It’s not just academic research. Chinese tech companies are betting on AI, too. Baidu (a Chinese search-engine company often likened to Google), Didi (often likened to Uber), and Tencent (maker of the mega-popular messaging app WeChat) have all set up their own AI research labs. With millions of customers, these companies have access to the huge amount of data that training AI to detect patterns requires.
Like the Microsofts and Googles of the world, Chinese tech companies see enormous potential in AI. It could undergird a whole set of transformative technologies in the coming decades, from facial recognition to autonomous cars.“I have a hard time thinking of an industry we cannot transform with AI,” says Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu. Ng previously cofounded Coursera and Google Brain, the company’s deep learning project. Now he directs Baidu’s AI research out of Sunnyvale, California, right in Silicon Valley.
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China’s success in AI has been partly fueled by the government’s overall investment in scientific research at its universities. Over the past decade, government spending on research has grown by double digits on average every year. Funding of science and technology research continues to be a major priority, as outlined by the the Five-Year Plan unveiled this past March.
When Rao first started seeing Chinese researchers at international AI meetings, he recalls they were usually from Tsinghua and Peking University, considered the MIT and Harvard of China. Now, he sees papers from researchers all over the country, not just the most elite schools. Machine learning—which includes deep learning—has been an especially popular topic lately. “The number of people who got interested in applied machine learning has tremendously increased across China,” says Rao. This is the same uptick that the White House noticed in its report on a strategic plan for AI research.
Chinese tech companies are part of the infusion of research dollars to universities, too. At Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, computer scientist Qiang Yang collaborates with Tencent, which sponsors scholarships for students in his lab.
The students get access to mountains of data from WeChat, the messaging app from Tencent that is akin to Facebook, iMessage, and Venmo all rolled into one. (“With AI, they can’t do it without a lot of data and a platform to test it on,” says Yang, which is why industry collaboration is so key.) In return, Tencent gets a direct line to some of the most innovative research coming out of academic labs. And of course, some of these students end up working at Tencent when they graduate.
The quantity of Chinese AI research has grown dramatically, but researchers in the U.S. are still responsible for a lot of the most fundamental groundbreaking work. “The very clever ideas on changing network architecture, I see those in the U.S.,” says Ng. What Chinese researchers have been very good at doing is seizing on an idea—like machine learning—and cranking out papers on its different applications.