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Google seeks return to China with launch of artificial intelligence center

The Google logo is pictured atop an office building in Irvine, California, the US, on August 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Google is finding a technological way to rebuild its presence in China, where many of its services including the core search business remain inaccessible.

The US technology giant has recently announced the opening of an artificial intelligence research facility in Beijing, with China's policy makers planning to create a domestic artificial intelligence industry which is valued at approximately $150 billion in the following years.

The establishment of the Google Artificial Intelligence China Center came just three months after the company ran job advertisements for Beijing-based artificial intelligence researchers including a technical lead responsible to establish a software engineering team to develop state-of-the-art artificial intelligence solutions.

The move is widely seen as Google's latest bid to penetrate China, where local technology companies are zooming in on the development of artificial intelligence technologies as the country seeks to emerge as a global innovation hub.

The Chinese government plays a dominating role in cultivating the domestic artificial intelligence industry. Last month, China's Ministry of Science and Technology identified technology giants Baidu, Alibaba Group and Tencent, collectively known as BAT, as well as voice intelligence developer iFlyTek as the first members of its "national team", which is tasked with developing the next-generation artificial intelligence technologies that are vital to pushing the country toward global technology leadership.

In addition to following the national call, the BAT companies have been expanding efforts on artificial intelligence separately. In May, Tencent announced plans to recruit artificial intelligence talents in the United States for its artificial intelligence laboratory in Seattle, just two months after it opened an artificial intelligence research facility in China. Baidu followed up with an employment spree to improve its artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous driving system. And Alibaba poached several top scientists from Microsoft and Google to lead its artificial intelligence laboratory.

Previously, Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet, conveyed concerns at a technology summit that the United States was at risk of falling behind in the international race to develop the cutting-edge artificial intelligence technologies, warning that America's leading position in the field would continue over the next five years before China catches up extremely quickly. The executive went on to say that the United States fell short of investment in the fundamental artificial intelligence research and the situation would be worse due to America's harsh immigration policy, which hindered the influx of global artificial intelligence talents.

In order to rival the Chinese players, the Google Artificial Intelligence China Center will play a major role in attracting China-based talents with backgrounds in machine learning for the company's artificial intelligence research, largely with the purpose to increase the popularity of TensorFlow among Chinese developers. TensorFlow is an open-source software library for machine learning, through which developers can get machine intelligence knowhow. And Google wants to develop the TensorFlow platform into a global system of machine learning algorithms and automated learning.

The Google Artificial Intelligence China Center has established a small team of excellent artificial intelligence researchers, who will collaborate with Google's existing artificial intelligence units Google Cloud and Google Brain, the team of TensorFlow and the company's Chinese team, said Li Fei-Fei, chief scientist of artificial intelligence and machine learning at Google Cloud and co-head of the Beijing-based Center.

Some media reports said that Google's strengthened artificial intelligence push into China is derived from its desire to obtain a bulk of personal data in China, which will be very useful for artificial intelligence applications.

Currently, China has more than 700 million Internet users, who comprise a broader information base than those in the Western countries. Analysts said that China's large pool of detailed personal data from mobile payments, gaming, social media applications and online lending platforms would be of great importance to the global technology companies which are scrambling for data to improve their artificial intelligence algorithms.

Cooperation with local players

Being a Western firm that angered Beijing in 2010 for refusing to self-censor the search results and later had most of its services banned in China, Google has never forgotten to play up to the Chinese authorities for a return to the lucrative market, with promises of collaborating with local companies, just like what many other Western technology companies have done in the country. The makeshift strategy is now urgently needed when the Chinese government has slapped stricter rules on foreign firms and provided more incentives for local firms since 2012 when President Xi Jinping took power.

The Google Artificial Intelligence China Center is no exception.

At a developers' conference where the opening of the Google Artificial Intelligence China Center was announced, Li, the co-head of the Center, revealed that the Center would try to establish closer partnership with China's vibrant artificial intelligence research communities and provide quality educational support to Chinese students and researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"We extremely value the chance of collaborating with China's top artificial intelligence talents, who will definitely grow as the world's top artificial intelligence talents. We sincerely hope that this would be the first step for the Google Artificial Intelligence China Center's long-term development," Li said.

"The science of artificial intelligence has no borders, neither do its benefits," Li said.

Google has said that it will help China rapidly become the world's technology leader and its new businesses there are helpful in creating job opportunities.

In late-2016, Google launched a locally focused developers' website to keep Chinese developers better informed by providing its technologies and services as well as the latest technical information regarding the Android and Firebase platforms. The company also allowed the developers, researchers and firms in China to search the existing application programming interfaces and methods of model building on the, the Chinese website of TensorFlow.

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