I met Cheng one morning in the mall’s central atrium, near an antique Chevrolet pickup truck that held hay and flowers. (“Chrysanthemums,” Cheng noted, approvingly.) When I told him the price of the Translator (around $400), he was skeptical. “Too expensive,” he said, shaking his head. But as we sat down outside Caribou Coffee to play around with it, his skepticism gave way to admiration. We held the device alongside the Baidu Translate app on his phone, taking turns speaking phrases in various languages in an attempt to stump it. In Mandarin, the Translator understood that Cheng’s accented “mingnisuda” was Minnesota. It got my name, despite Cheng pronouncing it “Mala.” When I spoke English, both translation tools could handle the metaphor “I’m feeling blue,” but only the Translator got that “I got up on the wrong side of the bed” was about my mood, not where I placed my feet. The most magical moment came when Cheng recited a couplet from the eighth-century poet Zhang Jiuling. Baidu translated the lines, nonsensically, as “At sea, the moon and the moon are at this time.” The Translator offered up an accurate and genuinely poetic translation:
As the bright moon shines over the sea; / From far away you share this moment with me.
When Cheng switched to Cantonese, the results were more mixed. (The Translator understood an idiom for the “English language” as “chicken farm.”) But the mere fact that the device supported the language impressed him.
iFlytek’s translation mission goes far beyond helping travelers, business people, and urban elites. It has developed products for ethnic minorities and people in rural areas where many people do not speak Mandarin, and it is constantly improving its handling of dialects. In 2017 it launched what it calls the Dialect Protection Plan. When I first came across a news report about it, I laughed out loud at the Orwellian name. The Chinese Communist Party has spent decades attacking language noun by noun, verb by verb—censoring terms it deems dangerous, undermining dialects and minority languages, and bludgeoning Mandarin with ideological drivel. (The Chinese cultural critic Li Tuo dubbed such clunky phrasing Maospeak, in reference to the Newspeak of 1984.) Tech companies have aided in the assault on language.
An iFlytek spokesperson said in an email that the goal of the company’s work on dialects was to “protect our ways of communication.” iFlytek has devoted special attention to Uighur and Tibetan, which are spoken by ethnic minorities that have been singled out for persecution by Beijing. China Daily reported that in one promotion for the Dialect Protection Plan, executives encouraged users of iFlytek Input to record themselves speaking their native language, in exchange for a chance to win an iPhone.
iFlytek’s campus sits far outside Hefei’s city center, on a street lined with drab apartment buildings. Nearly half of the company’s 11,000 employees work in a guarded compound spanning 31 acres. The rest are scattered at offices throughout China, with a few in other parts of the world. Like Silicon Valley tech companies, iFlytek buses in staff, provides food and entertainment, and projects a lofty mission. Everywhere on the campus—on walls, merchandise, and the stall doors in the squat toilets—is the slogan “Empower the world with artificial intelligence.” When I arrived there last spring, I was greeted by a photograph of Xi Jinping.
A spokesperson led me to a café on the campus for a chat over bubble tea. iFlytek does not list any media contacts on its website, and I had managed to arrange this visit only after spending several hours cold-calling the company’s customer service lines. After a few dead ends, an agent took pity and connected me with the spokesperson, who accepted my request to visit. (Another spokesperson later responded to a list of questions sent to Chartwell Strategy Group, a DC-based lobbying firm that iFlytek engaged to manage its communications in the US.)
Surrounded by blond wood, I slurped up tapioca balls as my host explained the company’s consumer products. She wore a flouncy shirt with a sewn-on vest, dangly earrings, and platform shoes—an outfit that reflected iFlytek’s aesthetic, which is cute, whimsical, and even silly. One version of its child companion robot, the Alpha Egg, has polka dots and little antennae and speaks in a cartoonish alien voice. Its virtual assistant for drivers, Flying Fish, is depicted in ads as a cuddly shark in a scuba mask. The robot it markets to hospitals to assist with patient queries looks like the love child of C-3PO and EVE, the machine in the animated film WALL-E. (“Perhaps more than any people in the world,” says Chen Xiaoping, the director of USTC’s Center for Artificial Intelligence Research, the lab that helped develop the medical assistant, Chinese people “really like robots.”) As the spokesperson explained it, iFlytek’s products were all in service of convenience and fun.