China steps up battle for AI supremacy

Tens of thousands being recruited as Beijing aims to be No. 1 in artificial intelligence field

BEIJING • China's war for technology talent is intensifying.

Tens of thousands of people are being recruited to shore up cybersecurity, help censor online content, and try to make China No. 1 in the application of artificial intelligence (AI), as capital pours into start-ups and more mature businesses at a time when the government is demanding rapid development.

"Companies are well-funded and are in serious competition for talent," said Mr Thomas Liang, a former executive at Chinese search giant Baidu who is now running an AI-focused fund. He said that startups in hot sectors such as AI often have to offer 50-100 per cent pay raises to attract employees away from established technology firms.

China's emergence as a global centre for technology, with champions such as Alibaba and Tencent now worth more than a trillion dollars combined, has led to a recruitment boom and wage growth - mostly in big cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen - that start to put salaries for the top talent within striking distance of those in Silicon Valley.

Output in China's infotech and software sector, a major driver of growth, expanded by 33.8 per cent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, compared with 29 per cent growth in the third quarter, according to data from the statistics bureau.

In China, top graduates working on AI can make 300,000 yuan (S$61,901) to 600,000 yuan a year, according to tech recruitment website, while team leaders with three to five years of experience can earn more than 1.5 million yuan annually.

Mr Liang estimates that salaries in the industry have roughly doubled since 2014.

Meanwhile, an AI researcher in San Francisco makes an average of US$112,659 (S$147,141) a year, and a machine learning engineer earns an average of US$150,815, according to job search site

For Chinese software engineers educated in the United States but now worrying about the impact of President Donald Trump's immigration policies on their chances of retaining visas, returning home is becoming more appealing.

Chinese tech firms say they actively recruit Chinese students from US colleges, and many have opened offices in Silicon Valley to attract top talent.

The boom in AI work is prompting some to retrain in China.

"I doubled my salary by making the AI jump," said a 26-year-old AI-engineer in Beijing who now makes about US$55,000 a year after taking AI training courses.

More than US$65 billion of venture capital investments were made in Greater China last year, up 35 per cent from a year earlier, according to research firm Preqin, an all-time high and second only to North America, with US$77 billion.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress last year that China will push for the integration of the Internet, big data and AI with the traditional economy - all part of a government push to move the Chinese economy up the value chain with a particular focus on tech fields.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2018, with the headline China steps up battle for AI supremacy. Subscribe