China is funding Baidu to take on the US in deep-learning research

Baidu is stressing the “ai” in its name.
Baidu is stressing the “ai” in its name.
Image: Reuters/Barry Huang
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While US-based companies like Alphabet, IBM, Facebook, and Microsoft typically dominate US artificial-intelligence headlines, China’s government is now accelerating the country’s own contributions to the field.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission, a government agency tasked with planning economic and social strategies, will fund search giant Baidu’s development of a national deep-learning research lab, according to a post on Baidu’s Chinese WeChat account. The amount of funding was not disclosed, but Beijing-based Baidu will work with Tsinghua and Beihang universities, as well as other research Chinese institutions.

One important caveat: The laboratory won’t be a physical structure, but instead a digital network of researchers working on problems from their respective locations, according to the South Morning China Post. The research will focus on computer vision, biometric identification, intellectual property rights, and human-computer interaction.

Baidu is dedicating the head of its own Deep Learning Institute, Lin Yuanqing, to the project, as well as computer scientist Xu Wei. The Chinese Academy of scientists will also have two representatives in the lab.

Although America is not mentioned in the company’s post, Baidu chief scientist Andrew Ng has been vocal about China’s accelerated AI growth compared to the US. Citing a statistic that more papers with Chinese than American authors were accepted into the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s 2017 conference, Ng tweeted that the rise of China’s AI research community was “astonishing.” That sentiment was echoed in the company’s WeChat post announcing the new lab.

Ng chalks up the lack of credit to the media. “There are many occasions of something being simultaneously invented in China and elsewhere, or being invented first in China and then later making it overseas,” he recently told The New York Times. “But then US media reports only on the US version. This leads to a misperception of those ideas having been first invented in the US”

This view can be contentious, especially as companies all over the world compete to plant flags on technological advancements. In a December tweet, Ng claimed that China first developed neural-network based translation and was met with a response from Facebook’s head of AI research, Yann LeCun, who asked what Ng meant by claiming China developed a now-widespread product. Ng replied that he meant widespread adoption, backpedaling and noting that earlier research had been conducted by Canadian researcher Yoshua Bengio and others.