Tech firms make smart moves to bridge AI gap

There’s no phrase hotter in the tech world than artificial intelligence (AI), and this is especially true in China, where the craze for AI has even sparked concerns about an investment bubble.

Amid the AI excitement, smart investors have not lost sight of the fact that China’s capabilities still lag behind those of other countries, especially the US. Many have pointed to a talent gap as the main hurdle China will have to overcome to turn itself into a global AI leader.

“I spent some time in Stanford and Berkeley last month, and just like 20 years ago [when I was] pursuing a doctorate, [I] asked them to talk about what they were doing. Overall, I felt fairly enlightened. The doctoral candidates there are more competent and their research is more pioneering and creative than the work of their peers in China,” said Zhang Hongjiang, head of Technical Strategy Research Center at ByteDance, the parent company of highflying news app Toutiao.

Zhang, the former managing director of the Microsoft Advanced Technology Center, made the remarks at a mid-August launch event for the AI Challenger, a new global AI programming contest.

Lacking learners

The AI Challenger was jointly launched by venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures, search engine Sogou and Toutiao in an attempt to build one of the world’s largest open AI databases as well as sharpening the nation’s AI skills.

The winners of the various categories in the 2017 AI Challenger competition, such as translation, will receive cash rewards totaling 2 million yuan ($299,818). The firms involved will also offer jobs to the winners.

The companies have also promised tens of millions of yuan to help establish the AI database, which will be accessible to all researchers and developers.

The completion is set to improve China’s AI talent pool, said Kai-Fu Lee, whose Sinovation Ventures has invested heavily in AI startups.

A July report by professional networking site LinkedIn claimed that China ranks seventh in global AI talent rankings. Of the 1.9 million AI talents spotted by LinkedIn, China boasts only 50,000. The US led the rankings with a talent pool of 850,000.

Off course

The lack of specific AI courses has been blamed for the talent shortfall.

“AI covers a wide range of fields including audio, visual, motion perception and computerized algorithms. No specific programs or courses about AI are now on offer in China for undergraduates, graduates or doctoral students,” Cui Yan, president of the Zhuhai AI and IM Research Institute, told the Global Times.

But the country enjoys late-comer advantages and is in a good position to catch up, according to Cui. But today, Chinese students looking to enter AI prefer to head to US universities.

“I’m currently writing my thesis and if all goes smoothly I will apply for doctorate studies at one of the top universities in the US,” 25-year-old Zhang Ruyi, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in automation at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

Zhao Ruihui, a 23-year-old now studying a master’s degree in information engineering at Japan’s Waseda University, said he will apply to schools in Europe or the US if he decides to continue his studies.

Running first

That said, the AI Challenger has piqued the interest of both Zhang and Zhao. The contest and the other efforts by domestic firms to incubate AI talent have somewhat eased the worries about the talent gap.

DeeCamp, a six-week-long summer camp hosted by Sinovation Ventures to turn AI ideas into a reality, is seen exemplifying the recent push by industry heavyweights to address the talent problem.

More than 30 Chinese students from elite universities from both home and abroad headed to the camp and showcased their AI projects, including an unmanned supermarket, a delivery robot and an AI chatbot that gives romantic advice.

Zhang and Zhao, who both attended the camp, said that such initiatives have encouraged them to eventually pursue their AI careers in China even if they do study abroad first.

As Wang Xiaochuan, chief executive of Sogou, said in his speech at the AI Challenger launch event, Chinese firms are running fast in the global AI race and their investment in AI startups and talent-nurturing will keep pace with the country’s AI ambitions and probably push the country ahead of the US within five years.

Source: Global Times

‘Comfort women’ film indicates bright future for Chinese documentary films

Chinese documentary films are likely to embrace a brighter future, as the recent documentary film “Twenty Two,” following “Return to the Wolves” and “Earth: One Amazing Day,” both of which were box office successes and got strong reviews, Guangzhou Daily reported on Aug. 21.

