China’s battle for top AI talent heats up as JD.com creates new research and development unit
Online retail giant’s latest recruit, Pei Jian, previously served as AI product team leader at telecoms equipment maker Huawei’s cloud computing arm
JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce company, has joined the fierce competition on the mainland for top talent in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), as it set up a new research and development operation.
The Nasdaq-listed company said it has named Pei Jian, who was a leading big data researcher and computing science professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, to head its recently established data platform and product research and development department.
Pei may be one of the most sought-after AI talent recruited in China since he previously served as AI product team leader at the cloud computing arm of Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker.
A Huawei spokesman on Monday said the departure of Pei will not affect the company’s own AI strategy.
“Huawei has a global research and development team of more than 800,000 professionals, including hundreds of AI experts,” the spokesman said. “The global market for AI talent is very competitive, but Huawei’s proposition for AI experts to join our business is also very compelling.”
In his new role as a vice-president at JD.com, Pei will report directly to company founder and chief executive Richard Liu Qiangdong.
Pei will focus on exploring ways on how to leverage big data to empower JD.com’s businesses and external partners. He will also supervise smart supply chain innovation at the company.
“Professor Pei has strong research abilities and broad insights on artificial intelligence … And he will help raise the company’s technology to a new level,” said Liu.
JD.com, in which Tencent Holdings owns a significant stake, has escalated its recruitment of AI talents in recent months amid efforts to further advance its retail and logistics operations.
Peng Jian, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joined JD.com last month as the chief adviser at its Finance AI lab.
Other recent JD.com recruits included former Amazon chief scientist Bo Liefeng and former IBM chief scientist Zhou Bowen, as well as former Microsoft Asia-Pacific technology chairman Shen Yuanqing.
Since early last year, the Chinese government expressed its intention to help foster the country’s next stage of economic growth through AI.
Last November, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology identified internet giants Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent – the Chinese triumvirate collectively known under the acronym BAT – among the first group of companies to spur development of next-generation AI technologies that will be vital to a range of innovation, from voice-activated digital assistants at home to self-driving cars.
New York-listed Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, said in October that it would invest US$15 billion over the next three years into “cutting-edge technology”, including AI, through its new research effort called Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook (Damo) Academy.
With more than 60 years of international development behind it, AI is an umbrella term covering several technologies that include machine learning, cognitive computing, natural language processing and so-called neural networks. Machine learning, for instance, is a type of AI focused on computer programs that have the ability to learn when exposed to new data.
Last year, the Chinese government announced its national development plan, which included building up a highly competitive AI industry that would be worth 1 trillion yuan (US$154 billion) by 2030.
China, however, is suffering from a serious shortage of qualified people who will help drive its ambition to become a global leader in AI. That has prompted a fierce search for AI talent in the domestic market and overseas.
There is a global AI talent pool of about 300,000 people, while the actual requirement by industry number in the millions, according to a recent study from Tencent Research Institute.
It found that about one-third of the available AI talent pool is spread across 367 colleges or universities around the world, with the United States accounting for about 46 per cent of those, while China only has 20 universities doing AI research.
Additional reporting by Li Tao