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China tech

AI world has room for both US and China: ex-Google and Baidu insider

Scientist Andrew Ng urges all countries to develop strategies like Beijing's

Andrew Ng, pictured at the 2018 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, leads three AI ventures.   © AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the few researchers who has led the development of artificial intelligence in both the U.S. and China dismisses the notion of an "AI race" between the trade war foes and thinks they could even learn from each other.

Andrew Ng, the former leader of the AI teams at Baidu and Google Brain, told an event in San Francisco on Sept. 5 that the two countries have their own advantages in developing AI. The U.S. still has the edge in fundamental research, he said, but Chinese companies have easier access to the consumer market thanks to Beijing's national AI strategy, which promotes the spread of the technology.

At the same time, he said, the gap in awareness of data privacy between the two is narrowing.

Ng had high praise for China's strategy and suggested other nations should follow suit and devise their own game plans. "I think that many countries should have a thoughtful national strategy," he said. "One thing about AI is that it is still so immature, so there is room for many nations to have a big role in this future AI-empowered world that we're building."

He added: "I think we're at a point where all nations should learn from all nations."

The Chinese-American scientist was already one of the most prominent figures in the field when he co-founded and led Google Brain, the U.S. search giant's AI research team. He raised his profile in Asia after he moved to Beijing to build the AI unit at Baidu -- China's answer to Google -- in 2014.

Only a handful of people have seen AI development from the inside on both sides of the Pacific.

"China changes so quickly, which is wonderful and sometimes terrifying," Ng said.

He noted that the desire for privacy is growing in China, spurred by a spate of data breaches. Alleged leaks of personal information from hotel chain Huazhu Hotels Group and leading investment forum Snowball Finance sparked outrage and boycotts. Shifting consumer sentiment, Ng said, can prompt change within weeks or months.

"I think the gap in expectation of privacy [between the U.S. and China], while there is still a gap, it has been narrowing," he said.

Since leaving Baidu in 2017, Ng has thrown himself into a series of AI adventures. He now leads three different projects: deeplearning.ai, an online platform for deep-learning courses; Landing AI, which provides AI-powered solutions to big enterprises; and AI Fund, which has raised $175 million to invest in related startups.

Landing AI's first partner is the Taiwanese iPhone assembler Foxconn Technology, and Ng said the partnership will help bring artificial intelligence to the manufacturing sector.

"We do a lot of work in visual inspection, where rather than using human eyes to check if a smartphone has a scratch or if a compressed canister has a leak, you could use computer vision and a learning algorithm to do that at greater reliability," he explained. "This is helping factories inspect many different things, manufactured objects with scratches or leaks ... and improve yield and quality."

Landing AI is also expanding beyond manufacturing to fields like agriculture and health care, according to Ng. "For the whole world to experience the benefits of AI, it must pervade many industries, not just the IT industry," he wrote in a blog post.

Ng recently opened a second office for his three AI ventures in Medellin, Colombia, in an effort to establish AI hubs outside of Silicon Valley and China. He said he will encourage all nations to "think through" AI strategies and investments.

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