A Tale of Two Countries

Back in 1999, Chinese researchers were still in the dark when it came to studying artificial intelligence—literally. Allow me to explain.

That year, I visited the University of Science and Technology of China to give a lecture about our work on speech and image recognition at Microsoft Research. The university was one of the best engineering schools in the country, but it was located in the southern city of Hefei (pronounced “Huh-faye”), a remote backwater compared with Beijing.

On the night of the lecture, students crammed into the auditorium, and those who couldn’t get a ticket pressed up against the windows, hoping to catch some of the lecture through the glass. Interest was so intense that I eventually asked the organizers to allow students to fill up the aisles and even sit on the stage around me. They listened intently as I laid out the fundamentals of speech recognition, speech synthesis, 3-D graphics, and computer vision. They scribbled down notes and peppered me with questions about underlying principles and practical applications.

China clearly lagged behind the United States by more than a decade in AI research, but these students were like sponges for any knowledge from the outside world. The excitement in the room was palpable.

The lecture ran long, and it was already dark as I left the auditorium and headed toward the university’s main gate. Student dorms lined both sides of the road, but the campus was still and the street was empty. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. As if on cue, long lines of students began pouring out of the dormitories all around me and walking out into the street. I stood there baffled, watching what looked like a slow-motion fire drill, all of it conducted in total silence.

It wasn’t until they sat down on the curb and opened up their textbooks that I realized what was going on: the dormitories turned off all their lights at 11 p.m. sharp, and so most of the student body headed outside to continue their studies by streetlight. I looked on as hundreds of China’s brightest young engineering minds huddled in the soft yellow glow. I didn’t know it at the time, but the future founder of one of China’s most important AI companies was there, squeezing in an extra couple of hours of studying in the dark Hefei night.

Many of the textbooks these students read were outdated or poorly translated. But they were the best the students could get their hands on, and these young scholars were going to wring them for every drop of knowledge they contained. Internet access at the school was a scarce commodity, and studying abroad was possible only if the students earned a full scholarship. The dog-eared pages of these textbooks and the occasional lecture from a visiting scholar were the only window they had into the state of global AI research.

The landscape has changed greatly since then, and Chinese students have access to research at their fingertips. This is fueling an even further acceleration of innovative AI products among young Chinese tech entrepreneurs.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Dec 04, 2018 in All Posts China Innovations

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