Google is deepening its push into China as it seeks an edge in one of technology’s most competitive fields: artificial intelligence.
The Alphabet Inc. unit will announce the opening of a new Beijing research facility on Wednesday during its second annual developers conference in Shanghai, the company said. The Google AI China Center will have a small group of researchers supported by several hundred China-based engineers.
Google has been re-building its presence in China, where it defied the government in 2010 by refusing to self-censor search content and later had most of its services blocked. The U.S. giant has been ramping up hiring and promotion of its TensorFlow AI tools, features that Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai highlighted when he visited the country earlier this month.
Showing China you’re “contributing to the country’s development through creating jobs, training engineers, and ultimately building a higher tech proficiency base helps build goodwill with China,” says Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.
It also helps that the Chinese government has made AI a national priority, with policy makers in July announcing plans to develop an industry generating 400 billion yuan ($60 billion) of annual output by 2025 and a world leader in the science by 2030.
Google’s most recent move to formalize its AI presence in the country is a tacit acknowledgment that companies and governments in China and the U.S. are locked in a race to determine how the art and science of AI will be applied around the world.
The company declined to specify how many people it would hire but says it plans to build out the team further and is actively recruiting.
“It will be a small team focused on advancing basic AI research in publications, academic conferences and knowledge exchange,” said Fei-Fei Li, the chief scientist at Google’s cloud unit who will lead the Beijing research center.
Attracting top talent won’t be easy. Google faces fierce competition from Chinese giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Baidu Inc. The local rivals, which dominate the domestic tech scene, offer engineers a potent blend of unrivaled user datasets and lucrative salary packages.
Artificial intelligence applications like image recognition only become accurate and useful once they are fed with huge reams of detailed user data. That has helped spur Chinese development thanks to the country’s 731 million internet users, who typically provide more detailed information than Western counterparts. For example, short-term loan provider Yongqianbao, also known as Smartfinance, determines loan eligibility by tracking 1,200 data points like how often users charge their phones or whether people call them back.
Without a strong Chinese user base, Google doesn’t have data that goes that deep on people in the country. But the company says the AI center is more focused on attracting top-notch researchers coming out of China, rather than data.
“My job is to continue advancing AI research, recognizing that AI is a global challenge that requires global talent,” Li says, explaining that there’s plenty of robust open-source data sets that are publicly available.