Google opening AI centre in China

Internet giant to tap China's vast talent pool as it bids to master the 'future of computing'

BEIJING* Google announced yesterday that it will open a new artificial intelligence (AI) research centre in Beijing, tapping China's talent pool in the promising technology despite the US search giant's exclusion from the country's Internet.

AI, especially machine learning, has been an area of intense focus for American tech stalwarts Google, Microsoft and Facebook, and their Chinese rivals Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu as they bid to master what many consider the future of computing.

AI research has the potential to boost innovations in self-driving cars and automated factories, translation products and facial recognition software, among others.

Google's move to open a Beijing office focused on fundamental research is an indication of China's AI talent, widely seen as being neckand- neck with the United States in research capability.

''Chinese authors contributed 43 per cent of all content in the top 100 AI journals in 2015,'' researcher Li Feifei, who is leading the new centre, wrote in a blog post on Google's website. ''We've already hired some top experts.''

Ms Li noted that Chinese engineers formed the backbones of the winning teams in the past three ImageNet Challenges, an international AI competition to test which computing technology is better at recognising and categorising pictures.

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Chinese authors contributed 43 per cent of all content in the top 100 AI journals in 2015... We've already hired some top experts, and will be working to build the team in the months ahead.

MS LI FEIFEI, a researcher leading the new centre, in a blog post on Google's website.

Chinese search engine Baidu's team was banned for a year for breaking the rules during the 2015 competition.

China's large population as well as strong mathematics and sciences education have nurtured a slew of engineering talent. Many of the engineers land up in Beijing's burgeoning AI tech start-up scene, supported by universities and government- affiliated institutes.

Ms Yuan Jirui of SeetaTech, a start-up, pointed out that ''AI education is expanding to high schools and middle schools''.

AI companies in China suck up personal data from the massive population and use it to train machine learning algorithms - but Google, locked out of the Internet, has little user data to pull from in the country. For now it is focusing on making use of Chinese talent.

Roughly half of Google's 600 employees in China are engineers working on global products, said company spokesman Taj Meadows.

Its job board in China shows about a dozen openings in the AI field. The China centre will join Google's other research facilities outside of its Silicon Valley hub, including in New York, Toronto, London and Zurich.

Google's search engine and many of its services are blocked by China's Great Firewall, but Internet regulators have recently allowed access to its translation product, one that has made leaps and bounds in accuracy by incorporating the company's AI research.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Google opening AI centre in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe