China's quest for AI glory leads to 400 new university majors in big data, AI
A child touches robot Xiaoyi (L) that provides services such as giving directions and answering questions, at a hospital in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on September 6, 2018. Source: AFP/STR

The Asian superpower is cementing its position as the world leader in big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, as its government announces plans to unleash a massive number of university majors in this field.

Its universities will offer around 400 new majors related to these emerging technologies, as well as 612 new engineering research projects, China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last week, as reported by the People’s Daily Online.

“AI and big data are newly established majors and will be taught in some directions like computer application technology, information and communication, control science and engineering,” Fan Hailin, Deputy Director of MOE’s Department of Higher Education said.

The new courses show China’s ambitions for global leadership in two areas: AI and higher education. Analysts predict it will probably win the former, as the US shows no signs of national technology investment strategies that could compete with China’s. For the latter, China is rapidly climbing global league tables, challenging the old hegemony of the West, with no sign of slowing down.

Children playing with a Keeko robot after a class at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing. In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and even educators. Source: AFP/Greg Baker

As the world’s largest higher education system – there are 1,245 undergraduate colleges teaching more than 28 million students – the country has the infrastructure to support this expansion. Having seven Chinese universities in the top 20 Asia University Rankings, published by Times Higher Education, is a testament of the quality its system, a result of its 20-year commitment to raising higher education standards.

Just as aggressive as its push in education is its multi-billion-dollar plan for government investment into AI research and applications, which will support ambitious major projects, startups and academic research. The goal, announced in 2017, is to make the country the world leader in AI technologies – and this includes making Chinese colleges and universities world-leading AI innovation centres and a hotbed for AI talent by 2030. Since then, Chinese AI startups have raised US$27.7 billion via 369 VC deals in 2017, according to a recent report from Tsinghua University. The Conversation notes that Chinese governments at the state-level are also spending billions on AI-related businesses.

Medium report last year stated more than 70 Chinese universities and colleges have introduced AI-related majors, while another 283 are licensed to teach data science. This includes Tsinghua University, Jilin University, Liaoning Technical University, Tianjin Universit, Nankai University and Harbin Institute of Technology. Entry requirements, however, are high – good scores on entrance exams are required and helpful if supplemented with performance in STEM-related competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad.

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