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Google AI chief scientist calls China an 'important country' for AI

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-12-20 13:17

BEIJING — "China is a rising country of AI work and research," said Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of Artificial Intelligence (AI)and Machine Learning (ML) at Google Cloud, calling for enhanced AI cooperation between major countries.

Li made the remarks in a recent exclusive interview with Xinhua at Google's Beijing office. Just last week, Li announced that Google would launch a new AI research center in Beijing, as part of its AI First strategy.

Why Google AI China Center?

When asked what prompted Google to make the decision to open its center in the Chinese capital, Li said: "We all recognize the importance of China because of its talent, because of the incredible creativity and innovation that are already going on here."

The Google AI China Center, the first of its kind in Asia, will primarily focus on basic AI research.

"We've seen China is paying a lot of attention to AI in terms of research, entrepreneurship, usage in industry as well as government support," Li said, noting that the Chinese government issued a plan for the development of "the new generation of AI" in July, and recently announced a three-year action plan.

"China is really a rising major country, with more prominent global responsibility in technology, politics and culture," said the leading AI expert, adding that promoting cooperation between major countries will bring "extraordinary benefits" for all human beings.

She acknowledged that AI is viewed by some as a new source of compeition between countries. However, as a scientist, Li said she believes science has no national boundary, and she hopes to see more cooperation and communication across borders.

Li also noted there is a shortage worldwide for AI talents, no matter in the United States or China.

"I hope to mobilize global talents to participate in the research of AI because it's such an important science and technology field," she said.

When asked about the potential for women in the field, the female scientist said more work is needed. "AI will change the world, but who will change AI? We want AI to be more inclusive and diverse."

Historic moment: From lab to industry

Li, who is also the Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, has made a successful transition from academics.

"I've seen the historical moment AI is going through: it has stepped out of the lab and has entered the stage of industrial application," she told Xinhua.

Li is certainly at the heart of the historical moment.

"I hope to bring AI technology to the most people and the most industries," she said, adding that this will have a profound impact on day-to-day living.

Known for AI research in computer vision, Li said technology in this area has become relatively mature, especially facial recognition and object tracking technology, which have been used in smart shopping, driverless cars and medical imaging and pathological analysis.

Potential application scenarios for AI are beyond count, Li said.

Financial services, media and entertainment, business, medical treatment, energy, education and manufacturing, among others, are deemed especially ripe for future growth.

"AI's promoting for the development of these industries has just started, but look at the massive demand."

What about entirely new industries that might be spawned through AI?

"When John von Neumann generated the idea for a computer, people never thought of software engineering as an industry," she said. "We need an adequate imagination."

Smart machine vs smart human

Commenting on the recent debate on whether AI will one day replace human intelligence, Li said the threat is overblown.

She cited a famous saying in the 1970s to clarify her view: The definition of today's AI is a computer that can make a perfect chess move while the room is on fire.

This means AI can accomplish plenty, such as memorizing 3,000 car models, but it doesn't understand the environment and context of every scenario, Li said.

"As a scientist, I want to keep the humbleness when I think about AI as a science as well as a technology," Li said. "So it's important to recognize AI as a very very young field. It still has a lot of open questions and challenges."

However, AI can play an important role in many areas with more human-machine cooperation, Li noted.

In cases such as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, robots would have been more ideal to replace human beings in dangerous disaster relief work, she said.

Smart machines can also assist human beings in repetitive labor, Li said. For example, doctors can only diagnose a limited number of medical images, but machines can process a lot more at a likely lower cost and within a shorter time. This would allow doctors to conduct more valuable research and communicate more with patients, work that can't be replaced by AI.

"Machines don't have independent value," Li said. "The value of machines is the value of human beings."

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