News that a top Chinese scientist specializing in artificial intelligence (AI) has left US technology giant Facebook Inc to join Alibaba Group grabbed much attention in China's technology circles, with some suggesting that the competition between China and the US for AI talent might be escalating as both countries rush for dominance in the area.
Though the US still leads in many areas related to AI from innovation to talent, China has been steadily closing the gap in recent years and is stepping up its efforts in both research and development and talent acquisition, insiders said on Tuesday.
Jia Yangqing, a research scientist and director of Facebook's AI Infrastructure, has officially joined Alibaba's Damo Academy, the AI research arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba said on Tuesday, confirming earlier media reports.
Jia will serve as the vice president of engineering at Alibaba and lead research and development into big data computing platforms, according to Damo.
Born in Shaoxing, East China's Zhejiang Province and a graduate of Tsinghua University, Jia has become a leading scientist in the AI field. Before joining Facebook in 2016, he developed a machine-learning framework known as Caffe, which provides advanced deep learning algorithms and reference models for researchers.
"This is a big move by Alibaba to ramp up its endeavors in the AI field," Xiang Yang, an industry analyst at Beijing-based CCID Consulting, told the Global Times on Tuesday. He noted that Alibaba has been lagging behind its main domestic rivals - Baidu Inc and Tencent Holdings - in AI research and development.
"Alibaba has been spending big money to recruit top talent to catch up," Xiang said.
But behind Alibaba's move is a broader trend in China, where both the government and private companies are trying their best to build a talent pool, as the country aims to achieve global power in AI by 2025.
"This is an area where a pool of world-class talent is absolutely necessary to get ahead," a technology sector insider told the Global Times. "But so far, most researchers, including those from China, tend to choose to work in the US."
Though Chinese universities have produced more than 12,500 AI graduates, only 31 percent of them have stayed in China, while 62 percent went to the US, according to a report released by California-based AI firm Diffbot in December.
The US has the largest AI talent pool globally with nearly 221,600 workers, while China only ranked fifth, with about 18,450 workers, the report said.
"US companies are still leading in research and development in many areas and it has a great environment for innovation, so understandably, many experts choose to go to the US," said the insider, who requested anonymity.
However, that may be changing as China has been investing heavily in AI, with many government policy guidelines and private-sector developments. Between 2013 and March 2018, investment in AI in China accounted for 60 percent of the world's total, according to a report from Tsinghua University in July 2018.
As a result, China has already surpassed the US in the total number of AI publications since 2006 and is poised to overtake the US in the most-cited 50 percent of papers this year, according to analysis from the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence released earlier this month.