Race is on for AI prize

‘Olympian’ bat­tle ahead, Asia sum­mit hears

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Uni­ver­si­ties will face “Olympian” lev­els of com­pe­ti­tion in com­ing years as coun­tries race to make ad­vance­ments in fields such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and robotics, a vice-chan­cel­lor has warned.

Sir Keith Bur­nett, head of the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s Asia Uni­ver­si­ties Sum­mit, which took place last week in Shen­zhen, China, that uni­ver­si­ties – par­tic­u­larly in the West­ern world – could not be com­pla­cent at the dawn of a new tech­no­log­i­cal era.

“I think there will be some races run­ning be­tween na­tions…a race for who will have the most com­pe­tent and con­sis­tent team, over who can or­gan­ise AI, sim­u­la­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing in the same place, and I think China will win,” Sir Keith told the au­di­ence at the South­ern Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (SUSTech), not­ing that his own univer­sity had been quick to set up ties with in­sti­tu­tions in Asia. China has moved to in­crease its re­search and de­vel­op­ment spend more than 30 times over the past 20 years, while South Korea has strong nu­clear power and Ja­pan has “the best robotics at the mo­ment”, he ex­plained, in­sist­ing that such com­par­isons will be­come key in the com­ing years as ma­jor global com­pa­nies se­lect which economies to work with.

“This is what it’s go­ing to be, a kind of Olympics go­ing on in the in­dus­tries,” Sir Keith added, “and uni­ver­si­ties have to ask: where will they act in that space?

“It will cre­ate pres­sure to form al­liances. You do not want to be iso­lated when it comes to your in­dus­trial con­nec­tions or your aca­demic con­nec­tions in the very near fu­ture. Don’t think you can do it on your own, and don’t think you can plan for it on your own.”

Tack­ling what po­ten­tial prob­lems uni­ver­si­ties and their sup­port­ing economies could face in the new in­dus­trial age, panel mem­bers were split over the is­sue of em­ploy­ment.

Sung-Chul Shin, pres­i­dent of the Korea Ad­vanced In­sti­tute of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (KAIST), warned that un­em­ploy­ment would be a big chal­lenge, with as many as half of man­u­fac­tur­ing labour­ers des­tined to lose their jobs. “There will also be in­creased in­equal­ity,” he ar­gued, with tech gi­ants Google and Face­book al­ready dom­i­nat­ing global busi­ness.

Mar­garet Gard­ner (pic­tured in­set left), vice-chan­cel­lor of Monash Uni-

ver­sity, re­sponded that it was uni­ver­si­ties’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to coun­ter­act this by en­sur­ing that new roles were cre­ated to re­place those that be­come re­dun­dant.

“It is in­cum­bent on us [as uni­ver­si­ties] to speak and con­sis­tently retain cross-bor­der mo­bil­ity of schol­ars and stu­dents,” she added. “Although we are talk­ing about a dig­i­tal world, things that will make this run are real hu­man con­nec­tions.”

“The fourth rev­o­lu­tion is al­ready here, it is a fact of life and we have to em­brace it,” said Ti­mothy Tong, the fourth panel mem­ber and pres­i­dent of Hong Kong Polytech­nic Univer­sity.

While tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments may make in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tions eas­ier for re­searchers, univer­sity com­mu­ni­ties and sur­round­ing so­ci­eties, he said, free­dom of move­ment must be pro­tected to pre­pare for the new dig­i­tal era.

“Peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds deal with dif­fer­ent prob­lems in dif­fer­ent ways,” Pro­fes­sor Tong ex­plained. “It is not enough to sim­ply con­nect from afar; peo­ple from Hong Kong need to be aware of other cul­tures [and vice versa]. We are pre­par­ing our grad­u­ates to deal with these com­plex­i­ties, and real hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences will be key.”

New fron­tier there will be ‘a race over who can or­gan­ise AI, sim­u­la­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing in the same place…I think China will win’

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