Chinese AI companies are progressing at a dizzying pace. At least five companies developing facial recognition technologies — including SenseTime and Face++, both based in Beijing — pulled in more than $1 billion from investors in 2017. But many AI companies there are struggling to hire researchers. In 2016, the information-technology ministry estimated the country needed an additional 5 million AI workers to meet the industry’s needs.
The global pool of experienced AI talent is small. Chinese businesses also have to compete with the aggressive hiring techniques of multinational players such as Google, which some fear are draining universities of researchers by tempting them with high salaries. “It's a talent war — whoever makes the best offer wins,” says Nick Zhang, president of the Wuzhen Institute, an AI think tank in Wuzhen. He knows of experienced people getting salary offers of $1 million or more to work at the AI research centres of Chinese social-media giant Tencent or the web-services firm Baidu. “This was unimaginable five years ago,” he says.
Accomplished industry veterans might be scarce in China, but it is rich in bright, hard-working computer-science graduates who have expertise in machine learning and other AI-related fields. Peking University established the country’s first undergraduate course in AI in 2004, and since then 30 universities have introduced similar courses.
But universities are struggling to meet industry’s demands, especially because many of the best graduates leave the country. Young Chinese researchers populate AI laboratories from the United States to Israel. At a December 2017 workshop held at New York University (NYU) Shanghai, called Future Leaders of AI Retreat, almost all of the attendees were Chinese researchers working at US universities or industrial laboratories. Zhang Zheng, an AI researcher at NYU Shanghai who organized the retreat, says that he often writes letters of recommendation for Chinese students to study in the United States. “The hope is for them to return later on in their career trajectories,” he says.
There’s also stiff competition for AI researchers within China. Most of the country’s leading AI scientists go to work in industry rather than in academia, says Zhang Zheng. Wipf says that Microsoft set up in Beijing partly to hire the best graduates coming out of nearby Peking and Tsinghua universities, the nation’s premier higher-education institutions.
Last month, Google also established its own AI research centre in Beijing to attract these prodigies. Zhang Zheng says it’s good for the Chinese AI community that international companies are setting up there, because US companies such as Google and Facebook do more fundamental research compared with local tech giants, he says. “China is lacking top talent, and [working at China-based foreign research hubs] is a way to train them.”