China designs AI textbooks for kindergartens amid push for technological leadership

Students attend the "1K VS AI" event at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai, in which 1,000 students played Chinese chess against artificial intelligence systems. Photo: David Wong

China has now expanded artificial intelligence (AI) education to kindergarten pupils in its push to develop AI prowess, which the country thinks is critical for attaining global technological leadership.

Recently, pictures of a set of AI-related teaching materials tailored for preschoolers have been widely circulated on the Internet, causing public astonishment about China's proactive efforts in popularizing the basic knowledge about AI.

This set of teaching materials also includes textbooks specially designed for students at elementary schools, middle schools, senior high schools and secondary vocational schools. Accordingly, some Internet users crack a joke that these textbooks will accompany Chinese children through their compulsory education period till they attend universities.

Artificial Intelligence Experimental Teaching Materials, which are based on lecture notes, are compiled by AI teachers with the guidance of prestigious experts from the Institute of Automation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Google and other higher education institutions. The teaching materials also have an electronic version, which is updated once in six months.

The rollout of the teaching materials serving students at different ages has again refurbished public awareness about AI education in China since May when people marveled at the selection of Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence as a textbook used as an optional course at 40 pilot senior high schools in major municipalities and provinces. Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence introduces the history of the development of AI and the areas where the technology can be applied including facial recognition, public security and autonomous driving.

Artificial Intelligence Experimental Teaching Materials compilation is a part of the Smart Dragon X Plan, which was jointly announced by the government-backed China Association for Educational Technology and UNESCO in July.

A total of 100 pilot schools across China have joined the plan, which aims to cultivate the ability of children and teenagers to use AI technology in the face of the fast-changing world via an AI platform. The AI platform supports popular machine learning frameworks such as TensorFlow and Caffe and widely used programing languages such as Scratch and Python.

The plan also aims to train 100-300 teachers specializing in AI education.

The publication of the textbooks related to AI is in line with the essence of the State Council-initiated Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, which lifts AI education to the layer of national strategy and calls on primary and middle schools to include AI courses into their curriculums, and pilot universities to set up AI schools. The plan was released in 2017.

The Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan was followed by a three-year action plan (2018-2020) released by the country's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The action plan sets four goals: widening the use of AI-powered products such as Internet-connected cars and intelligent robots; injecting more resources into the research and development of intelligent sensors, neural network chips and open-source platforms for AI; promoting the application of AI in various industries especially in the manufacturing sector; and improving the environment for AI research.

At a conference held in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping identified AI as the most important driving force for the next new technological and industrial revolutions. "Stepping up efforts in developing next-generation AI will be an important pillar for us to win in the global technological competition," said Xi at the conference. The president also put emphasis on the close connection between AI and the primary, secondary and tertiary industries.

In China, AI has been applied in various areas including public transportation, banking, hospitality and entertainment.

In the summer, Baidu became the world's first company to realize volume production of an autonomous minibus, which has been used in many cities for shuttle buses and will be exported to foreign countries like Japan. The minibus is also available in a Beijing AI theme park, which is equipped with numerous entertainment facilities powered by AI and other advanced technologies.

In Hangzhou, Alibaba has recently opened a futurist hotel where customers are served by robots and smart machines. Each room of the hotel is fitted with Tmall Genie, a smart speaker that customers can use to control air conditioner, television, lighting and curtain and even order food and drinks which are delivered by robots.

In April, China Construction Bank opened the country's first unmanned bank branch in Shanghai, which is run by robots and advanced technologies including facial recognition, voice navigation, holographic projection, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Earlier this year, Tencent worked with Denmark's Bestseller Fashion Group to launch clothing stores, in which customers can enjoy tailored dress collocation services by simply scanning their faces in front of a computer screen installed in the fitting rooms, with an algorithm-based computer matching their faces with possibly suitable clothes chosen from Bestseller's product library.

Growing demand for AI talents

In China, technology companies are going out of their way to recruit AI professionals, betting that the development of AI would be a key to profitability.

A human resource manager from a Shenzhen-based laser radar company revealed that the annual salary paid to a PhD-level AI expert has been increased to 800,000 yuan from 500,000 yuan, according to a report by

The higher scramble for AI talents reflects Chinese technology companies' intent to lead the new industrial revolution, which is widely considered to be driven by AI.

Liu Qingfeng, chairman and CEO of iFlyTek, a leading Chinese company in the field of AI and natural language processing, has predicted that AI would significantly change societies, where many posts would be taken and created by AI.

Western technology giants do not want to be left behind either. Microsoft and Google have established AI research institutes in China, whose major task is to attract Chinese AI professionals and experts to work for them.

In August, Huawei, the China Software Industry Association and Alliance of Emerging Engineering Education for Information Technologies jointly published a white paper about talents needed for information and communication technology, which shows that at least one million AI talents would be needed by the end of 2018 and this talent shortage would expand to 2.2 million by 2020.

The Chinese government has encouraged key universities to set up AI majors to offset the talent shortage.

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