The film “Twenty Two,” which tells the story of surviving Chinese “comfort women” hit 120 million yuan ($18 million) at the box office by Aug. 21, topping the list of Chinese documentary films.

The 90-minute documentary featured 22 “comfort women” in China, who peacefully shared their eyewitness accounts of history.

“It is not a movie that sells pain and tears. It is just enough to bring the audience to them, to see them, and to get to know them. Understanding them is the biggest help. They have their own way to take in the pain,” said Guo, adding that in order to survive, they seldom recall those bitter memories.

Due to lack of capital for shooting and promoting the film, as well as the sensitivity of the topic, the film was not viewed with a promising future. Director Guo Ke even had to raise money through crowd funding to finish production.

However, many famous Chinese actors and directors have called on the public to watch the film at cinemas to show support for Guo and to pay tribute to the women who are now in their 90s. Some online celebrities also bought tickets and invited their followers to watch the film for free.

The film was a success and got strong reviews, signifying that documentary films in China are increasingly recognized by audiences.

In addition, Chinese documentary films have achieved success for their premium and pure content, which move audiences and arouse their emotions, as well as increasing demand for different types of films.

Family planning policy not root cause of China’s population aging: experts


China’s population aging was not caused by the country’s family planning policy, but an inevitable result of the process of modernization, the People’s Daily reported on Aug. 20.

In an opinion piece coauthored by Zhai Zhenwu and Chen Jiaju, scholars with the Renmin University, the two experts said family planning policy is not the root cause of China’s population aging. Although it did speed up the pace, to some extent, it reduced the overall size of the population and shortened the duration of the phenomenon in China.

Population ageing is an inevitable universal phenomenon, as decreased fertility and prolonged human longevity are the results of modernization.

Developed countries confronted the phenomenon after World War II and it later intensified. Some developing countries have experienced the phenomenon in the 21st century and the population has grown at a rapid pace.

The United Nations predicts that the countries with the youngest populations will also age by the end of the century.

Statistics show that China’s population of 60 or older hit 220 million by the end of 2015, topping the world list and accounting for a quarter of the world’s total elderly population.

The huge aging population in China poses great pressure on the construction of the old-age security system and the development of health care.

The next generation of elderly in two or three decades from now will be more educated, have better self-care ability, and have higher socio-economic development.

Against such a backdrop, Zhai and Chen said China should actively address the issue by improving the quality of elderly care services, establishing a long-term care insurance system, and promoting family care, as well as explore new ways.

Refined digital mapping employed to preserve Potala Palace

(CNS/Li Lin)

The use of refined digital mapping to protect Potala Palace was recently exhibited at the Heritage Preservation International-Shanghai 2017, China News reported on August 17.

Potala Palace management said the mapping project was launched in June 2016 and it is about to be completed in three months. They stressed the urgency of the project to protect cultural heritage, given that the palace is built on a mountain with a complicated structure. So far, 90 percent of the project has been completed.

Many advanced technologies, including three-dimensional laser scanning and UAV aerial photography, were used to collect precise information on the architectural complex and surrounding areas. The information will help in monitoring and controlling the palace’s networks, the Beijing Digsur Science and Technology Company Ltd in charge of the project, disclosed.

Potala Palace, built 1,300 years ago in Lhasa, capital of southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, is one of the world cultural heritage sites in the region.

Chinese institute granted International Seabed Authority observer status


The first ever Chinese institute has been granted observer status with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a move analysts say will help safeguard the country’s deep sea interests, Science and Technology Daily reported on August 18.

ISA granted the status to the Centre for Polar and Deep Ocean Development, Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China at its 23rd session in Kingston from August 8-18, 2017.

The center, established in 2013, is a key unit in drafting China’s law on exploration and exploitation of deep seabed resources.

ISA was established in 1994 as an autonomous international organization through which state parties organize and control activities and administer resources of international seabed areas. ISA observers play a key part in formulating deep sea rules.

