Dr. Hongjiang Zhang: Talent Shortage in the AI Sector is a Global Challenge (Dialogue with Yang Rui)

Dr. Hongjiang Zhang recently appeared on CGTN English Channel’s “Dialogue with Yang Rui.” Dr. Zhang engaged in a fascinating discussion with host Yang Rui on the topic of “issues that have emerged during the course of the development in the artificial intelligence (AI) sector.”

During the discussion, Dr. Zhang shared insights on “how AI will bring changes to everyone’s work and life,” that “a solid foundation has been laid for the Chinese AI industry,” that “talent shortage in the AI sector is a global challenge,” and that there is an “increase in opportunities for start-ups in China’s AI sector.”

Dr. Hongjiang Zhang joined Source Code Capital as a Venture Partner in April 2017. Previously, Dr. Zhang served as CTO of Microsoft China’s R&D Group, Managing Director of the Microsoft Advanced Technology Center, and CEO of Kingsoft.

Dr. Zhang is a prominent world-class scientist on multimedia research, and a pioneer in the domain of computer video retrieval research. He is the first and only Chinese scientist to receive awards from major institutions (IEEE and ACM) for computer science professionals.

In this episode of “Dialogue with Yang Rui,” Dr. Zhang, on behalf of Source Code Capital, shared his perspectives on AI industry trends, technology, and its future developments.

Excerpts of the Dialogue are as follows:

1. AI and “The China Dream”

Yang: In recent years, we have seen tremendous developments in AI. Many experts predicted this “lightweight Internet” will bring great changes to our work and our lives. Start-ups in this area have received significant investments. Dr. Zhang, how would you comment on the impact of AI on the future of the Chinese economy?

Dr. Zhang: The discussion on AI has been heated ever since AlphaGo declared victory over human chess masters. Indeed, AI brings new development opportunities for various businesses, including many of those traditional tech companies who have already proven successful in the Internet sector. This technology can increase productivity, and in turn, generate more profits. There are different perspectives on AI and its definition. However, one can be certain that this technology will change our work and our lives in the future.

Yang: AI may help us bring “the China Dream” into reality, but it could also backfire. An article online commented that “technological development since the Cold War has caused humans to gradually lose control of it.” Do you think that AI will become a nightmare for mankind?

Dr. Zhang: My opinion happens to be the exact opposite. Let us look back to the past five centuries in the history of mankind. The first Industrial Revolution over a century ago wiped out 90-95% of agricultural jobs, but created more working opportunities that facilitated development and improvement in cities. Likewise, the IT revolution in the last three decades has brought enormous changes and created many job opportunities. The same should apply to AI – we can say it is a continuation of the Internet revolution, and I am optimistic about it.

Yang: What is the definition of AI, from your point of view?

Dr. Zhang: Let us not be overly concerned with the sophisticated textbook definition of AI. We have so far achieved various breakthroughs in the field, such as enabling machines to have judgment and thinking abilities like humans. So far, we are striving to enable machines to accomplish perception, comprehend human commands, understand human dialogue, translate from one language to another and quickly transcribe human conversations. Those are the capabilities of AI.

Yang: So far, many Chinese businesses have established automated robotic production lines. Meanwhile, the most powerful supercomputer is also in China. Do these indicate that China has surpassed other major global players and has taken the lead?

Dr. Zhang: There is little doubt that China has become a world leader in the field of mobile Internet applications, and AI is highly integrated with the mobile Internet. In fact, there are currently three driving forces within the development of AI: vast amounts of high-quality data, strong computational technologies, and the emergence of new algorithms over the past decade. Though China has built a solid foundation with these three driving forces, the U.S. still leads the world in the field of AI.

Yang: There are many vibrant start-ups in Silicon Valley, but there are also major players like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which can suffocate the development of those start-ups. Meanwhile, China also has three world-class Internet enterprises in Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba, the BAT. If you were to compare the two, would you consider China to be more competitive than the U.S. in this sector?

Dr. Zhang: Though Silicon Valley is the world leader in the fields of AI and Internet industries, China has also achieved profound accomplishments. In the past five years, mobile Internet in China has seen significant developments. Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba have gathered a tremendous amount of user data, and initiated the rapid emergence of Chinese e-Commerce and mobile payments. For instance, Meituan improved the way people dine, and Toutiao (Bytedance) pushes newsfeeds to our mobile phones based on our preferences. Nowadays, “Copy to China” has evolved into “Innovated in China” across multiple areas. China is innovating at jaw-dropping speeds. Start-ups following this trend possess many strengths and opportunities.

