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AI industry in need of a helping hand

By Ouyang Shijia | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-13 07:29
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Audiences sit on "floating platforms" during a TV program about artificial intelligence at a China Central Television studio in Beijing. [Photo/Xinhua] 

Finding the right staff is the biggest challenge as Chinese companies expand the artificial intelligence frontier and compete globally

Gao Jianqing was searching for the job of his dreams nearly 11 years ago.

Fresh from graduating at the School of Computer and Information at Hefei University of Technology, he was looking to break into the artificial intelligence industry.

It was a challenging period, a brain-teaser as complex as AI.

"Back then, artificial intelligence was not a subject that cropped up," Gao recalled about his time after leaving college in East China's Anhui province.

"It would take many years before AI became a hot topic like it is today. Most of my classmates chose to work for the booming internet and software sectors instead of choosing AI-related jobs," he added.

Gao finally found the right opening to go with his passion for voice recognition technology and joined iFlytek Co Ltd in 2006.

The fledgling firm had an AI research institute and was at the forefront of voice recognition development, as well as being in Anhui province.

Since then it has developed into one of Forbes' Most Innovative Growth Companies in Asia with a core business which includes speech technology research, development and marketing of software applications, system integration and hardware products.

"During the past decade, the number of AI employees at the institute has grown at a high rate," said Gao, 34, who is now vice-president of iFlytek's AI research institute.

"We have around 500 staff in AI research institute, up from 15 in 2005," he added.

Last month, the Shenzhen-listed company reported that revenue in the first half of the year increased 43.79 percent to 2.1 billion yuan ($324 million) compared to the same period in 2016.

Gross profit came in at 1.03 billion yuan during the first six months, a jump of 46.99 percent.

But net profit dropped 58.11 percent to 107.28 million yuan as the firm invested heavily on expanding its operation.

Part of that included an aggressive hiring policy to attract the brightest and the best to work on smart voice technology projects and other AI ventures.

In the past few years, iFlytek has even set up a series of research labs with domestic and overseas universities and institutes.

These include the Tsinghua University in Beijing, the University of Science and Technology of China in Anhui province, the Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang province and York University in Canada.

"Collaboration is of mutual benefit to our company and the academic world," Gao said. "We offer business insight and data, while the schools provide cutting-edge research and expertise.

"During the cooperation process, we work together to train talented people in new AI-related skills," he added.

IFlytek is only one company among an array of high-tech firms looking to hire artificial intelligence engineers in China.

With big data and mobile internet technology sectors booming, the country has quickly developed a thriving AI industry.

But finding the right people has been crucial to its success and vital for its future development.

Many of China's big internet players are looking at overseas options to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Tencent Holdings Ltd, known for its popular messaging service WeChat and gaming sites, announced in May it would open a research lab in the United States city of Seattle.

Heading the operation will be former Microsoft research scientist Yu Dong.

"We hope the AI facility will not only be a laboratory, but also a connector to bring together the world's leading talent," said Zhang Tong, director of Tencent's core AI lab and former big data director at Baidu Inc.

In many ways, Tencent is following in the footprints of Baidu. The Chinese search engine rolled out an AI lab in Silicon Valley nearly three years ago and has since set up a second facility.

Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing has a research operation in the same area.

Naturally, signing up exceptionally talented professionals for the next wave of R&D in artificial intelligence has become a priority.

A report by networking site LinkedIn showed that out of a total of 1.9 million technical AI professionals in the world only 50,000 work in China.

Up to 850,000 are employed in the United States, which still dominates the sector, the report revealed.

But apart from the US, China has the greatest market potential, Wang Di, vice-president of technology at Linked-In China, pointed out.

Gao, of iFlytek, tended to agree with that view.

"There are sufficient AI-related professionals in terms of image recognition coming from domestic colleges and universities," he said.

"And many leading global researchers also have Chinese backgrounds, which will help us recruit them," he added.

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