Seafood ban on North Korea hits China’s border town

The recent Chinese ban on North Korean seafood imports has had a severe impact on the seafood business in Donggang, a Chinese border port city with North Korea.

Donggang, which is administered by Dandong, northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, serves as a national hub for the seafood trade between China and North Korea, with Chinese merchants sailing to North Korean waters to source products, especially during China’s summer fishing ban.

During the ban, which usually starts from June 1, but began on May 1 this year, until September 1, China relied heavily on seafood from North Korea.

For example, about 80 percent of the swimming crabs in China are from waters east of North Korea, according to a local seafood merchant named Zhao on Monday.

The price of North Korean swimming crab, which was 10 to 30 yuan ($4.5) every 500 grams, has skyrocketed to 100 yuan every 500 grams, as the legal supply is virtually nil, Zhao added.

On August 14, China’s Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Customs jointly released a notice declaring that China would impose an import ban on coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood from North Korea as stated in UN Resolution 2371 unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on August 5.

The new rule took effect at midnight of August 15, leaving no grace period for the merchants, which caused losses in the hundreds of millions of yuan for seafood merchants of border cities, including those from Hunchun of Northeast Jilin Province and Donggang.

“We never expected it to be implemented that soon, at least not before September, so we placed even bigger import orders in August in a bid to reduce the losses. However, it turned out to work against us,” Zhao explained.

Chinese companies have to pay for almost everything, including the fishing and food processing facilities as a condition to conduct trade with North Koreans, and the North Korea will never give their money back, whether the business is thriving or not, according to a number of seafood vendors the Global Times reporter spoke to on Monday.

Under the seafood import ban, Chinese merchants are forbidden from getting their supply from North Korea, having made no revenue since a week ago, and also have to shoulder the expenses of the ships and crew members who are grounded, said Zhang, who invested several thousands of US dollars for his seafood supply from North Korea.

Zhang said he has kept almost all of his ships, which used to carry seafood back and forth daily, docked in the Dataizi port of Donggang for six days due to the ban.

“As part of our strategy, we still have a few ships out there in the sea, hoping tensions on the Korean Peninsula would calm down and the ban would be eased, but it seems impossible anytime soon,” Zhang added.

Zhao said he predicts Donggang investors beyond the seafood business will also suffer from the seafood ban, since seafood products used to serve as a “hard currency” alternative to make up for the losses of Chinese companies engaged in the coal business from previous UN sanctions.

Few stores at the Donggang Yellow Sea Seafood Products Wholesale Market, the biggest local such market that dispachees goods to across the country, remained operating on Monday. Photo: Deng Xiaoci/GT

No clearance

When asked how strict the ban is, Xu, one of the biggest seafood business operators in Donggang, told the Global Times that custom authorities do not provide services for clearance of these imports.

“And if they find a cargo of smuggled goods worth more than 200,000 yuan, the business owner would be jailed, and each of our foreign trade boats can easily carry products worth more than a million yuan. The jail term would rise depending on the amount involved,” Xu added. UN Resolution 2371 is expected to reduce North Korean revenue by approximately $1 billion, the UN website said.

According to an anonymous insider, the seafood export business used to account for about one-third of North Korea’s foreign currency earnings.

Source: Global Times

Bullet trains remain safe, reliable after speed increase: industry insiders

China’s latest generation bullet train, the Fuxing, will run on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway starting from Sept. 21 at 350 km/h, China Railway Corporation (CRC) announced on Aug. 20.

The high-speed railway connecting Beijing and Shanghai is built to the world’s highest standards, while the Fuxing is designed to run at a top speed of 350 km/h safely, reliably, and comfortably, said Lu Dongfu, general manager of CRC.

In 6 years of operation, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway has carried over 630 million passengers. Currently, an average of 400-plus trains run on the rail each day.

The speed increase will better meet transportation demand by cutting travel time between the two cities by half an hour from five to four and a half hours, said an official with CRC. The speed increase is also expected to boost efficiency for enterprises.

