This Chinese Lab Is Aiming for Big AI Breakthroughs



BAAI opened a year later, in Zhongguancun, a neighborhood of Beijing designed to replicate US innovation hubs such as Boston and Silicon Valley. It is home to a few big tech companies modeled on Western successes, like the PC maker Lenovo and the search engine Sogou, as well as countless cheap electronics stores.

In recent years, the electronics stores have begun disappearing, and dozens of startups have sprung up, many focused on finding lucrative uses for AI—in manufacturing, robotics, logistics, education, finance, and other fields.

BAAI will move into a new building not far from the current offices later this year. The location is both symbolic and practical, within walking distance of China’s two most prestigious universities, Tsinghua and Peking, as well as the Zhongguancun Integrated Circuit Park, opened by the government last year to attract home-grown microchip businesses.

The pandemic has interrupted visits to China. I’ve met some academics working at BAAI before, and talked to others there over Zoom. An administrative assistant gave me a guided tour over WeChat video. Through the tiny screen, I saw engineers and support staff seated in an open-plan office between lush-looking potted plants. Plaques on the wall of the reception area identify the academy’s departments, including Intelligent Information Processing and Face Structured Analysis. A large sign lays out the principles that guide the center: Academic thinking. Basic theory. Top talents. Enterprise innovation. Development policy.

One group at BAAI is exploring the mathematical principles underpinning machine-learning algorithms, an endeavor that may help improve upon them. Another group is focused on drawing insights from neuroscience to build better AI programs. The most celebrated machine-learning approach today—deep learning—is loosely inspired by the way neurons and synapses in the human brain learn from input. A better understanding of the biological processes behind animal and human cognition could lead to a new generation of smarter machines. A third group at the academy is focused on designing and developing microchips to run AI applications more efficiently.

Many BAAI-affiliated researchers are doing cutting-edge work. One works on ways to make deep learning algorithms more efficient and compact. Another studies “neuromorphic” computer chips that could fundamentally change the way computers work by mirroring biological processes.

China boasts some top academic AI talent, but it still has fewer leading experts than the US, Canada, or some European countries. A study of AI research papers by the Paulson Institute released in June found that China and the US produce about the same number of AI researchers each year, but the vast majority of them end up working in the US.

The issue has become more urgent of late, after the Trump administration imposed sanctions that capitalize on China’s inability to manufacture the most advanced microchips. The US has most prominently targeted Huawei, which it accuses of funneling data to the government, including for espionage, cutting off its supplies of the chips needed to make high-end smartphones. In 2019, the US broadened Chinese sanctions to ban US firms from doing business with several AI firms, accusing them of supplying technology for state surveillance. President Biden may take a different approach than Trump, but he is unlikely to ignore China’s technological threat.

Tiejun Huang, a codirector of BAAI, speaks carefully, after a long pause to collect and translate his thoughts. He says the center is modeled on Western institutions that bring together different disciplines to advance AI. Despite difficult US-China relations, he says, it is crucial for the academy to build ties with such institutions. It has sent researchers to visit MILA in Canada and the Turing Institute in the UK, two of the world’s top centers of AI expertise. AI scientists from US institutions including Princeton and UC Berkeley serve on the academy’s advisory committee.

The Chinese government is not alone in investing in AI. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency backs research with potential military uses. Yet many in the West are wary of how the Chinese state could use technology to further its interests and values—for example, tying digital technologies to the Belt and Road Initiative, which builds economic and infrastructure links to neighboring countries. With clear ties to the Chinese government, it isn’t hard to see a broader agenda in BAAI’s work.