Each winter, hundreds of AI researchers from around the world convene at the annual meeting of the Association of the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Last year, a minor crisis erupted over the schedule, when AAAI announced that 2017’s meeting would take place in New Orleans in late January. The location was fine. The dates happened to conflict with Chinese New Year.
The holiday might not have been a deal breaker in the past, but Chinese researchers have become so integral to the meeting, it could not go on without them. They had to reschedule. “Nobody would have put AAAI on Christmas day,” says current AAAI president Subbarao Kambhampati. “Our organization had to almost turn on a dime and change the conference venue to hold it a week later.”
The 2017 AAAI meeting—which ultimately relocated to San Francisco—wrapped up just last week. And as expected, Chinese researchers had a strong showing in the historically U.S.-dominated conference. A nearly equal number of accepted papers came from researchers based in China and the U.S. “This is pretty surprising and impressive given how different it was even three, four years back,” says Rao.
China’s rapid rise up the ranks of AI research has people taking notice. In October, the Obama White House released a “strategic plan” for AI research, which noted that the U.S. no longer leads the world in journal articles on “deep learning,” a particularly hot subset of AI research right now. The country that had overtaken the U.S.? China, of course.
It’s not just academic research. Chinese tech companies are betting on AI, too. Baidu (a Chinese search-engine company often likened to Google), Didi (often likened to Uber), and Tencent (maker of the mega-popular messaging app WeChat) have all set up their own AI research labs. With millions of customers, these companies have access to the huge amount of data that training AI to detect patterns requires.
Like the Microsofts and Googles of the world, Chinese tech companies see enormous potential in AI. It could undergird a whole set of transformative technologies in the coming decades, from facial recognition to autonomous cars.“I have a hard time thinking of an industry we cannot transform with AI,” says Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu. Ng previously cofounded Coursera and Google Brain, the company’s deep learning project. Now he directs Baidu’s AI research out of Sunnyvale, California, right in Silicon Valley.
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China’s success in AI has been partly fueled by the government’s overall investment in scientific research at its universities. Over the past decade, government spending on research has grown by double digits on average every year. Funding of science and technology research continues to be a major priority, as outlined by the the Five-Year Plan unveiled this past March.
When Rao first started seeing Chinese researchers at international AI meetings, he recalls they were usually from Tsinghua and Peking University, considered the MIT and Harvard of China. Now, he sees papers from researchers all over the country, not just the most elite schools. Machine learning—which includes deep learning—has been an especially popular topic lately. “The number of people who got interested in applied machine learning has tremendously increased across China,” says Rao. This is the same uptick that the White House noticed in its report on a strategic plan for AI research.