Right people provide the edge in AI
2017-09-25, OUYANG SHIJIA in Shanghai

Nearly 11 years ago, Gao Jianqing was searching for the job of his dreams. 

Fresh from the School of Computer and Information at Hefei University of Technology, in East China’s Anhui province, he was looking to break into the artificial intelligence (AI) industry.

It was a challenging period for the young graduate.

“Back then, artificial intelligence was not a subject that cropped up,” Gao said. “It would take many years before AI became a hot topic like it is today. Most of my classmates chose to work for the booming Internet and software sectors instead of choosing AI-related jobs.” 

Gao finally found the right opening to go with his passion for voice recognition technology when he joined iFlytek in 2006. The fledgling firm had an AI research institute and was at the forefront of voice recognition development. For Gao, it also had the benefit of being conveniently located in Anhui province.

Since then it has joined the ranks of the Most Innovative Growth Companies in Asia, according to Forbes, with a core business that includes speech technology research, development and marketing of software applications, system integration and hardware products.

“During the past decade, the number of AI employees at the institute has grown at a high rate,” said Gao, 34, who is now vice-president of iFlytek’s AI research institute. “We have around 500 staff in the AI research institute, up from 15 in 2005.”

In the past few years, iFlytek has set up a series of research labs with domestic and overseas universities and institutes. These include Tsinghua University in Beijing, the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui province, the Harbin Institute of Technology in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, and York University in Canada.

“Collaboration is of mutual benefit to our company and the academic world,” Gao said. “We offer business insight and data, while the schools provide cutting-edge research and expertise.

“During the cooperation process, we work together to train talented people in new AI-related skills,” he added.

IFlytek is just one company among an array of high-tech firms looking to hire artificial intelligence engineers in China.

With big data and mobile Internet technology sectors booming, the country has quickly developed a thriving AI industry. But finding the right people has been crucial to its success and vital for its future development.

Many of China’s big Internet players are looking at overseas options to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Tencent, known for its popular messaging service WeChat and gaming sites, announced in May it would open a research lab in the United States city of Seattle. Heading the operation will be Yu Dong, a former Microsoft research scientist.

Zhang Tong, director of Tencent’s core AI lab, said: “We hope the AI facility will not only be a laboratory, but also a connector to bring together the world’s leading talent.” 

Zhang was previously director of big data at search engine Baidu. And, in many ways, Tencent is following in the footsteps of Baidu. The Chinese search engine rolled out an AI lab in California’s Silicon Valley nearly three years ago and has since set up a second facility.

Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing company, has a research operation in the same area.

Naturally, signing up exceptionally talented professionals for the next wave of research and development in artificial intelligence has become a priority.

A report by networking site LinkedIn showed that out of a total of 1.9 million technical AI professionals in the world, only 50,000 work in China. As many as 850,000 are employed in the United States, which still dominates the sector, the report revealed.

Wang Di, vice-president of technology at LinkedIn China, said that China has the greatest market potential, outside the US.

Gao, of iFlytek, tends to agree with that view.

“There are sufficient AI-related professionals in terms of image recognition coming from domestic colleges and universities,” he said. “And many leading global researchers also have Chinese backgrounds, which will help us recruit them.”

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