2. Talent shortage in AI is a global challenge

Yang: What is your opinion on the ever-growing demand for talents in the AI sector these days?

Dr. Zhang: I have spent over thirty years in high tech research, and have recently shared insights with numerous universities. I have come to the following conclusion for now: the shortage in talents in the AI sector is not just a challenge that China faces, but a global challenge, which includes the U.S. China has the largest number of graduates from engineering sciences and can integrate AI knowledge into the curriculum. However, we shall not treat AI simply as another field of science, but as a mandatory skill for students to comprehend. I personally work with various businesses, trying to help them make improvements to the Chinese education system to cultivate more talents in the AI sector.

Yang: Technological powerhouses in the U.S. offer several times more compensation compared to what Chinese corporations offer. What is your opinion on this phenomenon?

Dr. Zhang: What young people in their twenties to early thirties are looking for in a job is not the salary. The determining factor is the opportunity to develop their careers. That might be the main reason behind Chinese international students returning to China after graduating or working numerous years in the U.S.

Yang: There are still many roadblocks for China in the road to developing AI. For example, the Chinese firewall has prevented users from obtaining information from abroad. Perhaps the newer generation of Internet users are looking for more Internet freedom. Do you think China will be capable of providing sufficient opportunities for these younger users?

Dr. Zhang: For the past two decades, rapid developments in the Chinese IT industry has benefited immensely from China opening its market to the outside world, not just technological achievements. These benefits also include changes in ways of thinking and business models. Technological innovation and creativity require a more open environment that tolerates the free-flow of information and communication; this is indeed what the new generation of Internet users desire. We need to learn from the best U.S. universities, from their best companies, their brightest minds, and bring these ideas back. Therefore, opening up is a necessary condition.

Yang: You just mentioned that China has established a solid foundation in AI and could become the world leader in that field. Why do you think so?

Dr. Zhang: The development of AI benefits from these three factors: big data, computational capabilities, and the development of programs. China possesses the world’s most extensive mobile Internet user database, and can train more talents to tackle challenges in AI application fields such as the autopilot of smart vehicles in complex urban traffic environments. Also, China possesses the world’s largest number of mobile devices and the most powerful computation processing capabilities. We are already the world leader in these two sectors. Next comes cultivating talents – China has the world’s largest number of graduates from engineering sciences. In a report on AI development published by Goldman Sachs, among papers published in technology magazines in the fields of AI and deep learning, the number of Chinese authors has surpassed that of the U.S. Also, the number of Chinese authors quoted on AI and deep learning has even exceeded that of the U.S. All these foundations will facilitate the development of AI in China.

3. The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Yang: People define AI as “the fourth industrial revolution.” Who do you think will prevail in this industrial revolution and who will fail?

Dr. Zhang: AI will replace a majority of physical and mental tasks in the future. For instance, taxi drivers could be replaced by AI, and assembly line workers could be replaced by robots. However, in the service sector, such as medical services, more jobs will be created. In the meantime, through AI, the average work time per person could be reduced, and the categories, boundaries, and characteristics of work will be redefined.

Yang: Stephen Hawking, the brilliant British scientist, once claimed that the development of AI would either be a savior to humanity or the most dreadful catastrophe. What do you think about his statement?

Dr. Zhang: It is natural that the rapid development of AI and astonishing learning capabilities would cause fear. However, only very monotonous work can be completed by AI in its current state, such as dictating dialogues faster and more accurately. However, there are two primary focuses of the human brain. One controls vision and hearing, and the other integrates and processes information. The secrets behind these two mental processes are currently not fully understood, and future machines may not be able to comprehend them either.

Yang: Since the occurrence of the “9/11” terrorist attack, governments of all nations have placed significant emphasis on applying facial recognition technology to public areas, using it as an essential counter-terrorism measure. Can you give us an introduction to China’s developments in this sector?

Dr. Zhang: China has become the world leader in facial recognition technology. Chinese enterprises are highly developed in terms of system recognition, speed, and accuracy. A person can be identified from the front, the side, a movement, or a gesture. These are potent tools in tracking down terrorists. If we integrate big data and computation abilities on this basis, the outcome will be even more significant. In conclusion, China is unquestionably ahead of the world in the domain of facial recognition and has found a relatively appropriate balance between counter-terrorism and protecting personal privacy.