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China to open $2.1bn AI tech park in Beijing

An area in the western part of Chinese capital Beijing has been designated as the launchpad for China to hone its capabilities in artificial intelligence

China is inching closer to its vision of becoming a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) when a technology park dedicated to deep learning and big data technologies is ready in the next five years.

Located in the Mentougou district in western Beijing, the 55-hectare AI technology park, to be developed by the Zhongguancun Development Group, will cost the Chinese authorities RMB13.8 billion (US$2.1bn), according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

To support the development of China’s AI capabilities, the park hopes to draw some 400 companies specialising in cloud services, 5G services, biometrics and high-performance computing. The developer is also looking to partner universities to set up a national AI lab, Xinhua reported.

Under its national AI development blueprint laid out in July 2017, the Chinese government plans to grow the size of China’s AI industry to RMB150 billion over the next two years, and RMB400 billion by 2025.

In an interview with Bloomberg in December 2017, Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures and former head of Google China, said although US universities and companies are ahead of the Chinese in AI developments for now, China has several advantages that could enable it to leapfrog the US.

“The first is the size of data, because AI is as much about having a huge amount of data to train on and get better as it is about having brilliant minds,” he said.

China’s huge army of engineering students, along with their strengths in maths and science, is also an edge, Lee noted, adding that the China’s national AI blueprint that provides funding for AI companies in different cities and provinces will also provide the teeth for its success in AI.

The potential of China’s AI industry has already drawn AI heavyweight Google into setting up an AI research outfit in Beijing, the first its kind in Asia.

According to Fei-Fei Li, Google Cloud’s chief scientist for AI and machine learning, the facility will be home to its AI researchers in Beijing, supported by Google China’s engineering teams. “We’ve already hired some top experts, and will be working to build the team in the months ahead,” she wrote in a December 2017 blog post.

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Lee, however, pointed out the differences in the approach that top American and Chinese companies have taken towards AI research.

He said Microsoft, Facebook and Tencent have chosen to build their AI research in a very powerful but ivory tower way, whereas Google, Amazon, Baidu and Alibaba are taking a product-driven approach. “I think both are interesting, but I also think all seven companies are sucking up a lot of the world’s top talent,” he said.

According to IDC, spending on AI in the APAC region, excluding Japan, is expected to reach $4.6bn in 2021, with a compound annual growth rate of 72.9% between 2016 and 2021.

Besides China, Singapore has also outlined its AI ambition, starting with a national AI programme to build AI talent and startups, as well as boost AI adoption among businesses.

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