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China’s AI talent strategy: domestic boom, international lure

(People's Daily Online)    17:00, April 12, 2018

Sourcing skilled researchers remains a major bottleneck in the global advancement of AI. This holds even true for China, a country that vows to become a leading AI power by 2030. Progressing at a dizzying pace, China’s AI industry has now entered a battle of top-tier AI talents, with a focus on AI education and international brain gain.

According to the AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities, which was issued by China’s Ministry of Education in April, Chinese colleges and universities will become the world frontiers in AI and a hotbed for AI talents by 2030, while 50 world class AI textbooks, 50 national-level high quality online AI courses and 50 AI research centers will be established by 2020.

As for introducing foreign talents, Zhongguancun, China’s AI hub in Beijing, has offered permanent residence to 258 foreigners since 2016, a generous number for a country that has one of the world’s strictest immigration policies.

“It is a common sense that artificial intelligence will be the key technology that underpins national power in the future, and the future of AI lies in skilled talents and enormous data,” said Aron Niu, a Beijing-based AI researcher.

Talent growth

Boasting the world’s largest internet market with over 700 million web users, China’s AI industry is uncharacteristically low in talents. According to a report released by LinkedIn, of the 1.9 million AI talents in the world, China only accounts for just over 50,000 of them, while the U.S., which tops the rankings, has an AI talent pool of 850,000 individuals.

Seeing AI as the country’s innovation focus, China in 2017 issued the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, in which it listed accelerating the education of top-notch AI talents as a primary task.

“We hope to cultivate our own scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the field of AI, making them the top-notch experts worldwide. China’s AI development needs more scientists, but skilled engineers are also important,” Zheng Nanning, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, told Science and Technology Daily.

The government’s focus on AI education has paid off. In 2017, 19 Chinese universities have added AI engineering as a new major for their undergraduate students, while the number is expected to reach 50 over the next two years.

In addition to professional education, AI classes have also entered elementaries and middle schools in China. According to China’s AI report in 2017, more AI-related coding courses will be set up at the elementary and secondary school levels over the next decade, helping the public better understand AI technologies.

“The governments’ emphasis on AI education will encourage more students to choose AI as their major, leading to a significant rise in the number of AI researchers and engineers in China,” said Niu.

Talents grab

While cultivating its own talents, China has also been making effort to lure skilled AI researchers and engineers worldwide. According to Reuters, China’s Zhongguancun now has 10 overseas liaison offices designed to attract tech talents in countries like the U.S. and Finland, favorable policies, such as allowing foreign professionals to bring in their own foreign maids, currently illegal in Beijing, are also being discussed further.

The amount of public funding available to researchers and competitive salaries might be a major factor that makes China an attractive place for top-tier AI talents. China received about 180 billion yuan ($28 billion) of investment and financing in the field of AI in 2017, vowing to bring the value of core AI industries to more than one trillion yuan by 2030.

“As a senior engineer, my salary before tax has reached 40,000 yuan per month, which is quite lucrative even for engineers in western countries,” said Niu.

The favorable policy and abundant investment has led to more foreign AI talents to China. According to LinkedIn, there are around 140,000 Chinese AI technical talents worldwide, with half of them working in the U.S, but the number of such individuals returning to China has been on the rise. From 2013 to 2016, the number of returnees who have overseas work experience grew by 10 percent every year. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Kou Jie, Bianji)

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