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Technology

Google to resume research in China with AI hub

Despite friction with regulators, web titan can't stay out of booming market

Google's booth at a Beijing internet conference this April. The search giant's operations in China have been curtailed since 2010 after it butted heads with regulators.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Google plans to open an artificial intelligence center here, marking its first research-and-development work in China in eight years, as the U.S. search giant's desire for a piece of the market dovetails with the government's hunger for advanced technology.

While Chinese authorities are increasing their control over free speech online -- an effort that has caused tension with Google -- the government also supports the development of AI-based technologies such as autonomous driving.

The chief scientist on AI and machine learning for Google cloud services, Fei-Fei Li, announced the Google AI China Center at a Shanghai developers' conference Wednesday. The company is already gathering experts from inside and outside China, and R&D is set to start in earnest as early as the beginning of 2018.

The Chinese-born Li is seen heading up the new research hub. Partnering with China's top-level AI workers is a valuable opportunity, she said at the conference, adding that the company aimed to deliver results in this first step toward long-term cooperation in the field.

Li is known for successful research on AI systems for recognizing information from images accurately, quickly and at low cost. She is also an associate professor at Stanford University in the U.S., and advised automaker Toyota Motor on its Silicon Valley AI development organization. The Beijing hub is expected to start with basic research, eventually progressing into areas like autonomous driving.

The Chinese government aims to make domestic businesses more competitive on the international stage by supporting R&D in the AI field, and intends to strongly back autonomous driving in Beijing. Its acceptance of Google's AI research hub plans shows a desire to grasp the company's technological prowess, seen as the most advanced in the world.

Google made a full entry into mainland China in 2000 with a search engine in the national language, but its video site YouTube was blocked there in 2009 as internet regulations tightened. The next year, Google stood up to the authorities and stopped voluntarily censoring its search results in the country. Its services, including search and email, became unusable there.

After that, Google greatly shrank operations in the mainland, shifting to other areas such as Hong Kong. Most of its business in China now involves offering advertising services overseas to Chinese companies expanding abroad. The tech giant runs some development in the country, such as making sure its services work locally, but the scale is small. It claims to employ several hundred people in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Chinese Go player Ke Jie reacts during his first match with Google's artificial intelligence program AlphaGo at the Future of Go Summit in Wuzhen, China, on May 23.   © Reuters

Google faces high hurdles to reopening search and other services in China due to ongoing friction with regulators, says an executive at a local subsidiary. But the search company aims to stay active in the market, which boasts high growth and is driven by talented engineers. In March, the company launched its Google Translate smartphone app in China. In May, its AlphaGo AI faced off in the traditional board game of Go against a Chinese master widely seen as the best in the world.

Like Google, most major U.S. information technology companies cannot ignore the booming growth market that is China. Computing giants Apple and Microsoft aim to expand their businesses there by cooperating with the Chinese government. CEO Mark Zuckerberg of social networking behemoth Facebook -- the use of which is restricted in China -- discussed business opportunities with President Xi Jinping in an October meeting.

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