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Future tech

China’s first ‘deep learning lab’ intensifies challenge to US in artificial intelligence race

Search giant Baidu to head up research platform to develop technology that mimics human thought

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 9:46am

Beijing has given the green light for the creation of China’s very first ‘national laboratory for deep learning’, in a move that could help the country to surpass the United States in developing artificial intelligence (AI).

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) recently approved the plan to set up a national engineering ‘lab’ for researching and implementing deep learning technologies. The lab will not have a physical presence, instead taking the form of a research network predominantly based online.

Regarded as one of the most exciting and fastest-growing areas of AI, deep learning - a subdivision of machine learning - involves feeding data through virtual neural networks designed to mimic the human brain’s decision-making process, in order to solve problems and recognise images and sounds.

It is seen by many as the key to elevating AI to something approximating human intelligence, and is already credited with major breakthroughs in technologies such as voice recognition in smartphones.

The NDRC has commissioned Baidu, operator of the country’s biggest online search engine, to lead the charge in creating the lab, working in partnership with China’s elite Tsinghua and Beihang universities, as well as other Chinese research institutes.

Beijing-based Baidu confirmed on its official WeChat account on Monday that the lab will focus on seven areas of research including machine learning-based visual recognition, voice recognition, new types of human machine interaction and deep learning intellectual property. The overarching goal, it stated, is to “boost China’s overall competence in artificial intelligence”.

Baidu did not reveal the size of the investment involved nor the likely scale of the lab, which will be headed by the company’s deep-learning institute chief Lin Yuanqing and scientist Xu Wei, as well as Zhang Bo and Li Wei, academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The lab is expected to help China make bigger waves in the competitive field of AI, a technology often regarded as a holy grail of the digital era and a key area in which Chinese researchers and enterprises are rapidly closing the gap on their western counterparts.

In October, the Obama administration released a “strategic plan” for AI research, which noted that China had overtaken the US, leading the world in journal articles on deep learning, a sub-discipline of AI research.

“About 40 per cent of the leading b AI research papers in the world are published by the Chinese. The really top-level AI experts are still those from North America and the UK, but the Chinese are expected to get better and better with their quick learning and the improvement of platforms they work for,” said veteran tech investor Lee Kai-fu, founder of Chinese venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures.

“The large number of science and engineering college students in China give the country a unique advantage in AI development.”

A former senior executive for Google and Microsoft in China, Lee is among the growing number of Chinese venture capitalists that are betting big on AI.

In terms of application, it is viewed by internet giants and start-ups alike as a must-have technology that will eventually replace people and increase efficiency in a string of industries from manufacturing and finance to the military.

Baidu has already made serious headway in AI, specifically in its autonomous driving systems and chatbots. The firm has ambitions to be a “global leader in AI” and recently hired former Microsoft executive Qi Lu with that goal in mind.

Tencent, which runs China’s largest online social and entertainment network, has set up its own AI research labs to monitor fashion trends and other patterns based on the huge amounts of data it extracts from its millions of customers.

“As an open platform itself, the national lab will help more Chinese researchers, companies and universities to access the most advanced AI technologies in China,” said Yu Kai, the former head of Baidu’s deep learning institute.

Having set up an AI start-up in China himself, Yu said despite the rapid rise of the discipline in China, there is still a long way to go before the country overtakes the US as a worldwide leader in AI.

“The US has been developing AI for decades. It has a great ecosystem which is made of big name companies, universities and engineers,” he said.