China's AI application at forefront of the world, fully capable of building an independent talent cultivation chain: Turing Award Winner
Published: Jun 20, 2024 08:14 PM
Editor's Note:

Chinese people believe that letters are as valuable as gold. For thousands of years, letters, across mountains and oceans, have been delivering the writers' sentiments and conveying friendship and expectations.

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Chinese president, has managed to find time to reply to some letters from different sectors of the society and different parts of the world despite his busy work schedule.

Through his letters, Xi has corresponded with people from all walks of life on numerous occasions, part of a series of excellent stories of China in the new era. 

Therefore, the Global Times traced and contacted some of the recipients of Xi's letters to hear the inspiring stories behind the letters and their communications with the Chinese president. 

In this installment, Chinese Turing Award winner Andrew Chi-Chih Yao shared with the Global Times his 20 years of dedicated work to promote talent cultivation and innovation for the development of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) industries in China at the Tsinghua University.

Andrew Chi-Chih Yao gives a lesson to students at Tsinghua University. Photo: Courtesy of Tsinghua University

Andrew Chi-Chih Yao (center) gives a lesson to students at Tsinghua University. Photo: Courtesy of Tsinghua University

"The affirmation and encouragement from President Xi Jinping have made me feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders even heavier," a Chinese computer scientist from the Tsinghua University Andrew Chi-Chih Yao told the Global Times after receiving a reply letter from President Xi on June 11. 

In the letter, Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, encouraged Yao, who is also a Turing Award winner and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to further contribute to the nation's talent development and sci-tech innovation.

Xi conveyed greetings to Yao, acknowledging his unwavering dedication and remarkable achievements in the realms of teaching and scientific innovation over the past two decades, during which Yao channeled his love for the nation into a commitment to serve it, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Xi expressed the hope that Yao could adhere to his original aspiration and leverage his strengths to further explore approaches to the cultivation of innovative talent, and foster interdisciplinary integration and frontier innovation, in order to make more contributions to achieving high-level self-reliance and strength in science and technology and the building of a strong nation in both education and science and technology.

Glorious years

"I was extremely excited to receive a reply from President Xi, and even more inspired!" Yao shared his feelings with the Global Times after receiving Xi's reply letter. 

Yao, 78, is the only Chinese computer scientist who won the Turing Award, which is dubbed the Nobel Prize in computer science. 

Yao taught at American universities for a long time and returned to China in 2004 to join the faculty at Tsinghua University in 2004. He is now the dean of College of AI and also the dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences under Tsinghua University.

In a letter sent to President Xi, Yao detailed his work in talent cultivation and scientific innovation during his two-decade tenure, and expressed his determination to contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

"I really appreciate President Xi's high praise and affirmation of my work in China for the past 20 years. Since returning to my homeland, I have always held a firm confidence in China's development. I have never forgotten my original intention to contribute to our country and build a better future," Yao said.

At Tsinghua University, Yao has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to nurturing top talents and promoting interdisciplinary innovation. "Being able to contribute my modest efforts to China's great rejuvenation is something I take immense pride in and consider to be the greatest honor of my life," he told the Global Times.  

Yao noted that he would lead his team in actively exploring innovate models for talent development in accordance with the directives of President Xi. He aims to advance the field of computer science and foster interdisciplinary innovation, striving to establish a competitive advantage in high-level talent cultivation.

"The independent cultivation of high-level talents is a major strategic goal for the long-term development of our nation and people. As Xi points out, China has the world's largest higher education system and a broad stage for the development of various undertakings, fully capable of continuously nurturing a large number of outstanding talents and cultivating masters. My team and I will certainly follow President Xi's instructions, forge ahead with innovation, and make every effort to establish a competitive advantage in cultivating high-level talents," Yao said.

At the same time, Yao said he would continue to lead his team in actively creating a research ecosystem conducive to original innovation, aiming at strategic heights in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, and making new and greater contributions to achieving high-level scientific and technological self-reliance and building a strong country in education and science and technology.

Dedicated efforts

Yao received the Turing Award in 2000. When the whole world was expecting him to obtain greater achievements in the US after receiving the prize, Yao made a decision that surprised everyone: he sold his house in the US, resigned from his tenured position at Princeton University, and joined Tsinghua University. 

"Coming back to do something for the construction of a world-class university in China, and to do something for the cultivation of computer talents in China, I think this stems from a natural emotional connection," Yao told media when talking about his decision to return to China.

Yao lived in the US for 36 years, but his love for his motherland never changed.

"No matter where a person is, no matter when, we will never forget that we are Chinese. Being able to cultivate talents in China and make breakthroughs in cutting-edge technology in China means a lot to us," he said.

Soon after his return, Yao started to think about a question: how can a university cultivate students with creativity, imagination, and the ability to make new contributions? He turned his attention to undergraduate students: hoping to have a special class specifically for cultivating top undergraduate students in the field of computer science.

In the spring of 2005, Yao established Experimental Class of Computer Science, commonly known as the "Yao Class," at Tsinghua University, with the first 59 students selected from the freshman and sophomore classes of the whole school. 

"Our goal is not to cultivate ordinary computer software programmers, but to cultivate top-notch computer talents with international standards," Yao said at the opening of the class.

