A visitor shakes an AI-powered robot's hand at the 5th China Beijing International Fair for Trade in Services on May 28. (CAO BOYUAN/FOR CHINA DAILY)
China's booming artificial intelligence industry has generated demand for talent. To build a strong pool of skilled AI workers, China is now fostering specialized education at universities by improving the curriculum and promoting interdisciplinary research.
Tsinghua University established its Institute of Artificial Intelligence on Thursday as part of its effort to advance research and education in the field.
We hope AI technology is accessible to every student so that they may combine AI as a tool with their own research
Weng Kai, teacher at Zhejiang University's AI research institute
Aiming to become a globally influential research institution, the institute will focus on the basic theory of AI and actively promote cross-disciplinary research as well as the integration of academia and industry.
In April, the Ministry of Education issued an action plan to promote AI education at universities. Under the plan, universities in China will improve the discipline and make breakthroughs in basic theory and key technology by 2020. Chinese universities will become core forces for building major global innovation centers by 2030.
Following the plan, many Chinese universities have set their sights on improving AI education and nurturing talent.
Many prestigious universities, including the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tianjin University, Nankai University, Nanjing University and Jilin University have established AI departments.
Zhou Zhihua, head of Nanjing University's AI department, said it is necessary to introduce new curriculum, as current courses are very generalized and fail to cultivate students' deep understanding of AI and their ability to solve key problems in the industry.
Nanjing University has established two new majors - machine learning and data mining, and intelligent systems and applications - and plans to enroll 60 to 100 undergraduates this year.
"Training on this scale is still far from enough to solve China's AI talent crunch. It is common for students in AI-related fields to have already been nabbed by companies before they graduate and enter the job market," Zhou said.
Universities are not only talent bases for the AI industry but also important sources of innovation. Experts believe universities should focus on strengthening basic research and developing state-of-the-art AI technology.
Lei Chaozi, director of the Ministry of Education's Department of Science and Technology, said universities should aim for major breakthroughs in basic research and core technology, including big-data-driven learning and human-computer intelligent systems.
In a lab at Zhejiang University, rats with electrodes on their heads run through a maze following arrows under their feet. The electrodes can recognize the arrows and stimulate the animal's brain with a current. The rat will walk left or right according to this "command".
According to researcher Pan Gang, experiments are being conducted on brain-machine interfaces (or cyborg intelligence), which combines biological sensory systems with the machine's computing power to yield a more powerful form of intelligence.
Study of the convergence of machines and biological intelligence is important for the future development of AI.
"But these projects are still in the experimental stage and the application scenario is not very clear, which make them less appealing for companies. Universities should take the lead in the research," Pan said.
Wu Zhaohui, president of Zhejiang University, said, "We strive to achieve revolutionary and disruptive changes in AI theories, methods, tools and systems."
China's action plan calls for the integration of AI with mathematics, statistics, physics, biology, psychology and sociology, among other disciplines. It promotes the "AI+X" interdisciplinary approach at universities and aims to set up 100 majors that combine AI and other subjects by 2020.
The key is how to use AI in various disciplines, said Weng Kai, a teacher at Zhejiang University's AI research institute.
"We hope AI technology is accessible to every student so that they may combine AI as a tool with their own research, which may lead to new possibilities," Weng said.
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Beyond such interdisciplinary approaches adopted at the university, there is also a growing trend for universities to strengthen their links with industry in AI technology.
Nanjing University has cooperated with e-commerce giant JD in creating an AI training base for students. Students will experience hands-on learning with real artificial intelligence applications under the guidance of high-level instructors.
Zhou Bowen, vice-president of AI platform and research at JD, said the company has rich data in e-commerce, logistics and finance.
"The cooperation will help support our business and promote the integration of AI education and industry," Zhou said.