Geographies in Depth

Nine things that surprised us about China in October

Sophia, a robot integrating the latest technologies and artificial intelligence developed by Hanson Robotics is pictured during a presentation at the "AI for Good" Global Summit at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - RC16B89A9020

Facing the future: Sophia has been granted citizenship Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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While most of the attention in China this month was on the 19th Party Congress, we saw some surprising developments and discoveries that continue to challenge preconceptions about China.

The country's first seawater rice fields in Qingdao, Shandong province, have been harvested, with much higher yields than expected. This development could change the agricultural landscape and address concerns about food security.

The quality of researchers around the world will affect the race, but China may take the lead because of more data and differing norms on data collection and use. What’s surprising is how ubiquitous AI is becoming and where it turns up. Western audiences are familiar with Snapchat and Instagram, but how about Toutiao? The average user spends more than 74 minutes each day in Toutiao — more than twice what the average user spends on Snapchat. But what's really fascinating is that AI and machine learning are creating most of the content.

 Toutiao users spend 74 minutes in the app every day
Toutiao users spend 74 minutes in the app every day Image: Y Combinator (using data from Snapchat; Instagram; Facebook)

Blockchain isn’t just useful in FinTech, Chinese companies are experimenting with distributed ledger technology to increase traceability of products like food, and fight the sale of counterfeit goods.

Self-service checkouts are proliferating around the world, but China is taking it one step further. It is testing out a new convenience store that relies on AI instead of managers to run the show. Cameras will capture customers’ actions, while displays will show the most up-to-date and customised promotional message and adjust the price tags whenever needed.

We shouldn’t fear robots: they can assist doctors in treating patients, as Harbin Children’s Hospital is discovering with its treatment for children with autism. Doctors say the robots will perform an important role in encouraging children to speak.

Having piloted 10 parks across the country in 2016, the authorities have devised a scheme to put more of China's areas of outstanding natural beauty under protection. The tensions between preserving nature and economic development will not be solved overnight, however, and some of the most fragile ecosystems remain under pressure.

The world’s largest auto market has unveiled a comprehensive set of emission rules and delayed a programme related to the production of electric cars, giving automakers more time to prepare for the phasing out of fossil-fuelled vehicles.

 Electric vehicles' global climb
Electric vehicles' global climb Image: Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance; graphic by Bloomberg Quick Take

These high-altitude unmanned vehicles are tasked with military intelligence gathering; they can fit inside a shoebox and cost just a few hundred yuan.

Sophia, a Hong Kong robot, was the first to be granted citizenship of a country, in a move that raises all sorts of questions. Controversially, her citizenship was granted by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, sparking an outcry against a country that has been accused of making women second-class citizens.

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