The Talent

Talent may be the key stumbling block in China’s AI dream. AI experts and practitioners play a crucial role in driving the fundamental innovations around AI, as well as implementing existing AI solutions in different domains. Recognizing this deficiency, both Chinese government actors and commercial players are aggressively building up and recruiting AI talent from around the world.

Most existing attempts to map global AI talent suffer from two flaws: 1) they only take a snapshot view of the talent landscape at a single moment in time; 2) they look at quantitative metrics without accounting for qualitative differences in talent and researcher skill. To address these two shortcomings, this section aims to examine both the growth and flow of Chinese AI talent over time and to differentiate between levels and quality of talent.

Explore the graphs below for a deeper dive into China’s strengths and weaknesses in AI talent:

Based on measures of publications by faculty in top AI conferences, China’s universities and labs are climbing the ranks of leading AI research centers around the world…
Universities Ranked by Published Papers in Top AI Conferences

…but Chinese universities and industry labs are still not publishing “best-in-class” research at the top AI conferences,
where US institutions are the clear leaders. This is evidenced by the relatively low number of researchers based at Chinese companies and institutions who are publishing papers accepted for an oral presentation at NIPS, regarded as the most prestigious and most selective conference (~1% acceptance rate).
Current Country Affiliations of Top 1% AI Researchers

…Although Chinese labs are still not producing best-in-class research, individual Chinese researchers who did their undergraduate studies in China make up a significant portion of these top research teams
. This cohort of Chinese talent (educated in China, working or studying abroad, publishing top AI research) demonstrates the mobility and increasingly global flows of top AI talent. For the United States, these pools of top AI talent represent the strong attraction of American institutions and the gains from highly skilled immigrants. For China, they represent a base of talent that the government and top companies hope to draw back home, a brain drain that the country’s leaders hope to turn into a brain gain.
Undergraduate Country Affiliations of Top 1% AI Researchers

The career trajectories of Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) PhD fellows, who represent another top pool of Chinese AI talent, further validate this trend: Nearly half of the 2009 and 2010 MSRA fellows who received funding for PhDs at Chinese universities have worked overseas after graduation. Past MSRA fellows have gone on to build China’s top AI startups, lead AI research at China’s top tech giants and universities, and take on leading roles in US tech giants.

AI Talent Circulation

1. MSRA Fellows 2009-10

The competition to attract and retain this base of talent—to set the direction of these flows—will shape the future of AI development.