China’s leading technology companies are on fire, heavily investing in artificial intelligence and building true global presences. McKinsey recently reported that academic and research institutions in the country publish more cited research papers than the US, UK or any other global leader in AI, producing nearly 10,000 papers in 2015 alone.
Backed by strong government mandates and billions of dollars in both private and public investments, China is challenging the US for position of global AI leader. Fearful of competition, the US government is considering placing restrictions on Chinese investments in AI and technology in the United States. In many sectors, such as healthcare, China may already be ahead of America in applying AI to critical public issues.
You might recognize names like Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun, Geoffrey Hinton, or Yann LeCun as important figures in AI, but few Westerners can name the key leaders driving AI innovation in China and at Chinese companies globally. These executives, entrepreneurs, professors, and researchers helm the most important Chinese tech companies and research labs and are respected widely for their technical expertise and accomplishments.
We’ve researched and curated 20 of the most important figures in the Chinese AI landscape that you should know:
1. Kai-Fu Lee
Co-Founder of Sinovation Ventures, Former President of Google China
Kai-Fu Lee is a globally recognized technology leader with executive experience at Apple, Microsoft, and Google. He got his BS in Computer Science from Columbia University and his PhD from Carnegie Mellon. Lee established Google China prior to co-founding Sinovation Ventures, a venture capital firm actively funding technology and AI startups in the US and China.
With celebrity status in China and over 50 million followers on Chinese social networks, Lee has become an oracle in predicting trends in Chinese tech. Lee told CNBC recently that artificial intelligence is the “singular thing that will be larger than all of human tech revolutions added together, including electricity, the industrial revolution, internet and mobile internet.”
2. Qi Lu
Group President & COO, Baidu
Qi Lu was hired by Baidu to lead the company’s strategic efforts in AI and push forward integration and collaboration within the company. Every Baidu business unit, including AI teams working on autonomous driving, reports to Lu. A spokesperson from Baidu stated: “With Dr. Lu on board, we are confident that our strategy will be executed smoothly and Baidu will become a world-class technology company and global leader in AI.”
Prior to joining Baidu, Lu was personally recruited by Steve Ballmer to join Microsoft where he eventually became EVP of the Applications & Services Group. Lu started his professional career in IBM’s research labs, before joining Yahoo and rising to EVP of the Search & Advertising Group. He completed a BS in Computer Science at Fudan University and was invited by Carnegie Mellon professor Edmund M. Clarke to pursue his PhD at CMU.
3. Haifeng Wang
Head of AI Group, Baidu
After Andrew Ng’s departure from Baidu, Haifeng Wang took over as leader of the expanded AI Group (AIG), consisting of Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning, Big Data Lab, Silicon Valley AI Lab, Augmented Reality Lab, Natural Language Unit, AI Platform Unit, and a few other departments.
Wang’s technical specialty is natural language processing (NLP) and machine translation and he has authored over 100 academic papers in AI. He applies his expertise to Baidu’s efforts in NLP, computer vision, speech recognition, knowledge graphs, personalized recommendations, and deep learning. Wang is also an adjunct professor at Harbin Institute of Technology where he received his BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Computer Science.
4. Tong Zhang
Executive Director of AI Lab, Tencent
The battle for top AI talent is incredibly fierce. Tong Zhang was poached from Baidu by Tencent last year to lead Tencent’s newly established AI lab. Formerly he was head of Baidu’s Big Data Lab, worked at IBM and Yahoo, and was a professor at Rutgers University.
With a team of over 50 research scientists and over 250 engineers, Zhang is focused on developing Tencent’s capabilities in machine learning, computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing. He will be applying new AI technologies in four main areas: games, social networking, content and platform tools, and Tencent's vast array of popular mobile products like WeChat.
5. Jingren Zhou
Chief Scientist and Vice President of Alibaba Cloud, Alibaba
Alibaba Cloud launched in 2009 and is now Alibaba’s fastest growing business unit. Similar to Amazon Web Services (AWS), Alibaba Cloud, also called Aliyun, emerged out of the company’s need for enormous computing power to handle millions of online shopping transactions.
Jingren Zhou leads big data and AI research at Alibaba Cloud’s Institute of Data Science Technology (iDST). In this role, he drives Alibaba’s AI technologies in speech, natural language, image and video processing and large-scale machine learning.
Prior to joining Alibaba, Zhou was an engineering manager at Microsoft in charge of developing the big data computation platform supporting Windows, Office and Bing. He received his BS from the University of Science and Technology of China and his PhD in Computer Science from Columbia University.
6. Jieping Ye
President, DiDi Research
DiDi Chuxing is the “Uber of China”, with over 50TB of real-time data and over 9 billion routes driven per day. DiDi Research, the “brains of Didi Chuxing,” is a machine learning research institute set up by the company to predict demand, reduce surge impact and also develop self-driving car technology.
Jieping Ye got his BS in Mathematics from Fudan University in China and PhD in Computer Science from University of Minnesota. Professor Jieping Ye leads DiDi’s big data team of scientists and engineers. A tenured professor of the University of Michigan and a worldwide leader in machine learning and data mining, he also serves as an editorial board member in several top-level international academic journals such as IEEE TPAMI, DMKD, and IEEE TKDE. He also serves as the program chair and area chair of multiple international conferences.
7. Yuanqing Lin
Head of Baidu Research, Baidu
As Head of Baidu Research, Yuanqin Lin manages Baidu's research labs, which include the Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL), Big Data Lab (BDL), Augmented Reality Lab (ARL), and the Institute of Deep Learning Lab (IDL). Along with Wei Xu, he will be leading Baidu’s contributions to China’s government funded National Engineering Laboratory of Deep Learning Technology that is co-helmed by Tsinghua & Beihang University.
Prior to Baidu, Lin was the head of Media Analytics at NEC Labs America where he led teams focusing on computer vision research for mobile search and driverless cars. Lin received his MS degree in Optical Engineering from Tsinghua University and his PhD in Electrical Engineering from University of Pennsylvania.
8. Pinpin Zhu
Xiaoi is China’s leading platform for conversational AI, powering the majority of the country’s bot and virtual assistant experiences. Established in Shanghai in 2001, the company’s technologies are used by hundreds of medium to large enterprises, government entities, and over 500 million users collectively.
Pinpin Zhu’s numerous patents in the space – including ones for “Chatting Robot System” and “SMS Robot System” – drove Xiaoi’s technical dominance in conversational interfaces. In addition to running Xiaoi, Zhu is also a Doctor of Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been appointed to China National Information Technology Standardization Committee, and has received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to the field.
9. Wei Xu
Distinguished Scientist, Baidu
In a company full of highly credentialed scientists, researchers, and engineers, Wei Xu is the only one with the title “Distinguished Scientist”. He is highly respected for his technical chops within the company due to his work on PaddlePaddle, a deep learning toolkit which was open sourced in late 2016. In development for over three years, PaddlePaddle is used to power search rankings, targeted advertising, image classification, translation, and self-driving cars.
Xu received his Bachelor’s degree at Tsinghua University, his MS from Carnegie Mellon, and was previously a researcher at NEC Labs and Facebook before joining Baidu.
10. Wanli Min
Principal Data Scientist, Alibaba
Wanli Min led the research and development of Alibaba Cloud's (Aliyun) artificial intelligence system, named Little Ai. Ai has been deployed by Alibaba internally to support customer service and traffic pattern predictions for the company’s flagship e-commerce business. Min also used machine learning to predict the winner of a top-rated Chinese reality TV show called “I Am Singer” and helped city planners in Guangdong province optimize traffic lights in real-time to reduce congestion.
Min entered college at the age of 14 and received his Bachelors from the University of Science & Technology of China and a PhD in Statistics from the University of Chicago.
11. Kun Jing
General Manager of Duer, Baidu
Duer is Baidu’s answer to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Assistant. The conversational AI platform powers virtual assistant capabilities in a number of devices, ranging from XiaoYu, China’s version of the Amazon Echo, to voice-activated smart televisions.
Kun Jing leads the Duer business unit. Prior to joining Baidu, Jing was Microsoft’s R&D Director and created Xiaoice, a popular chatbot that went viral on Tencent’s WeChat and Sina’s Weibo. Xiaoice has over 20 million registered users who interact with the bot an average of 60 times a month, earning it the rank of Weibo’s top influencer.
12. Dong Yu
Deputy Director of AI Lab, Tencent
Hired as deputy head of Tencent’s AI Lab, Dong Yu runs Tencent's Seattle AI Lab and focuses on research in speech recognition and natural language understanding. Prior to joining Tencent, Yu was the principal researcher at Microsoft Research Institute’s Speech and Dialog Group, an adjunct professor at Zhejiang University, a visiting professor at University of Science and Technology of China, and a visiting researcher at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He received a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Zhejiang University and a PhD in Computer Science from Idaho University.
"I'm excited to join AI Lab,” Yu shares. “Over the past decade, Tencent has accumulated abundant experience in application scenarios, developed a massive data bank, established powerful computing capabilities, and built an outstanding team of technology experts; all which have helped form the foundation of in-depth research and AI application at Tencent today.”
13. Adam Coates
Director of Silicon Valley AI Lab, Baidu
Coates received his BS, MS, and PhD degrees in Computer Science from Stanford University and has worked on everything from computer vision for autonomous cars, deep learning for speech recognition, and machine learning for helicopter acrobatics. At Baidu, he worked on DeepSpeech, a speech recognition and transcription engine that performs as well as native Mandarin speakers, and DeepVoice, a text-to-speech synthesis engine that generates believable human-like audio.
Coates is particularly excited about putting AI in the hands of real-world consumers. When he was selected by MIT Technology Review as one of 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2015, he explainedthat “in rapidly developing economies like in China, there are many people who will be connecting to the Internet for the first time through a mobile phone. Having a way to interact with a device or get the answer to a question as easily as talking to a person is even more powerful to them. I think of Baidu’s customers as having a greater need for artificial intelligence than myself.”
14. Kai Yu
Founder & CEO, Horizon Robotics
Formerly head of Baidu's Institute of Deep Learning, Kai Yu left Baidu to start Beijing-based startup Horizon Robotics. Funded by leading investors like Yuri Milner and Sequoia Capital, Yu’s mission is to become the “Android of Robotics,” a pervasive AI system that powers all of our smart devices. Unlike other Chinese tech giants which dominate in the cloud, Horizon aims to adapt AI to every piece of hardware in the physical world.
Horizon has launched two platforms to date: Anderson for smart homes and Hugo for smart driving. Anderson imbues home appliances with capabilities such as facial recognition and automatic ordering, while Hugo is an advanced driver assistance system that performs real-time pedestrian and object detection even in adverse weather conditions.
Yu received his BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering from Nanjing University and his PhD in Computer Science from Ludwig-Maximilians Universitat Munchen in Germany.
15. Jing Wang
Former Senior Vice President of Engineering, Baidu
While at Baidu, Jing Wang managed over 5,000 engineers in numerous business units, including the ones he founded: Mobile, Cloud Computing, Big Data, Cybersecurity, Baidu Research, and Autonomous Driving. He left the company shortly after Andrew Ng’s resignation to start his own self-driving car company, and is widely credited with driving forward Baidu’s progress in the space.
Prior to joining Baidu, Wang was Deputy Head of Google’s Shanghai engineering office as well as eBay China’s CTO and R&D general manager. He received his Bachelor's from the University of Science & Technology of China and his Master's in Computer Science from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
16. Bo Zhang
Professor of Computer Science and Technology, Tsinghua University
As a professor at Tsinghua University, Bo Zhang’s research interests include AI, machine learning, pattern recognition, knowledge engineering, and robotics. His notable academic achievements include advances in robotic task and motion planning, probabilistic logic neural networks (PLN), and machine learning algorithms for image retrieval and classification and webpage structure mining.
Along with Baidu and Wei Li of Beihang University, Tsinghua was selected to co-lead the government-funded National Engineering Laboratory of Deep Learning. He is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and received his Bachelor’s in Automatic Control from Tsinghua University.
17. Hua Wu
Technical Chief of NLP Group, Baidu
Hua Wu contributed a number of technical breakthroughs in natural language processing (NLP), dialogue systems, and neural machine translation (NMT) in her seven year tenure at Baidu. The New York Times hailed her research work in multi-task learning as “pathbreaking” and she was able to successfully deploy her invention at scale to hundreds of millions of users of Baidu’s translation products. Wu is also responsible for the technology behind Baidu’s conversational AI, Duer.
Wu received her PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and co-chairs leading academic AI conferences such as ACL and IJCAI.
18. Wei Li
President and Professor of Computer Science, Beihang University
Along with Bo Zhang of Tsinghua University and senior executives from Baidu, Wei Li was selected to co-lead China’s National Engineering Laboratory of Deep Learning. He is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and also president of Beihang University. Li has won numerous accolades and prizes for his technical contributions in artificial intelligence and network computing.
Li graduated from the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics of Beijing University and received his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh.
19. Hongbin Zha
Professor of Machine Learning, Peking University
“China hopes to leap-frog the US and other Western countries by vast and fast investment in the AI industry,” says Hongbin Zha, AI researcher and professor at Beijing’s Peking University. Zha directs the Key Lab of Machine Perception at Peking University and collaborates with Microsoft Research Asia alongside other AI leaders across the continent. His research interests include computer vision theory, virtual reality, and robotics.
He received his Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Hefei University of Technology in China and his MS and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering from Kyushu University in Japan.
20. Yunji Chen
Professor at Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences
In 2015, Yunji Chen was selected by MIT Technology Review as one of their top 35 Innovators Under 35. Described as “iconoclastic and cosmopolitan”, he was chosen for his work in designing specialized deep-learning processors which dramatically reduce the computational costs of large-scale machine learning. His dream is to enable even common cell phones to be “as powerful as Google Brain”.
Chen entered college at age 14 and completed his PhD with lightning speed by the age of 24. He’s now chief architect of the Godson-3C, a microprocessing chip that reduces energy requirements for computers to recognize objects and translate languages and is developing the Cambricon, a brain-inspired processor chip that models human nerve cells and synapses to facilitate deep learning. The research team is led by Chen and his younger brother, Tianshi Chen, two of the youngest professors at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Written by Adelyn Zhou contributed to Forbes