WHEN CHINA’S GOVERNMENT said last summer it intends to surpass the US and lead the world in artificial intelligence by 2030, skeptics pointed to a major problem. Despite gobs of data from the world’s largest online population, lightweight privacy rules, and 8 million fresh college graduates in 2017, the country doesn’t have enough people skilled in AI to overtake America.
This week Kai-Fu Lee, onetime head of Google’s operations in China, launched a new project to help close the country’s AI talent gap. His helpers include the Chinese government and some of North America’s leading computer scientists. The project is an example of how US and Chinese efforts to progress in AI are entangled, despite recent rhetoric about superpower technology rivalry.
Lee was born in Taiwan, studied in the US, and began his career in AI research before stints as an executive at Silicon Graphics, Apple, and Microsoft. He led Google’s expansion in China until 2009, when he left to found an AI-centric investment firm now called Sinovation Ventures. The firm invests in both China and the US, and has its own AI research institute.
At Peking University in Beijing Tuesday, Lee addressed 100 professors from Chinese science and engineering schools. Over the next four months the group will learn how to teach machine learning and other AI techniques, in a new annual program supported by Sinovation’s AI Institute, the University of Peking, and China’s Ministry of Education. Some of the newly trained professors will help with a second phase of the program this summer, in which 300 top students will get special training in AI from Lee and other experts.
Despite the program’s connection to China’s government, some of the experts helping Lee work for American institutions. Cornell Professor John Hopcroft joined Lee to teach on opening day this week. He received the Turing Award, considered the Nobel of computing in 1986, and now does research on machine learning. Google’s leading AI researcher Geoff Hinton is slated to give a class via videolink this summer.
In his four-hour lecture Tuesday, Hopcroft summarized for the assembled professors the contents of a machine learning course at a top US university. He’s made frequent trips to China over the past decade trying to help the country improve the quality of its university education, which he describes as a humanitarian project. “The opportunity in China is to make the world better for millions of people,” he says.
Lee says his program will quickly expand the nation’s supply of programmers with AI experience. “If these professors each teach a class of 400 students in fall and spring, that would graduate thousands of students for employment in 2019,” he says.
That could help Chinese companies competing to hire AI engineers—including startups in Lee’s investment portfolio. It also aligns with a key strand of China’s Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan announced last July.
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The plan envisions China’s economy, military, and society invigorated and empowered by artificial intelligence. The government is seeking to build on a recent surge in AI investments from China’s internet companies and others, which has created several startups worth over $1 billion in areas including facial recognition and new types of computer chips. Government support for AI in China includes new funding, government contracts, and access to some state data troves. Growing China’s AI talent base has also become a major theme, with the government supporting new programs from colleges and companies.
Given that background, and recent friction between the US and China over technology and trade, Sinovation’s project might add fuel to concerns in Washington about an “AI arms race” between the countries. The US Trade Representative’s report justifying this week’s sanctions on $50 billion of Chinese imports said that one part of China’s AI plan is to use venture investments and other engagements with the US to draw technology back home.
Lee calls that framing “narrow minded.” He says companies and academics in both China and the US openly publish AI research papers and software. Google opened an AI research lab in China in December, saying it wants to collaborate more with the Chinese AI community. “This is not a weapons race, AI is more an enabler,” says Lee.
That argument is somewhat shared by some in Washington. Bob Work, previously deputy secretary of defense in both the Obama and Trump administrations, chairs a new task force on AI at think tank the Center for a New American Security. At the launch event last month, he pushed back on use of the term “arms race” and said America’s greatest priority should be backing commercial development of AI.
Elsa Kania, a researcher on the CNAS task force, says that could include taking pointers from Sinovation’s government-sponsored program in Beijing. “I would argue the United States should be doing the same,” she says.
In 2016, the Obama White House produced a pair of reports on the potential of artificial intelligence that recommended investment in AI education and research. Nvidia, Intel, and several academics made similar pleas at congressional hearings on AI in February and March. So far, the Trump administration has shown little interest in the technology.
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