Baidu President Zhang Yaqin said, “AI could mean China leading the world” at the GMIC Beijing tech conference that had been opened with physicist Stephen Hawking’s portentous predictions for the technology.

“The first major advantage is the quantity of data China has for AI to use,” said Zhang participating in the Leadership in the Artificial Intelligence Era panel. “The second advantage for AI innovation is the same as for any technology – talent… If you look back over the last ten years, the quantity of Chinese AI researchers, whether in China or overseas, has begun to exceed that of other countries, passing the US in 2014. So the overall quantity is already large and we’re already seeing a series of world-class AI applications, including at Baidu. We’re seeing a merging of these two advantages – big data and high-quality talent which, in the field of AI, put China in such a good position globally.”

The former Microsoft employee believes that in the new field of AI, China can grab the same status as it did in mobile.

Zhang, who had recently returned from Stanford, was also positive about Chinese students’ potential contribution for the country’s artificial intelligence development: “When I was at Microsoft they’d say ‘there are three things students need to be good at: math, programming and attitude’ and I believe that in the age of AI it’s the same, or even more important to be good at math as so much is used in AI… And in math, Chinese students excel.”

Fellow panel member Kai-fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures, agreed that putting AI to use on China’s vast reams of user data can give it an edge: “one of China’s specialties is that every year it has new companies, dozens of new unicorns half of which get tens of millions of users… and the difference between those using AI and those not is that the quickest moving companies all have AI scientists behind the scenes, such as Jinritoutiao and Kuaishou.”

The timing was slightly unfortunate given that the panel discussion in which Zhang and Li spoke followed Stephen Hawking’s conference opener. In his video recorded for the Global Mobile Internet Conference, Hawking warned again of the potential and absolute threat AI poses to the human race.

“In short, I believe that the rise of powerful AI will be either the best thing or the worst ever to happen to humanity. I have to say now that we do not yet know which, but we should do all we can to ensure that its future development benefits us and our environment. We have no other option.”

China may lead the world in AI, but with it comes the responsibility of the possible end of that world, according to Hawking.

“While primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have proved very useful, I fear the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. AI will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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