Google, Looking to Tiptoe Back into China, Announces AI Center
Posted December 13, 2017 2:25 p.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2017 4:12 p.m. EST
HONG KONG — Google pulled some of its core businesses out of China seven years ago, after concluding that government controls and surveillance ran counter to its commitment to a free and open internet.
Since then, as China’s online scene has grown and prospered, the American search giant has been looking for ways to tiptoe back in.
On Wednesday, it unveiled a small but symbolically significant move toward that end: a China-based center devoted to artificial intelligence. The move nods to the country’s growing strength in AI, thanks to substantial government funding prompted by Beijing’s ambition of having a say in the technologies of the future.
Google said the center would have a team of experts in Beijing, where the company has hundreds of employees in research and development, as well as other roles. The center will be led by Fei-Fei Li, who runs Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and leads the artificial intelligence arm of Google’s Cloud business, and Jia Li, the head of research and development for the AI division of Google Cloud.
The Silicon Valley company, which announced the center’s opening at a software developer conference in Shanghai, cited China’s growing academic and technical contributions to the AI field, and said the new center would be “working closely with the vibrant Chinese AI research community.”
“The science of AI has no borders,” Fei-Fei Li said in a post on Google’s website, and “neither do its benefits.”
Google did not disclose financial details.
The company is only the latest big technology name to set up an AI shop in China to capitalize on growing skills and lavish state support. Microsoft, IBM and other Western and domestic stalwarts are busy hiring Chinese staff members in a field with a wide variety of potential applications.
China’s AI push is part of a government-driven effort to upgrade the country’s technological abilities and to wean itself off foreign-made software and advanced equipment. The push has prompted worries among Western corporate executives, and increasingly the Trump administration, which complain that Beijing unfairly nurtures their potential rivals.
The new Google AI center could deepen the company’s fraught but complicated relationship with China, now home to the world’s biggest population of online users.
Google closed its search business in China in 2010, saying it would no longer tolerate Beijing’s censorship requirements and government-linked efforts to hack the Gmail accounts of human rights activists and others. Google’s services were subsequently blocked in the country, and China’s internet developed its own answers to the company’s products, from email and search to video-sharing and chat.
Still, Google never left China entirely. It has an active business distributing online ads for desktop computers and mobile applications, and Chinese makers of smartphones use its Android mobile device software.
The two sides have shown signs of warming. Last week, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, spoke at China’s annual internet conference in the city of Wuzhen, saying the company did robust business helping Chinese firms seeking customers abroad. And this year, Google began offering its translation software in China.
“We have 600-plus employees in China and we had a similar number in 2010,” said Taj Meadows, a Google spokesman. “Roughly half of them are engineers working on global products. Work on AI will be in a similar vein.”
Tech figures inside and outside the country are watching whether Google opens a mobile app store there, but there has been little indication of progress on that front.