China draws increasing number of top AI researchers from US

By Zhang Dan Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/9 18:22:23

○ China's AI talent pool is growing, benefiting the country in its bid to win AI competition with the US

Though US has the largest AI talent pool, more and more researchers and scientists are moving back to China and making great contributions

○ Young graduates care about offer packages and are put off by overtime work culture

Kemal El Moujahid, director of product management at Google, speaks at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2019 in Shanghai on August 30. Photo: Zhang Dan/GT

During the recruiting season for new graduates, many young people who are just starting out in their careers are eyeing positions in artificial intelligence (AI) - a field seen by many countries as an opportunity for leapfrogging in development. 

"The future [of AI] is going to be a battle for data and for talent," said David Wipf, a lead researcher at Microsoft Research in Beijing, Nature reported.

According to statistics released on August 19 by Washington-based technology think tank, the Center for Data Innovation, between 1998 and 2017, 1,283 foreign AI academic researchers came to the US from abroad for US industry positions, while Europe and China attracted 834 and 58 such researchers respectively.

Though the US currently boasts the largest number of AI talents, China has been striving to implement robust plans to attract more experts in this emerging field, and these efforts seem to be yielding results. 

"The situation has been changing in recent years. With the rapid development and huge investment in AI-related academic and industrial areas, China's AI market has been growing drastically in recent years. More and more researchers and scientists have been moving back to China and made great contributions," Xiao Jing, Chief Scientist of Ping An Group, told the Global Times. 

While China has been encouraging the development of AI, several industry insiders and AI scientists told the Global Times that they are worried about the growing scrutiny placed by the US on some Chinese researchers, which may impede global technical exchanges and ruin the US' reputation as the top destination of free academic research. 

Right timing

Specializing in the development and application of AI, big data mining and analysis, Xiao has been conducting research and development in AI-related areas since 1995. After receiving his doctorate degree in Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, like many Chinese who studied abroad, Xiao began working in the US. 

He then held R&D management positions at the American Research Institute of Seiko Epson, and Microsoft. So far, he has obtained more than 90 granted US patents and 60 granted Chinese patents for his inventions and published more than 80 high quality academic papers, which have been referenced 6,000 times in top journals.

After following AI research for more than 20 years, Xiao told the Global Times that he can clearly see it is time for AI to reshape and enhance the more traditional industries, such as finance and medicine. 

However, he noted that this will not be easy, especially for mature and well-established systems. 

"The China market, on the other hand, is going through drastic reform, and traditional industries are facing great opportunities and challenges in upgrading and transforming. So I figured that it would be a perfect setup for me to take full advantage of my skills and capabilities and get good career development," Xiao said, adding that one of the reasons he moved back to China was to further develop his career and better apply his expertise. 

At the same time, he acknowledged that prestigious researchers from all over the world, including China, tend to go to the US to tackle the most challenging research problems, and have come up with the most original ideas and methodologies that move the world forward.

"Take my personal experience as an example. I was able to work with and learn from the very best researchers in AI areas, for instance, my advisor Dr. Takeo Kanade, when I was at Carnegie Mellon University. From them, I learned not only the fundamental knowledge, research skills, and the most cutting-edge technologies, but also how to make the right choices and do the right things," Xiao said. 

He noted that although China is still behind in some fundamental research fields, it is catching up quickly. 

China has invested greatly in AI education in recent years. In 2017, China's State Council put forward a plan calling for an AI academic discipline to increase the country's young talent pool. The following year, the Ministry of Education launched multiple initiatives to develop 50 AI research centers and colleges, and 50 online courses by 2020. 

Currently, more than 30 Chinese universities have established AI colleges. Nanjing University has established two new majors, Machine Learning and Data Mining, and Intelligent Systems and Applications with 80 undergraduates enrolled in 2018.

Building bridges

Like Xiao, Shen Bin received his doctorate degree in the US in the 1990s and used to work on Wall Street. However, unlike Xiao, Shen is now an American citizen. 

Two years ago, Shen came back to his hometown, Shanghai, and started Siuvo Inc. to help build an AI ecosystem for hospitals in China.

"The penetration rate of Clinical Information System in China is only 30 percent, while the number for the US is 90 percent," he told the Global Times, adding that a sense of belonging and the desire to make a change motivated him to start his business in China.

In addition to Shanghai, Siuvo Inc. has an office in Princeton where talents from various countries are working on research and development of AI technology that can be applied to healthcare.

When hiring AI talents for his Princeton office, Shen has a particular preference - Chinese language ability. "Most of the employees can speak Chinese so that they can communicate with our team in China efficiently. In addition, our team shares the same mission to promote its smart healthcare in China," he said.

Commenting on the scrutiny being placed on some Chinese scientists, Shen said talent and knowledge should have no boundaries. "One of the competitive advantages of the US is its ability to attract world top talents. Maintaining its reputation as the leader of the free world is important to its ability to continue attracting top talents from around the world," he noted.

Unlike the US, China now adopts an open attitude when attracting AI talents, and seeks not only Chinese but also foreign expertise. These talents not only include AI engineers who work on code, products and data, but also business leaders. 

Jeriel Tan works at Chinese unicorn company DeepBlue as its international PR manager. As a Singaporean, he not only looks at what China is doing internally but also internationally, and at how China is contributing to and also participating in global communication. 

Tan told the Global Times that AI needs to build more bridges. "What they (the West) are doing is isolationism, which is not a very good thing for the AI industry. I think China can build more "bridges" with the US, Europe and Southeast Asia, because when you build more bridges, the flows are greater."

"So there is no longer a brain drain, but a brain exchange of sorts. I guess Chinese professors and talents might work overseas, but other people might get more interested in China as a result," Tan noted, adding that Asia is the digital technology space of the future.

Offering incentives

A survey from global top AI conference NeurIPS said that about three-quarters of Chinese AI talents are currently working outside of China, and about 85 percent of them are in the US. Industry insiders reached by the Global Times agreed that the US currently has the largest AI talent pool. 

So what is it that attracts them?

At a talent forum during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2019 held in late August in Shanghai, Zhu Mingjie, executive director of the league of young AI scientists, said that in Silicon Valley, technology, talents and career have become a closed loop. 

A Chinese Ivy League graduate who is now working at one of the leading social media companies in the US told the Global Times that the salaries for new graduates in the machine learning field in the US and China are similar, but the work culture is different. 

"The main problem for me is the serious overtime work culture in China. I heard that in some startups, the boss said if you don't work overtime, you are not my 'bro,'" the man, who asked to remain anonymous, said. 

What attracted him is also the atmosphere of innovation in Silicon Valley. He was impressed that an Uber driver who possessed several patents was looking for a partner. "Uber drivers sometimes look for partners, which shows that starting a business is pretty common in Silicon Valley," he said. 

Xiao suggested that in order to attract AI talents, China's government and Chinese companies should offer appropriate positions and supportive working environments so that they can take full advantage of their capabilities.

Competitive packages, cultivation and opportunities for career development are also important benefits. 

Thirdly, he said legislative policies, specifically for overseas talents, are needed. This includes helping them relocate comfortably with the necessary medical, housing, school and childcare support, as well as tax benefits.


Newspaper headline: Battle for talent

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus