thing is clear: artificial intelligence may have been invented
in the West, but you can see its future taking shape on the
other side of the world.
My journey begins at MIT, one of the wellsprings of artificial
intelligence. Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known Chinese AI expert and
investor and one of the organizers of the Hainan tournament,
has come to recruit students for a new AI institute that his
company, Sinovation Ventures, is building in Beijing.
Lee gives a talk entirely in Mandarin to an auditorium
packed with about 300 Chinese students. He is dressed
impeccably, in an expensive-looking suit and dress shirt,
and he speaks in a confident, soothing tone. The talk touches
on the interwoven trends that have driven the recent rise in
machine intelligence: more powerful computers, ingenious
new algorithms, and huge quantities of data. He argues that
China is perfectly poised to take advantage of these advances.
“The U.S. and Canada have the best AI researchers in the
world, but China has hundreds of people who are good, and
way more data,” he tells the audience. “AI is an area where you
need to evolve the algorithm and the data together; a large
amount of data makes a large amount of difference.”
In 1998 Lee founded Microsoft’s Beijing research lab, which
showcased the country’s exciting talent pool (see “An Age of
Ambition,” June 2004). Then, in 2005, he became the found-
ing president of Google China. Lee is now famous for mentor-
ing young entrepreneurs, and he has more than 50 million
followers on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
In the audience are exactly the type of prized students
who would normally flock to Silicon Valley. But many are
clearly taken by Lee’s message of opportunities in China.
The crowd hangs on his every word, and some people clamor
for autographs afterward. “Today the U.S. has a technology
leadership,” Lee tells me later. “But China has a tremendous
amount of potential.”
To see what this potential looks like up close, I travel to
Lee’s new institute, half a world away from MIT, in Beijing’s
Haidian district. The streets outside are filled with people on
colorful ride-sharing bikes. I pass lots of fashionable-looking
young techies as well as people delivering breakfast—ordered
via smartphone, no doubt—to busy workers. At the time of
my visit, a major AI event is taking place a few hundred miles
to the south in Wuzhen, a picturesque town of waterways.
AlphaGo, a program developed by researchers at the Alpha-
bet subsidiary DeepMind, is playing the ancient board game
Go against several top Chinese players, including the world’s
number one, Ke Jie. And it’s soundly beating them.
AlphaGo’s victories in Wuzhen are followed closely in
the Chinese capital. As I enter Sinovation’s institute, in fact,
I notice a Go board on which engineers are testing out the
moves made during some of the matches.
The location of the institute is well chosen. From the
office windows, you can see the campuses of both Peking
University and Tsinghua University, two of China’s top academic institutions. Sinovation provides machine-learning
tools and data sets to train Chinese engineers, and it offers
expertise for companies hoping to make use of AI. The institute has about 30 full-time employees so far, but the plan is
to employ more than 100 by next year, and to train hundreds
of AI experts each year through internships and boot camps.
Right now, roughly 80 percent of the institute’s funding and
projects are aimed at commercializing AI, while the rest is
focused on more far-out technology research and startup
The goal isn’t to invent the next AlphaGo, though; it’s to
upgrade thousands of companies across China using AI. Lee
says many Chinese businesses, including the big state-owned
enterprises, are technologically backward and ripe for overhaul, but they lack any AI expertise themselves. Needless to
say, this presents an enormous opportunity.
Kai-Fu Lee is CEO of the venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures.