Artificial intelligence

Ant Financial staff take to online courses to learn AI

AI training has taken off in China over the past year, as the government emphasises technology as a national priority

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 10:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 December, 2017, 10:48am

Online courses are finding a new source of demand from large technology companies like China’s Ant Financial, which need to keep their employees updated on the latest knowledge but can’t pack their staff off to lengthy courses.

Employees at Ant Financial, an affiliate of Alibaba Group, are encouraged to sign up for courses on Coursera, the online education network cofounded in 2012 by Andrew Ng, the former chief scientist of Baidu and leader of the Google Brain deep learning project.

Coursera provides technology-related courses ranging from statistics to algorithms, from deep learning to data science taught by professors from Stanford University to Princeton.

“Future generation of talent must pivot to AI and data,” Hu Xi, Ant Financial vice-president, said in an interview in Wuzhen, where he was attending the annual World Internet conference. “You may not be able to develop algorithms, but you need to at least to have AI instincts, know the difference between the technologies and how AI can be applied to improve output.”

Born in 1981, the English major joined Alipay in 2007 and worked his way up from a programmer to become the youngest partner of Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Ant Financial, which is behind the Alipay network, is expanding into areas like credit scoring. It has a dedicated AI team of more than 300, and computer engineers account half of its total staff of more than 8,000.

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AI training has taken off in China over the past year, as the government emphasises technology as a national priority, laying out a goal to make the country an “innovation centre for AI” by 2030.

Globally, large technology companies, including Google and Facebook in the US and Tencent and Baidu in China, are investing billions of dollars into the research and development of AI.

A shortage of talent, though, is becoming a serious concern.

There is a global AI talent pool of about 300,000 people, while the actual needs by industry number in the millions, according to a report from Tencent Research Institute. Among the 300,000, there are fewer than 1,000 who are considered capable of steering the direction of AI research and development.

Hu said Ant Financial is learning from Google to set up an on-the-job training project so that each employee can develop their own study plan.

“I would chat with AI talent to know what they are studying and spread the latest learning sources and ideas among colleagues,” Hu said. “AI requires systematic studies. As the technologies evolve so fast, what we used to learn is far from enough.”