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Sinica backgrounder: Chief Scientist Andrew Ng of Baidu, artificial intelligence and the tech scenes of China and the U.S.

2 months ago
Amedeo Tumolillo
or the September 8 episode of the Sinica Podcast, recorded in Silicon Valley, get up to speed on the Chinese and American tech scenes, artificial intelligence and Andrew Ng, the show's guest and a top researcher in a field that is changing the world.

In China, technology companies are fighting so fiercely for success that some of their employees end up living in the office as much as they work at it — with the blessing of their bosses. The “wartime” intensity of such competition in Beijing outstrips that found in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, according to Andrew Ng, the chief scientist of the Chinese tech giant Baidu and a leading researcher in artificial intelligence. He joined the Sinica Podcast to discuss AI, startup ecosystems in China and the U.S., self-driving cars and the future of education, among other topics.

Ng is uniquely positioned to understand the world’s top two tech scenes and the distinct advantages Americans and Chinese each bring to building the data-driven businesses of the future. Since 2014, he has overseen Baidu’s global research at its Silicon Valley AI Lab and, in Beijing, at the company’s Institute of Deep Learning and Big Data Lab. He is also the co-founder and co-chairman of the online education company Coursera, an associate professor at Stanford University and the creator of the Google Brain team, which tied together 16,000 computer processors into a cat-recognizing simulation of the human mind in 2012.

One of the questions Ng is often asked is whether intelligent machines will pose a threat to humanity. He has said such fears are overblown and instead prefers to focus on near-term problems posed by AI, such as job displacement, which he says will need to be addressed by big changes in the education system. He is also passionate about AI’s numerous positive aspects, such as its potential to reduce traffic-accident fatalities by powering cars that can drive themselves more safely than humans can.

Whether your own vision of the robotic future is utopian, dystopian or “protopian,” one fact remains: artificial intelligence is big business. China is investing, mandating and subsidizing its way toward a $14.9 billion AI industry by 2018, with more than 100 firms already working in the field. Silicon Valley tech firms spent $8.5 billion last year on AI. The technology plays a role in autonomous cars from Google and many others, voice recognition software like Duer from Baidu, your Facebook feed, a growing army of chatbots, augmented reality, the creation of a Go master and many other advances. Ng calls it the “new electricity” for its ability to transform industries.

To get up to speed on these topics and others broached during Ng’s conversation on Sinica, check out these links:

  • Three reasons artificial intelligence has taken off in the past few years / Economist
  • China’s soaring entrepreneurship is disrupting the nation and the world / Forbes
  • China’s ferociously competitive startup scene has employees living in offices that are ready for habitation / Reuters
  • When it comes to mobile technology, China is racing ahead of the United States / The New York Times
  • Baidu’s voice-recognition system, Deep Speech 2, can sometimes beat humans at identifying speech / MIT Technology Review
  • Baidu will start testing self-driving cars in the U.S. with the goal of making a commercially viable one by 2018 / WSJ
  • With artificial intelligence’s help, Baidu may offer consumers the first ‘truly intelligent’ augmented-reality experience / MIT Technology Review
  • Chinese developers turn to artificial intelligence to gauge market sentiment by monitoring social media posts / Bloomberg
  • Will AI create more jobs than it destroys? Is universal basic income a solution? / WSJ + Engadget
  • Artificial intelligence’s impact on education, welfare and geopolitics / Economist
By Amedeo Tumolillo
Amedeo Tumolillo is the editor-in-chief of SupChina and award-winning multimedia journalist. He previously worked at The New York Times and Spectrum. Follow him on Twitter at @hellotumo.