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China tech

Chinese colleges to offer AI major in challenge to US

35 universities to nurture talent crucial for self-driving and other tech

Chinese AI solutions maker Horizon Robotics demonstrates human motion analysis software at an exhibition in Beijing. Influential research and development in AI increasingly comes from China.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Artificial intelligence will become an undergraduate major at 35 universities in China, as the country charges ahead with its ambition to rival the U.S. in the field by 2020.

The Education Ministry's approval of the program comes as China grapples with growing domestic demand for AI talent and a heated race with the U.S. to become the future powerhouse of AI-related technologies.

The 35 schools include Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which is administered by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as well as prestigious names such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Zhejiang University.

Though AI has been available as a concentration for computer science students at some Chinese universities, the new four-year courses will be the first to confer bachelor's degrees devoted to the field.

"Chinese industry and government has continued to invest heavily in AI, especially through venture funding for AI silicon startups such as Horizon Robotics and Cambricon," said Karl Freund, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, told the Nikkei Asian Review via an e-mail.

"With funding no longer a major roadblock, the industry needs to produce a qualified and experienced workforce. If AI is indeed going to become 'the new electricity,' making AI available at the undergraduate level will enable the needed workforce to emerge," he added. 

Beijing vowed to rivals the world's front-runner by 2020 and to dominate to field by 2030 as part of an AI strategy laid out in 2017.

China is moving swiftly toward that target. Influential research on AI increasingly comes from China, according to an analysis published last month by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Researchers in the study said that China is poised to overtake the U.S. in the most-cited 50% of papers this year, the 10% most-cited papers next year, and the top 1% by 2025.

China's government also invests in tech companies to advance the application of AI. Through a state-owned venture fund, it has been a backer of Face++, a startup specializing in facial recognition technology.

Amid the AI boom, however, China faces a shortage of homegrown talent, who would play a crucial role in building everything from self-driving technology to optimized e-commerce practices.

Almost one-third of global talent in machine learning -- the dominant branch of artificial intelligence -- is concentrated in the U.S., according to a December report by Diffbot, a California-based data company.

China hosts only 3.5% of the global machine learning workforce, despite having a population four times that of the U.S. The study also shows that over 60% of those in the country with machine learning skills left for the U.S.

Yet Beijing's ambition and progress in developing artificial intelligence have alarmed Washington, where academics and government officials alike have urged the Trump administration to devise a plan to support the country's AI development.

In February, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on maintaining American leadership in the field of AI. While Beijing plans full support for this national project, Trump's initiative has been criticized for its lack of public funding.

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