Shipeng Li: Chinese AI can lead the world

Shipeng Li Photo provided to

After working as a researcher at Microsoft for 17 years, Shipeng Li, a Chinese scientist, left the company in 2015.
Li, 50, a renowned scientist in artificial intelligence (AI), is now the CTO and founder of Ing Dan, a firm specializing in Internet of Things, providing an online platform linking entrepreneurs around the globe to the rich supply chain and innovation ecosystem.
He is also helping US companies connect with the Chinese AI industry chain so as to build a complete and connected industry structure.  
He said the work experience in Microsoft had a large influence on his research skills, but now Li’s dream is to help Chinese entrepreneurs to create more value in the area of AI.
He believes that China has the potential to be a forerunner in the ongoing AI revolution throughout the world, thanks in part to the large number of outstanding scientists in the country.
Startup mentality
During his 17 years at Microsoft, Li made a lot of achievements, developing over 180 patents. But he said life in a big company was like one in an “ivory tower” where you don’t have to care too much about what’s happening in the outside world.
“But if you don’t contact with other companies, you will never know what their pain points are,” Li said.
Feeling that he had reached the glass ceiling of his career, Li expected himself to try something new and create more value in the rest of his life.
“I gradually realized that no matter how well you perform in Microsoft, you are working for only one company after all. Whether or not my skill can be turned into products is totally decided by the company. I thought maybe there could be a platform where I can help more companies become unicorns like Baidu and Ali in the future, through my own technology,” said Li, recalling the life changing moment in his life.
Li’s startup mentality was also enlightened by his former colleague in Microsoft, Kaifu Li and Yaqin Zhang, whose work experience in China let Li believe that there is a huge potential for the AI industry in China.
Adding to that is China’s policy to encourage and support entrepreneurship and innovation amid the country’s ongoing supply-side economic reform.
According to Li, the founding of Ing Dan should also attribute to the support of some government departments like Beijing and Association for Science and Technology and Zhongguancun Science Park, which have made the application and approval procedure quite simple.
“The country’s policies on entrepreneurship have really provided substantial support to startups. We have also been invited to many important events which have helped us to promote our brand. Even our office rent was given a discount,” he said.
Human vs. robot

Talking about current popular AI like AlphaGo and Jue Yi (Fine Art), developed by Google and Tencent, which have triggered heated discussions over the future relationship between human beings and robots, Li said the biggest meaning for the two is arousing people’s interest on AI, which doesn’t have to be over-evaluated.
But Li does believe it’s necessary for people to think about the future relationship between people and robot and figure out a way to cope with the possibility that the former might be dominated by the latter.
“When I first joined Microsoft in 1999, AI used to be a derogatory term as many employers thought majoring in AI meat majoring in nothing and many graduates majoring in AI didn’t want to put their major on their resumes,” Li recalled, “But it has made great breakthroughs today, turning what could only be imagined in the past into reality.”
“Face recognizer for example, no one can remember more than one billion different faces, but a robot can,” he added.
While many are cheering up over the development of AI, Li warned that it is also a double-edged sword, which can also harm people. According to Li, some American companies are now conducting studies on ethics of robots, standards for the invention of robots and the powers a robot should be given.
There’s still a long way to go for robots to be as smart as human beings in all areas, but people should be precautious about the possibility that people could be dominated by robots one day, Li said.
AI in China
While AI industry has seen rapid development in China in recent years, some data has shown that the country’s robot industry has largely relied on imports when it comes to some important parts of the device.
This was echoed by Li who believes that there’s still a long way to go for Chinese AI companies compared with some developed countries like Germany and Japan concerning product design concept, user experience, accuracy as well as durability.
“Many Chinese companies’ starting point when inventing in a robot is functionality and the product often looks clumsy. It’s difficult for them to make a really high-end product,” Li said, “Take service robot for example. So far, there is almost no Chinese company which is able to create a robot which can fill a cup with water and then take it to the master who could be sitting anywhere in the room. Most of the robots can only move it on a designated track.”

Shipeng Li (left), Wan Gang (middle), minister of China's Science and Technology ministry, and John Holdren (right), senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology were attending an event during the 7th China-U.S Innovation Dialogue on June 7, 2016 in Beijing. Photo provided to

However, Li believed that China has the potential to lead the world in AI field thanks in part to the large number of AI scientists in the country.
“Chinese are outstanding in digital computing. 80% of the most influential papers in the world on visual AI are written by Chinese. China does not lack scientists specializing in AI,” he said, “The problem is to build a strong research team which is capable of turning technology into products and then applying products to specialized fields in the real world.”
“I hope we can provide thorough solutions to companies by connecting all resources, talents and technology through our platform.”
According to Li, what’s also important for the development of China’s AI industry is to set up an AI industry union to promote the standardization of the industry, which is now facing malicious competition and lack of interconnection and collaboration.
This has motivated Li and Ing Dan to work on what he calls a “data bank” through which companies contribute their own data and then exchange and share with each other.
According to Li, although the idea to establish a “data bank” is new, the technology is already mature, and it needs support from many parties including the government.
“This could help companies to upgrade their products. But since data concerns money and safety, we need to build a trade model to make it acceptable,” Li said.

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