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Traditional education for exceptional youths supports China's AI

School of the Gifted Young has produced many leaders in growing field

BEIJING -- "The young should be regarded with respect," said Xi Jinping, China's president and supreme leader.

Xi referred to the quote by Confucius to praise the School of the Gifted Young when he visited the University of Science and Technology of China, which is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the nation's top research institution under the direct government control.

The School of the Gifted Young is specially designed for the education of exceptional youths. The quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher means that seniors should treat the young with a feeling of awe because of their greater potential.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has become an entity that affects the future of countries and regions as well as companies. And the truth is that China's AI is being supported by graduates of the School of the Gifted Young.

For example, Zhang Yaqin, president of Chinese internet search giant Baidu, entered the School of the Gifted Young at the age of 12 in 1978. Baidu is leading China's development of self-driving technology, for which AI is essential.

Zhang also studied elsewhere, including at a Harvard University graduate school in the U.S. In 2014, he resigned as U.S.-based Microsoft's top official in China and moved to Baidu.

Min Wanli, who served as the top technology official at Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba Group's cloud-computing division, entered the School of the Gifted Young at 14 years of age in 1992.

He also studied at a University of Chicago graduate school in the U.S. and worked at companies such as America's IBM and Google before joining Alibaba in 2013. Min, who announced his resignation in late June, had pushed ahead with the deployment of cloud-computing services using AI.

Another School of the Gifted Young graduate who has drawn attention recently is Chen Tianshi, CEO of Chinese AI chip-development startup Cambricon.

Chen entered the school at age of 16 in 2001. After working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences research institute, he founded Cambricon in 2016 jointly with his older brother, who also graduated from the school.

The company, named after the Cambrian period, aims to foster innovation in AI comparable to the "Cambrian explosion," which brought a huge variety of organisms into existence more than 500 million years ago.

Cambricon already supplies chips for AI -- the heart of Alibaba's cloud-computing service -- as well as advanced technology for smartphone chips produced by a company under the umbrella of Chinese tech giant Huawei.

In addition to these three, the School of the Gifted Young has produced many other executives at influential Chinese companies.

The school was set up in 1978 at the behest of then-paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who initiated a policy of "reform and opening-up." Its establishment came in response to growing calls for the early development of personnel following the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, during which schools and universities were closed.

Some 4,000 have so far graduated from the School of the Gifted Young and played a central role in an industry-government-academia partnership in the country.

They have fostered more than 100 high-tech companies, including iFlytek, said to be the world's top provider of voice-recognition technology using AI, as well as Cambricon.

Chinese high-tech companies have grown so rapidly that they are now alarming U.S. President Donald Trump -- but this was not achieved solely by President Xi, who has forcefully advocated "Made in China 2025," a long-term strategy for upgrading China's manufacturing sector.

The rapid growth of these companies can be said to be the long-awaited result of a two-wheel drive initiated a little more than 40 years ago. One of the wheels is education for gifted youths at the University of Science and Technology of China, and the other is the reform and opening-up policy, which encouraged people to study abroad.

Headwinds are now blowing for the development of human resources in China, such as stricter U.S. study visa controls amid the trade war between the two top economies.

But when I visited the University of Science and Technology in June, many students expressed a desire to study in the U.S. to learn new things. The tradition dating back to the era of Guo Moruo, the university's first president who studied in Japan, is still alive.

"Creativity is born from international exchanges," said one information technology company manager who graduated from the School of the Gifted Young.

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