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Enterprise and education must combine to nurture sector's development

By HOU LIQIANG/ZHENG JINQIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2018-02-05 09:37

Greater cooperation between universities and businesses is essential to nurture future generations of artificial intelligence talent in China, according to an expert.

In addition to accomplished AI specialists, the country also needs people capable of transforming the business model to make the development of AI sustainable, said Zheng Nanning, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, in an exclusive interview with China Daily.

"The development of AI rests on two fundamental factors: big data and excellent computational capability. Those things are difficult for universities to achieve, so we have to rely on help from businesses," said Zheng, a former president of Xi'an Jiaotong University in Shaanxi province.

Companies such as search engine giant Baidu accumulate huge amounts of data through their commercial activities, which will aid academics conducting AI research, he added.

In June, Jiaotong University signed an agreement to form a strategic partnership with tech giant Microsoft, which will see trial classes launched in computer science and AI technology. "We are cooperating with Chinese businesses such as internet giants Alibaba Group and Baidu Inc, along with new companies such as Megvii Technology Inc (an internet startup that specializes in facial recognition equipment)," he said.

The collaboration features joint research and teaching programs, including course design and opportunities for students to work in advanced laboratories.

"We have to admit that businesses are far ahead of universities in many areas. Many of the technical papers we use are produced by Google Labs, and I also read papers by scientists involved with Facebook," Zheng added.

In China, AI has become a buzzword, and the sector was even included in Premier Li Keqiang's 2017 Government Work Report. In July, the State Council, China's Cabinet, issued a blueprint aimed at making the country the world leader in AI technology and applications by 2030.

Zheng, one of 19 academicians who proposed the guideline, said the education sector has to transform the way it nurtures talent, especially by updating teaching methods and course content to meet the goal.

He also noted that there is a shortage of expert engineers and innovative people capable of leading the sector's development.

"However, we cannot simply say the lack of innovative AI talent will be the development bottleneck for the industry, because its development will require policy support from the government," he added.

"The sustainable development of some of the latest technologies actually depends on the business model," he said, citing WeChat as an example.

When the instant-messaging platform was launched in 2011, many people felt its business model was poor and would hamper its chances of success. However, Pony Ma, chairman and CEO of Tencent Holdings, which launched the platform, is now one of China's wealthiest people as a direct result of WeChat's dominance.

According to Zheng, China needs to transform traditional university majors by combining them with information and AI technologies.

Though the country has made few achievements in disruptive technologies-those that displace established technologies and redefine entire industries-its AI development has attracted attention from scientists, he said.

Meanwhile, the population of 1.4 billion will generate vast amounts of data that will provide impetus for the sector's development.

Zheng Jinqiang contributed to the story.

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