Doctors line up before the start of the CHAIN Cup at the China National Convention Center in Beijing, on Saturday,during which a computer running AI software defeated two teams of human doctors in accurately recognizing maladies in magnetic resonance images. (Photo: IC)
China's booming artificial intelligence (AI) industry has resulted in a growing demand for talent. To build a strong AI talent pool, China is now fostering AI education in universities by improving the curriculum and promoting interdisciplinary research.
Tsinghua University established its Institute of Artificial Intelligence on Thursday as part of its efforts to advance AI research and education.
Aiming to become a globally influential AI research center, the institute will focus on the basic theory of AI and actively promote cross-disciplinary AI research as well as the integration of academia and industry.
In April, the Ministry of Education issued an action plan to promote AI education in universities. According to the plan, universities in China will improve the AI discipline and make breakthroughs in basic theory and key technology research by 2020. Chinese universities will become core forces for building major global AI innovation centers by 2030.
Following the plan, many Chinese universities have set their sights on improving AI education and nurturing more AI talent.
Many prestigious universities, including the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tianjin University, Nankai University, Nanjing University, and Jilin University have established new AI departments.
Zhou Zhihua, head of Nanjing University's AI department, said it is necessary to introduce new AI curriculum, as current AI courses are very generalized, failing to cultivate students' deep understanding of AI and its ability to solve key problems in the AI 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 in 2018.
"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 grabbed by companies before they graduate and enter the job market," Zhou said.
Universities are not only talent bases for the AI industry, but also an important source of AI innovation. Experts believe that universities should focus on strengthening basic research in AI and developing state-of-the-art AI technology.
Lei Chaozi, director of the Department of Science and Technology of the Ministry of Education, said that universities should aim for major breakthroughs in basic research and core technology, including big data-driven knowledge learning, human-computer intelligent systems and swarm intelligence.
In a lab at Zhejiang University, rats with electrodes on their heads run through a maze following arrow marks on the ground. The machine on the rat's head can recognize the arrows and stimulate its brain with a current. The rat will walk left or right according to this "command."
According to researcher Pan Gang, they are experimenting on brain-machine interface (or cyborg intelligence), which combines biological sensory systems with the machine's computing power to result in a more powerful form of intelligence. Study on the convergence of machine 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.
"We strive to achieve revolutionary and disruptive changes in AI theories, methods, tools, and systems," said Wu Zhaohui, president of Zhejiang University.
China's action plan on AI education calls for the integration of AI with mathematics, statistics, physics, biology, psychology, and sociology, among other disciplines. It promotes the "AI + X" interdisciplinary approach in universities and aims to set up 100 majors that combine AI and other subjects by the year of 2020.
The key is how to use AI in various disciplines, said Weng Kai, a teacher in 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.
Researchers from both the medical school and AI research institute of Zhejiang University have cooperated in developing an intelligent recognition and auxiliary diagnosis system for keratitis, which has greatly improved diagnostic accuracy for the disease.
Besides these interdisciplinary approaches adopted in the university, there is also a growing trend for universities to strengthen links with industry in AI technology.
Nanjing University has cooperated with e-commerce giant JD.com in creating an AI training base for students. Students will conduct hands-on learning for real artificial intelligence applications under the guidance of high-level instructors.
Zhou Bowen, vice president of AI Platforms and Research at JD.com, said its 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.