predictions on the topic, I would still only put the chances at 50-50.