Sunday, January 19, 2020

China’s innovation revolution – where will it find the people?

Sep 30. 2018
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By Suwatchai Songwanich
Chief executive Officer,
Bangkok Bank (China)

For China to achieve its goals of transforming its economy through innovation, it requires a new generation of highly skilled people in fields which will be essential for the future.

Yet it faces many challenges  – young people still want to travel abroad for study and many don’t return, China lags well behind the US in areas such as AI talent, the number of young people entering the workforce is shrinking due to the (now-abandoned) one-child policy and the millennial generation has a rebellious and independent spirit that is not necessarily inclined to go down the path that the government wants them to. 

China is taking a many-pronged approach to tackle this challenge. For example it is trying to both lure back local talent and attract foreign talent, it has a generous budget for scholarships to foreign students – including from Southeast Asia – and it is racing to build its AI talent-base. Last year China’s State Council announced it would promote AI education for all and earlier this year the Education Ministry followed up with its AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities. This plan sets out three goals for the next 12 years: optimise the structure of universities and colleges to spark technological innovation and adapt to the next generation of AI development by 2020; deliver world-class theoretical research, innovative technologies and applications by 2025; and make Chinese universities and colleges the world’s leading AI innovation centres and a hotbed for AI talent by 2030.

Meanwhile, AI courses are being rapidly rolled out in universities across China and an artificial intelligence cooperative innovation centre has been established in Zhejiang University to speed up the development of independent innovation and talent cultivation in artificial intelligence in China.

AI education is also being given to young children, who are being taught that programming is fun, while parents are being provided with AI-apps for their phones to help their children to study at home. These AI “teachers” give out assignments, grade pupils’ work, and generate unique sets of exercises for each child based on their areas of weakness.

As for why China rates AI so highly – its usefulness in terms of increasing productivity and improving service can hardly be understated. To take just one example, Li Xiaomi, Alibaba’s AI-powered customer service chatbot, can reply to a million text queries and take thousands of phone calls from customers every day, reducing merchants’ service costs by 90 per cent.

China aspires to become the world’s AI innovation hub by 2030 and these actions demonstrate its determination to have the pool of young talent it needs to achieve this.

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