The Fuxing was designed and manufactured in China. The new bullet train model of China’s Electric Multiple Units (EMU) has completed 600,000 kilometers of tests before it was approved to run on the Beijing-Guangzhou and Beijing-Shanghai railways in February 2017.

China has the largest high-speed rail network in the world, with a total track length of 22,000 kilometers and one third of that distance was designed and constructed for bullet trains with a top speed of 350 km/h, said He Huawu of the China Academy of Engineering.

He said there is a process for China to consider whether to speed up its whole high-speed network, though such a move could pose a challenge to railway management, noting that financial and social aspects must be considered.

The Fuxing, for example, would see energy consumption increase 20 to 30 percent if the train increased its speed from 300 km/h to 350 km/h. But whether other railways are suitable for the speed increase depends on infrastructure, demand, and economic factors, He said.

Chinese man regains sight after pig cornea transplant

A 27-year-old man from central China’s Hubei province has regained sight after a pig cornea transplant. His visual acuity has picked up to 0.3 after the surgery, but it still needs observation in case there is rejection.

The man, Zhang Hua, was almost blind in his right eye before the surgery because of necrotic stromal keratitis. After discussions, the Third Xiangya Hospital of Central South University decided to carry out a pig cornea transplant on him.

According to Tang Renhong, director of the hospital’s cornea transplant center, pig cornea was the only choice for Zhang since cornea donations are in short supply in the country.

“The surgery was not carried out by merely transplanting a pig cornea on the patient,” said a doctor of the hospital surnamed Cao. He explained that they also transplanted a specifically processed structure on Zhang for a new corneal tissue to form.

Tang noted that it was not the first time the hospital carried out the surgery, adding that the process is similar to human cornea transplant.

According to him, about 90 per cent of surgeries have been successful. However, rejection might happen after transplant, and so anti-rejection measures must be taken.

Tang disclosed that pig corneas match those of humans the most amongst all animals, but they still need thorough checks and verifications before use.

Many foreign teachers in China don’t have teaching certificates: industry insiders

A new market for preschool English instruction is emerging in China and showing great growth potential, but many foreign teachers recruited by the training schools are unqualified.

Guo Xiaolin, a young girl less than three years old in Beijing, signed up for two English classes per week, with one of the classes lasting eight hours. The girl’s mother said she wants to foster her interest in learning English at an early age.

About 70 percent of Chinese children start to learn English before age five, according to a report about English learning among Chinese youths.

More and more Chinese parents, like Guo’s mother, are looking for ways to give their kids a head start in school.

However, a major problem for training schools is that many of their foreign teachers are not qualified. They are not certified in an internationally recognized English teaching and testing program, but still get jobs due to the sheer demand for native-English speakers.

An industry insider who preferred not to disclose his name said many foreign teachers at English training schools are not professional teachers. Many of them came to China to travel and then decided to stay as a part-time teacher.

The phenomenon results in high turnover rates for foreign teachers and influences the quality of the education. “It’s not rare to see students attend a class and one or two months later discover their teacher is gone and another foreigner has taken over the job,” an insider pointed out.

Bai Chen, a middle-level manager at a training school in Beijing, said over 20 foreign teachers he had worked with applied for the job merely to get a competitive salary. “Their resumes showed they were experienced, but it turned out they weren’t when asked to give a class,” Bai said.

“The fact is that some foreign teachers are not well-educated and a lot of them didn’t receive higher education in their home countries. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine how well they could teach the students,” Bai added.

Another person in charge of teaching at a training school in Beijing expressed similar concerns. He said some foreign teachers speak with strong accents and some lack teaching skills.

The person suggests that Chinese parents become less obsessed with foreign teachers and focus more on the learning abilities of their children. Some foreign teachers have high teaching skills, because they have passed rigorous hiring standards and attained teaching certificates, he also admitted.