China must overcome talent gap to fulfill AI ambitions

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/3 22:23:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


There is little doubt that the excitement around artificial intelligence (AI) in China will continue in 2018, but it's worth noting that the country's AI sector is facing a somewhat paradoxical situation.

China boasts one of the most exciting and dynamic AI sectors in the world, but it also has a huge shortfall in terms of AI talent, and it will require efforts from all relevant parities to overcome this obstacle, notably the local businesses betting on the technology.

Concern has arisen over the risk of an AI bubble in China, as startups in the sector are already commanding enormous valuations. At the same time, investment in the arena remains far from sufficient, given the evidence that the world's second-largest economy has not gone far enough in building its AI talent reservoir to match its ambition to lead global AI development.

China ranks seventh in the global AI talent rankings, according to a July report by professional networking site LinkedIn. Of the 1.9 million global AI professionals spotted by LinkedIn, China boasts only 50,000. The US led the rankings with a talent pool of 850,000.

An article by the People's Daily Overseas Edition in July claimed that the country's AI talent falls far short of demand, with the domestic supply-demand ratio standing at 1:10. China faces an AI talent shortage of more than 5 million, said the article, citing Zhou Ming, deputy director of the Education and Examination Center under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

To be fair, China is by no means the only country that is being haunted by a lack of AI talent. In December, Chinese internet giant Tencent, which is also investing heavily in AI, released a white paper on global AI talent for 2017. It identified about 300,000 people in the industry worldwide, with 100,000 of them still pursuing studies in universities and colleges and the rest now working in different industries. The number is hardly enough to meet the global market need, according to the findings.

But a growing consensus among industry watchers that China has already taken the lead globally in cranking out various AI applications means that the country needs AI talent more than any other country, even the US, which is still considered unrivalled in terms of cutting-edge AI technologies.

As such, a wholehearted engagement in the worldwide war for AI knowhow is needed. One way to pursue this would be to channel investment toward institutions and businesses that have a genuine interest in training local AI talent.

There are signs that the country has gradually moved in this direction. A typical example of these efforts is AI Challenger 2017, a global AI programming contest that concluded in Beijing in late December. The competition - under the guidance of Zhongguancun Science Park's administrative committee, which is backed by the Beijing municipal government - attracted over 10,000 AI enthusiasts from 65 countries and regions.

Jointly launched in August by three Chinese tech firms - venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures, search engine Sogou and news aggregation app Toutiao - the competition provides a catalyst for efforts not only to spot top AI talent but to fan interest in technology knowhow in China's booming AI sector.

Kai-Fu Lee, president and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, said he hoped the competition could wipe out the youth talent gap between China and the US over the next three years.

Besides the competition, there are also smaller-scale contests and events aiming to turn AI dreams into reality, and the country's AI push has seen local businesses taking the initiative to fill the gap.

Such efforts could be sparks that will turn into flames one day and eventually translate the record valuations of Chinese AI businesses into genuine AI strength and a self-sufficient ecosystem for the sector.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

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