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May 10, 2017

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XJTLU breaking new ground in AI research and education

CHINA is assuming a key position globally in the field of artificial intelligence, an area that was found by a Narrative Science survey last year to be in use by 38 percent of enterprises worldwide and set to grow to 62 percent by 2018.

Yu Zhichen, CEO of Chinese company Turing Robot, commented in an interview with CNBC that opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship in China are as good as anywhere, and that China’s technological advancements and AI research coupled with a strong manufacturing sector mean the country is well placed to become the world leader in AI.

Having been identified as a key area for development at the National People’s Congress in March, new multimillion dollar AI labs and projects were announced by China’s tech giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.

Baidu has already developed AI-related products such as the “Little Fish” home robot that can complete tasks like managing calendars, ordering food and answering questions. A current research project at the company involves teaching English to computers by having them navigate around a simulated maze.

Several research projects by scientists at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University are also contributing to China’s AI boom, and the university is training the next generation of AI experts who will help to navigate this brave new world.

Dr Kaizhu Huang from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at XJTLU has developed a research project into Intelligent Scene Understanding, a technology that allows computer systems to recognize objects.

“The project depends on ‘deep learning,’ which is one aspect of machine learning algorithms,” explained Kaizhu. “These algorithms allow performance that is even higher than human beings in many learning and vision scenarios.”

One application of the technology could be to create a service at tourist sites that automatically recognizes and photographs tourists, for which Huang is setting up a demonstration version at XJTLU, and hopes to perform a real-world trial in one of Suzhou’s famous gardens.

Professor Steven Guan of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at XJTLU has been supervising research projects by PhD students into “meta-learning,” an area of machine learning of which Baidu’s project to teach English to computers is an example.

“Conventional machine learning aims to solve problems related to specific tasks,” Guan said.

“Meta-learning is ‘learning across learning,’ the goal being to find potential ‘meta structures’ that might exist across related problems. This is an important field, and I expect there will be some breakthroughs in the near future.”

Ethical and societal implications

Dr Holger Briel, associate professor in the School of Film and TV Arts at XJTLU, commented on the ethical and societal implications of Huang’s project, and of developments in AI in general.

“A tourist monitoring system would also be very useful for those running tourist sites, as it could gather data on tourists’ movements — how long they stay in each part of the site, and that information could then be used to make improvements to the site,” he said.

However, along with this convenience comes the issue of individuals being introduced into a system that monitors them, and of technology encroaching on privacy and personal freedoms.

“Such a system would also function as a surveillance system, reducing the need for security guards. If a tourist did something inappropriate or illegal, it could be detected instantly. On the other hand, you could argue that this impinges on the tourist’s freedom.”

Huang, too, is very conscious of the implications of his research, but remains optimistic.

“Although I’m involved in AI research I’m also concerned about how the latest technologies could be applied,” Huang admitted.

“However, I think overall the benefits for society will far outweigh any drawbacks.”

Holger stated that he too is optimistic for the future, but also said: “Academics must look at these issues and collaborate to help devise solutions.”

AI education at XJTLU

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou is equipping its students with the knowledge and skills to make the next AI breakthroughs.

Cheng Lyu, alumnus of XJTLU, whose startup Raven Technology created a popular AI-based music application, was recently appointed as the general manager of the smart home hardware division at Baidu.

Cheng’s appointment exemplifies how XJTLU is helping to train the next generation of AI experts through its academic programs in the departments of Computer Science and Software Engineering, and Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

The XJTLU FabLab, “a place where anybody can make virtually anything,” gives students a space to try out their digital fabrication ideas, and organizes guest talks by AI experts to inspire the next generation of digital entrepreneurs.

There are also many internship and work placement opportunities for XJTLU students at tech companies in Suzhou Industrial Park, China’s Silicon Valley.


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