China Prepares for AI Talent Shortage

Chinese State media People’s Daily recently reported the country is facing a shortage of five million AI talents.

A separate LinkedIn survey revealed that while there are some 1.9 million AI engineers worldwide, about one million reside in the US while China is home to just 50,000. And as the talent level increases, the gap only widens — of the 208 AAAI fellowships granted over the past 27 years, only 4 went to Chinese nationals.

Although China is an AI business deployment leader with well-financed startups such as the US$4.5 billion AI unicorn SenseTime, the country’s AI educational infrastructure is lagging. The US has six times more AI education institutions.

Meanwhile, high demand has sent AI engineer salaries skyrocketing in China. IDG Capital’s 2017 Internet Unicorn Salary Report shows compensation for top AI talent is 55 percent higher than average ICT industry employee salaries, 90 percent higher at intermediate positions, and 110 percent higher at junior positions.

Elite Schools and Elearning Courses Aren’t Graduating Enough Engineers

AI laboratories established through joint ventures between corporations and universities, such as the iFlytek and Aispeech labs at Shanghai Jiaotong University, currently provide top-level AI education opportunities. Such partnerships grant well-rounded tutelage to students and facilitate talent transfer. Dr. Cheng-Lin Liu from Chinese Academy of Sciences says “PhD students can convert their researchers into direct products or services upon graduation.”

The AI talent shortage also provides an opportunity for online education providers. Andrew Ng’s deeplearing.ai and Udacity are penetrating the China market, providing coaching in fields of machine learning, deep learning, NLP, computer vision, Python and so on. Chinese competitors 51CTO, CSDN, and Netease also provide AI video tutorials. Last year, iFlytek launched its online “AI University,” offering speech recognition and synthesis expertise and entrepreneurship coaching.

Some employers however are wary of the online training trend, believing AI-related research and engineering skills must be built on years of formal learning and research, and cannot be instilled through relatively short online courses.

China’s Revamped AI Training Program for the Coming Decade

To tackle the problem, the Ministry of Education this week announced ambitious goalsfor the coming decade: establish a set of 100 “AI+X” specialization categories by 2020 in the disciplinary fields of math, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, law, and other related professional fields. The action plan will also compile 50 seminal teaching materials, 50 state-level online open courses, and open 50 additional AI teaching and R&D centres over the coming decade.

The Affiliated Elementary School of Peking University has begun introducing primary students to genetic algorithms and neural networks using easily explainable graphics and games. This is part of a larger initiative to promote STEM and AI courses in elementary and secondary schools. The Tongzhou District Experimental Primary School has added 75 AI-related courses, including a winter bootcamp to teach students patent filing procedures for robotics, to “help them build up awareness for intellectual property protection,” explains class teacher Zhang Li.

This month the Ministry of Education, Sinovation AI Lab, and Peking University jointly announced the Global AI Talent Training Program for Chinese Universities, pledging to educate 500 teachers and 5,000 students over the next five years. Participating staff undergo strict screening and must presently be teaching CS, preferably in an affiliated AI institute.

In the eastern city of Nanjing, computer vision firm Seetatech is giving middle school students weekly 70-minute demo lessons. “Firstly we help students get a theoretical glimpse of AI, machine learning and their practical applications, then we teach them about object and facial detection, instructing them to build their own AI detection algorithms,” says an onsite Seetech employee.
Nanjing University opened one of the first AI institutes in China this March, and is currently seeking AI researchers, offering a base annual salary of US$60k, a housing subsidy of close to US$200k, and over US$300k in research funding as the starter package.

Journalist: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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