Chinese students set sights on AI majors
SHANGHAI — Li Shuangying said she has high hopes that her 18-year-old son, who just took this year’s college entrance exam, will become a professional in the artificial intelligence field.
She said he always has been one of the top students in his class at one of the leading high schools in Zhongshan, Guangdong province.
Zhongshan, which neighbors Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital, has been one of China’s pioneering cities in embracing reform and opening-up. It thrived on labour-intensive industries, but recent rising labour shortages and costs have become a real threat.
In response, local manufacturers have been quick to embrace automation and adopt AI-assisted robots for survival.
The company Li works for, a medium-sized home appliance manufacturer with annual output of about 1 billion yuan ($150 million), is no exception. Li said she used to bring her son to her workplace from time to time, and he has developed a strong interest in AI, automation and robots.
“We (the family) all agree that AI is the trend, and it holds great potential for future development,” Li said.
That view is shared by many prospective college students and their parents, who consider AI a desirable major.
Progressing at a dizzying pace, the sector presents rosy career prospects as China has the ambition to become a leading AI power by 2030.
Some experts have pointed out it holds an inherent attraction for the millennial generation, whose coming of age has coincided with the AI technology boom and its increasing penetration into every aspect of daily life.
As a result, AI has become one of the most sought-after majors among prospective college students across the country.
Many believe the increasing interest in AI education will greatly boost China’s ability to produce specialized AI talent. Many others, however, are more cautious, warning against possible pitfalls brought by the “great leap in AI education”. They say this has resulted in a worrying trend of resorting to such education.
Featuring machine simulation of human intelligence, including learning, reasoning and self-correction, AI, which is developing with robotics and virtual reality, has been considered a transformative business force globally.
Given the nation’s focus on innovation, China aims to develop into a leading AI power by 2030 based on the surge in AI investments from domestic internet companies and others. Last July, the government issued the country’s New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, which envisions China’s economy, military and society invigorated and empowered by artificial intelligence.
Accelerating the education of top AI talent has also been listed as a primary task in the plan, with the development of AI resulting in a strong demand for talent well-versed in this technology. According to China’s leading online recruitment company Zhaopin, AI algorithm engineers were the positions most in demand last year, followed by database development engineers.
In response to the national strategy, the Ministry of Education in April issued the AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities. The plan envisions Chinese colleges and universities becoming the global frontiers in AI and hotbeds of AI talent by 2030, while 50 world-class AI textbooks, 50 national-level high-quality online AI courses and 50 AI research centers will be established by 2020.
Expectations ran high among prospective high school students and their parents early this year when many universities across the country set up new AI and related majors, and even AI research schools. At least 19 universities, most of them among the country’s most prestigious, have added AI engineering as a new major for their undergraduate students, and the number is expected to reach 50 over the next two years.
The rapidly increasing availability of AI-related majors has both excited and upset prospective students and their parents. On the one hand, more is better. On the other hand, a heightened enthusiasm about AI-related majors has, in turn, pushed the enrollment threshold to a new high.
Many prestigious universities that are traditional strongholds in computer science and technology research, electronic engineering and math, on which AI has developed, require a proven excellence in math, such as a good record in the provincial National Olympiad in Informatics. Some institutions, such as Nanjing University and Duke Kunshan University, even set side interview sessions to screen prospective students for their communication skills, which are considered a bonus for AI talent.
“We value a student’s communication skills, because most AI innovations rely on teamwork,” said Li Xin, professor in electric and computer engineering at Duke Kunshan University, a Sino-US partnership between Duke University and Wuhan University, in Kunshan, Jiangsu province.
Communication skills are one of the major aspects looked for by universities in international partnerships, such as Duke Kunshan University and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. This is another choice favored by prospective students offering the prospect of going overseas for further studies when they graduate. For such universities, while the requirements for students’ ability in math is not as high, a high proficiency in English is a must.
The high entrance bar is set to disappoint many who are interested, but experts say they should not be deterred in pursuing AI for their future careers despite failing to be enrolled as AI major undergraduates.
While many universities in China have set up AI-related master’s programs and research projects for decades, AI alone has not been an undergraduate major in the country until recently.
This is because AI is essentially multidisciplinary, according to Yang Ming, professor at the School of Electronic Information Engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
AI has long been considered and is still regarded by many experts as a pinnacle, built on a solid command of science in computers, math and biology, among others.
This has made the curriculum design of AI as an undergraduate major a challenge, the experts say, based on how to strike a balance between setting a solid foundation to enable lifelong learning and preparing students with hands-on experience for immediate career prospects.
In general, Yang said, AI education has two directions. One focuses on basic research of core technology, the other on real-life application, which is essentially data-driven.
“Over the past decade, big data has allowed the fast development of AI applications, resulting in the industry boom we’re now experiencing,” Yang said. “However, the basic research of core technology has made little progress.”
Take automatic driving for example, considered a new technology by many, where the technology and related research have long existed. Yang was involved in some of the research when he was a doctoral student at Tsinghua University 20 years ago. He recently led a student team in co-operation with a research company in designing and producing three driverless minibuses, which now offer free commuting services on the university’s two campuses.
“The core technology and concept behind (automatic driving) remains more or less the same,” Yang said.
As big data has contributed to the rise of the AI industry, people tend to forget that it is the decades of basic research on its core technology that has made such progress possible, Yang added.
This holds true even in China, as the country is engulfed by AI fever, driven mainly by market-oriented applications.
Even as a student, Pan Baiwen, a junior in electronic engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said he could feel that AI education was becoming too hectic.
“I spend a lot of time reading papers on AI research,” Pan said. “While there has been a rapid increase in the number of AI-related papers, most of them focus on applications. Basic research on core technology, which is aimed at pushing the traditional boundaries, is increasingly rare to find.”
Bai Ruibin, director of the department of computer science at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, has another observation.
“There is a growing social expectation that a fresh undergraduate majoring in AI should be able to perform magic upon graduation,” Bai said.
Bai considers this worrying because “it is very tempting for universities to tilt AI education to its applications, which is risky and irresponsible because AI applications are progressing so fast that any related knowledge or skills can be outdated in three or five years.
“This approach to education is detrimental to the industry’s long-term development.”
Instead, experts say university education should prepare students with the basic theoretical foundation and the ability to innovate, allowing them to learn and adapt for the rest of their careers.
Yang said, “China still needs to strengthen its basic research in AI and to encourage long-term cultivation of talent for the purpose.”
“No haste” is the advice that Yang, Bai and many other professors have given to students interested in developing a career in the AI industry.
Duan Xinyu, a doctoral student whose expertise in AI research was learned at Zhejiang University, agrees.
He entered the university in 2010 as a major in computer science and developed an interest in AI in 2013 when discussions and applications of audio and facial recognition were taking off in China.
As one of the country’s pioneering institutions in AI research, the university quickly introduced several courses on the subjects in the curriculum of a computer science major. Duan took to them immediately and has progressed well in related research, earning him recommendations and a scholarship to continue his doctoral degree at the university.
“You have great leeway to learn and develop once you have built a solid basic science foundation during undergraduate years,” Duan said.
This insight has proved valuable for most prospective college students and parents, such as Li Shuangying and her son. As enrollment by prestigious universities in an AI major is limited to only a few, Li said that for a time the family had hesitated over whether her son should continue to choose AI-related majors at a less-desired university.
After numerous consultations and assessments of her son’s interest and potential, Li said the family is now determined to support his dream of becoming an AI professional, even though the journey to achieve it could be arduous.
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