This class was named after Yao's surname, and he poured all his efforts into it. He personally formulated training programs and teaching plans for the students, carefully designed the courses, and taught some himself. 

Some people believe that "Chinese students lack creativity," but Yao believes that the education in China during primary and secondary school is successful, and the creativity of Chinese students is by no means inferior to others.

Some students recalled Yao's classroom in this way: even if he realized from the beginning that the solution proposed by a classmate was wrong, he would not interrupt, but encourage the student to continue demonstrating until they discovered their mistake on their own. "He never criticizes us, just encourages, and encourages again," some of his students told media. 

As research in AI heats up, Yao founded an elite AI program (the Zhi Class) in 2019. In 2021, the quantum information class at Tsinghua University also officially started enrolling students under the leadership of Yao. 

Furthermore, Yao has also founded the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences, and the Center for Quantum Information at Tsinghua. In April, the Tsinghua College of AI was officially established and Yao became the first dean.

The Tsinghua College of AI focuses on two cutting-edge directions: "Core AI" and "AI +" and aims to build a platform base to gather and cultivate top talent. "I am deeply aware of the significant responsibility and honor to be appointed as the founding dean," Yao noted. 

Staff test a robot at the 2024 World Intelligence Expo in North China's Tianjin on June 18. Photo: VCG

Staff test a robot at the 2024 World Intelligence Expo in North China's Tianjin on June 18, 2024. Photo: VCG

Brighter tomorrow

China's AI industry has entered a period of rapid development in recent years, making the country a main target of the US' series of efforts to maintain its hegemony in the field of AI.  

According to data released by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, the core AI industry in China reached a scale of 508 billion yuan ($70 billion) in 2022, an increase of 18 percent year-on-year. The academy's statistics also indicate that the scale reached 578.4 billion yuan in 2023, with a growth rate of 13.9 percent, according to Xinhua.  

Wang Zhongyuan, President of Beijing-based Zhiyuan Research Institute, predicted that China's large models will be able to reach or even surpass the level of GPT-4 in the second half of 2024. "As a result, we will enter a period of explosive growth in applications, which will bring commercial opportunities in various scenarios," Wang told media recently. 

But the US' latest restrictions would not hinder China's development in AI in a long run, Wang noted. "In the past few decades, China has already established a solid foundation in AI talent reserves and talent growth rate. Even if the US truly bans it in the future, it will not hinder the development of Chinese AI technology. Ultimately, the US will have to choose to cooperate with China, especially when it comes to reaching the AGI (artificial general intelligence) stage, where global cooperation is needed to jointly manage the risks brought by AI," Wang said.

In October 2023, in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, President Xi announced that China would launch the Global AI Governance Initiative, which presents a constructive approach to addressing universal concerns over AI development and governance and drew up blueprints for relevant international discussions and rule-making.

China also launched an AI Plus initiative in its Government Work Report during this year's two sessions in March, which observers said is aimed to effectively apply AI to all aspects of the national economy.

As early as 2017, China formulated and implemented a development plan for the new generation of AI, clearly stating that by 2030, the overall theory, technology, and applications of AI in China would reach the world's leading level, making China a major innovation center for artificial intelligence in the world.

The country now is vigorously exploring new models and paths for the development of AI, with Chinese cities stepping up efforts to boost their AI industries and Chinese top universities enhancing measures to cultivate talent in this field. In addition to Tsinghua University, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University established a school of AI in April and the Harbin Institute of Technology established a school of AI on Monday. 

Some observers pointed out that compared to the world's top level, there is still a certain gap in the development of AI technology in China, especially in terms of computing power, algorithms, and data. Seizing the opportunity to empower industrial transformation and upgrading with AI – in specific, grasping the laws of the mutual promotion and interaction between science and technology and market demand - is key to promoting the construction of talent teams and disciplines, observers noted. 

Talking about the future of the development of AI technologies and AI talent cultivation in China, Yao showed full confidence.  

"In the past 20 years, especially in the last decade, China's various undertakings have developed rapidly, obtaining a series of landmark achievements and accomplishing many important long-term tasks. Currently, China is at the forefront of AI applications in the world, and has entered the top ranks in theoretical breakthroughs and original innovation," Yao said.

However, these advances have yet to coalesce into major breakthroughs. "I believe that with our solid foundation in AI theory and technology as well as our continuous innovation in talent cultivation models, we are fully capable of creating a self-sustaining pipeline for cultivating high-level talent," Yao noted.

Yao also called for more efforts to managing AI risks in an era of rapid progress.

"AI is advancing rapidly, and the global industry is vigorously investing in generative AI. With the improvement of capabilities and automation, the power of AI may advance by leaps and bounds, bringing various crises including social harm, malicious abuse, and surpassing human control. Although scholars have sounded the alarm, there is still a lack of consensus on how to manage these crises. The societal response, despite promising first steps, fails to keep pace with the rapid, transformative progress that is expected by many experts," he said. 

"AI security governance is a concern shared by many countries around the world. China must develop its own AI governance research while also emphasizing cooperation with international experts. We need to address immediate needs and look ahead to the most critical directions for the next 5-10 years. By harnessing technological means to control AI, we can ensure it enhances human life rather than endangering human civilization," Yao noted.