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Tech Thursday episode 44

Advanced lock-pick on Taobao, Chinese Academy of Sciences develops laser assault rifle, and everybody else develops AI

Each Thursday, The World of Chinese takes the most ground-breaking, impressive, or just plain weird technological advancements related to the Middle Kingdom and serves them in bite-sized chunks to keep you up-to-date on the latest news in the world of Chinese technology.

Laser focus

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side,” Han Solo once advised a young Luke Skywalker. China seems to have taken Solo’s words to heart, if a new report by the South China Morning Post is to be believed. The article claims the “ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle” prototype is a 15mm-caliber hand-held blaster, weighing seven pounds (with a rechargeable lithium battery), able to fire “more than 1,000” two-second blasts over half a mile, and predicted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics to retail at 15,000 USD each (though customers will be heavily restricted to the military and public security).

The rifle’s beam can apparently fire through walls and “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire.” However, the paper says the ZKZM-500 is designed for “non-lethal” crowd control, such as burning banners, rather than incinerating insurrectionists (international law also prohibits the use of lasers against humans).

But the uncritical report has still alarmed some, as well as baffled others. “To make this work, you need a serious battery pack, some even more serious capacitors, optics that can take all this without turning back into sand at these energy densities, and rugged enough that you can treat this like military hardware,” laser safety expert Phil Broughton told one tech site. “This is a ‘best case scenario operation only’ weapon if there ever was one.” Broughton also pointed out that “If the battery pack, caps, or the optical train catastrophically fails during a shot, you have a gravely injured soldier who is holding a small wrecked Tesla.”


Lock-pick on lockdown

Tech developers typically tout “smart” products as synonyms for safety and advanced technology. Last week, though, Dushi Kuaibao reported  that a device that is able to open many brands of “smart” locks has been found for sale on Taobao.

The device was originally unveiled at the 2018 China International Door Exhibition in Yongkang, Zhejiang province, on May 26. At the exhibition, Wang Haili, founder of a lock company in Hunan province, opened eight brands of fingerprint or password-protected locks in a row using a so-called “black box,” in as little as three seconds.

Wang Haili claimed the device was originally produced to help people distinguish her company’s genuine smart locks from fakes. After the incident, though, orders for the “black box” surged. Wang asserts that it has only been sold to other lock brands, distributors, and locksmiths, who have to present identification and qualifications to buy. However, according to Dushi Kuaibao, Taobao merchants advertise the device for as low as 320 RMB and can be purchased without ID.

Many lock manufacturers have by now uploaded videos showing the failure of the device to unlock their products. Also, according to The Paper, further tests of the “black box” on other lock brands have returned mixed results. It seems the unlocked products are not necessarily less safe, but the public will probably hesitate to throw away their old-fashioned locks and key.


Amazon for healthcare?

A new app aims to disrupt China’s healthcare system, reports Bloomberg—hopefully in a good way. Public healthcare in China is already in a state of permanent disruption, with queues, crowds, poor service, no privacy, and general air of mutinous misery evident in almost every major hospital. There are reforms aimed at changing this, and longterm care for seniors is being slowly revolutionized, but a major shakeup can’t come soon enough.

Backed by Tencent, Jerry Liao Jieyuan’s WeDoctor could become the Amazon of healthcare by using its potentially vast trove of private data for “unclogging bottlenecks in a Chinese health care market slated to hit 8 trillion yuan ($1.2 trillion) by 2020.” “There’s a lot of issues that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to privacy, including who can access data on patient’s medical records and how that data can be used,” an analyst with Guosen Securities noted in a report—although, living under constant CCTV, WeChat, and neighborhood surveillance, most Chinese have long given up on any idea of real privacy.

Founded in 2010, WeDoctor grew from being a simple appointment-booking service to now having 27 million active users connected to 2,700 hospitals and 240,000 doctors, the ability to offer follow-up consultation and prescriptions, and even 10 of its own real-life clinics with licensed doctors. Valued at 6.6 billion USD, WeDoctor even offers a home speaker for 600 USD that links to fitness wearables and offers an emergency hotline. The app uses AI to identify and diagnose health conditions, and thus streamline the efficiency of offline medical staff; the cost of cutting red tape and wait times will, of course, be passed onto the consumer, Bloomberg predicts.


AI gets under your skin

Speaking of AI diagnoses: Quality Skin (优肤), an AI-powered physician assistant for identifying skin diseases, has entered Chinese hospitals to improve the quality and efficiency of medical services. According to the developers, physicians can upload a high-quality photo of any skin condition onto the app, and receive a probable diagnosis within one minute. That allergy rash? Eczema! Those hives? Probably just sunburn.

The AI assistant requires three stages of “training” that mirror that of human doctors: first, developing natural language processing and medical knowledge; second, operating diagnostic algorithms; and finally, utilizing those algorithms to assist human practitioners.

Cui Yong, research director at Beijing’s China-Japan Friendship Hospital, told South China Morning Post that there are over 2,000 types of skin diseases and it’s impossible for non-specialists to diagnose all of them. Shi Jiang, a practitioner at a Shanghai community health clinic who has been confronted with this problem, told the SCMP, “Most doctors would avoid giving an opinion on a disease they are not familiar with, so as many as 60 per cent of the cases are under risk of misdiagnosis.” Backed by the Xiangyun Hospital Group, the Friendship Hospital began developing Quality Skin in 2015 and the app has been marketed to emergency clinics and pharmacies.

Ali’s AI copywriter

And in even more AI news: Alibaba has unveiled a new AI copywriting tool, which has passed the Turing Test (i.e. proven it could “think” like a human being) and can produce 20,000 lines of copy a second.

This AI has learned from the wealth of copy on Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao e-commerce platforms. “AI can take care of a portion of [retailers’] copywriting needs. And it significantly changes the way copywriters work: They will shift from thinking up copy—one line at a time—to choosing the best out of many machine-generated options, largely improving efficiency,” the company mentioned in a statement.

Future copywriters can simply enter the production page, type in the kinds of ideas they have, click a button, and start choosing among AI-generated options. The machine is meant to help eliminate the repetitive work of a copywriters and allow them focus on their creative side.

And in other news…

Indonesia bans Douyin (aka Tik-Tok) app after “outrage caused by a recent video in which two nurses play with a newborn baby in a hospital”

Six things I learned working as a JD Delivery guy: “The biggest remaining issue [of efficiency] is the actual point of delivery”

Thousands of Ofo and Mobikes fished out of Guangzhou river


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