China Boosting Tech Education to Become AI Leader

China has been making significant efforts in recent years to become a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. For example, the Chinese government has focused heavily on teaching young people to code in the last several years. This is especially the case as China is trying to close the gap in its workforce that works in technology, especially in AI. (NBCnews.com)

In November, the education ministry in China updated its curriculum to include materials about big data, AI, coding, and quantum computing. Approximately 25% of the 422-page recommended reading list features materials about math, science, chemistry, aerospace, medicine, and AI.

According to Vita Zhou, an eight-year-old who is the poster child for China’s efforts to become a leader in AI and high tech, learning to code is ‘not that easy, but also is not that difficult, at least not as difficult as you have imagined.’ Vita has learned Swift, Scratch, and C++ at only eight years old.

From his apartment in Shangai, Vita is the host of training videos for other Chinese children on how to code for AI. He now has 80,000 followers on Bilibili, a Chinese streaming website. Some of his videos have had more than 1.3 million views. Vita has gotten attention from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who sent him birthday wishes on Weibo, which is similar to Twitter.

China Has Much Ground to Make Up on Artificial Intelligence

China’s efforts to become a tech and AI leader come at a time when it is far behind the United States in these critical areas. The number of top researchers in AI in China are ⅕ of that in the US, according to the Center for Data Innovation based in Washington. China also has a shortage of at least 5 million AI workers, according to a 2017 article in the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily.

However, these shortcomings have not prevented the country from setting aggressive targets for its tech workforce. China plans to catch up to the United States in the next year, based on its government blueprint “A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.”

To close the AI and tech talent gap, China is now increasing AI education for children, in addition to efforts to boost the number of coding and AI students from universities. By 2018, there were more than 90 universities in China with AI-related degree programs, up from only 19 the year before.

New Chinese AI Companies Being Launched

There have been many Chinese AI companies that have opened their doors in the past few years, such as SenseTime, iFlytek, Cloudwalk and DJI. These companies have gotten the world’s attention for their abilities in sound recognition, facial recognition, and drone technology. China’s largest technology companies, including Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei, and Baidu, also have put millions of dollars into AI research and development.

Some of these companies have been hurt financially by China’s trade war with the United States, with Washington DC blocking some Chinese technology firms from acquiring highly advanced technologies. But tech experts in China maintain that the roadblocks are just increasing China’s desire to make progress in AI.

Some say that the increasingly fierce trade and tech competition between the two countries is putting pressure on China to boost its capacity for technological innovation. This means the country needs to encourage students to study technology and to become more innovative.

AI Education in Schools Being Ramped Up

In 2018, the Chinese education ministry added artificial intelligence to its high school curriculum. This move has encouraged more than 25 million teenagers to study AI. Also in 2018, China released its first AI textbook for high school students. The textbook introduces basic concepts about image recognition, sound recognition, deep learning, and text recognition. It was put to use in 40 pilot schools last year.

Students who have been exposed to the new curriculum have said they want to read more books that explain the science behind AI, aerospace, big data, and programming. Many also want to join science competitions to learn more about technology.

Other Countries Upping Their AI Game

China is not the only country that is increasing artificial intelligence education. While the private sector is leading the response to AI, governments in France, South Korea, and the US also have established strategies to boost its workforce in the AI sector with more investments. But most of these efforts are at the university level, according to a UNESCO report from 2019. (Unesco.org)

Many EU member states also are reviewing their education curricula to include more lessons about AI and computational thinking in classrooms. Some countries, such as Poland, Austria, and Lithuania, have provided strong computer science education in high schools for years.

The enthusiasm for artificial intelligence education is affecting more than just public policy. The market value of the coding industry for children was only $57 million in 2018 and will surge to more than $4 billion by 2023. That is an increase of 650% in just five years, according to a report by the Chinese consulting company iResearch.

This investment in AI is causing a transformation in classrooms in China. In Shenzhen, a China tech hub, an artificial intelligence program for students in grades 3-8 was piloted in 2019.

Many teachers in China believe that teaching artificial intelligence has other benefits; it helps children to understand scientific concepts when they are young, and also improves their problem-solving abilities, which will enhance their future development.