ChinAI #34: Talent Poaching + a Chinese Self-Driving Car Startup to Watch

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These are Jeff Ding's weekly translations of writings on AI policy and strategy from Chinese thinkers. I'll also include general links to all things at the intersection of China and AI. Please share the subscription link if you think this stuff is cool. Here's an archive of all past issues. *Subscribers are welcome to share excerpts from these translations as long as my original translation is cited.

I'm a grad student at the University of Oxford where I'm the China lead for the Governance of AI Program, Future of Humanity Institute.

Chinese Self-Driving Car Startup Poaches Key Talent from Waymo

Those who have been following the newsletter since day 1 know that one of my favorite topics to cover is the competition over AI talent — partly because it reveals an interesting difference between tech media ecosystems, as I think Chinese media places more emphasis on seemingly mundane personnel changes, almost idolizes celebrity “master” engineers (as we’ll see in this week’s feature translation, and I think appropriately places a lot of value on talent as a key factor in AI development.

This week’s feature translation is a story about Google Waymo’s tech lead in perception/object detection, Zhang Yimeng, who recently left to become the director of perception at Pony.ai, a Chinese self-driving car startup.

Now, talented people leave big companies like Waymo and Baidu to join self-driving car startups all the time, but this story sheds more light on two fronts:

  • Why are people like Zhang Yimeng joining Chinese startups? The article claims that one important reason for Zhang was the “China factor,.” In describing her decision process, the article reads, “This girl from the northeast (of China), though she has always been studying abroad and working in Silicon Valley, also hopes to participate further in boosting China’s AI.”

  • The second main insight of the story is Pony.ai’s appeal. Article argues that there may be a “latecomer advantage” in field of autonomous driving, where upstarts like Pony can catch up to established leaders like Waymo who had an eight-year headstart — an important emphasis point is China as a testing site, with more extreme traffic scenarios which may be key for perfecting algorithms. In addition, some nice nuggets about the reverence for Pony’s co-founder Tiancheng Lou as well as Pony’s connection with Guangzhou’s Nansha district for testing. Full translation (link to Google doc below bolded and underlined) also has pictures of how Pony’s sensor system has changed.

FULL TRANSLATION: POACHING WAYMO LEADER ZHANG YIMENG AND ANOTHER HALF YEAR FOR PONY.AI

Some Housecleaning from Past Issues

First, for those interested in Chinese AI talent flows, you can scan past issues of the newsletter in the archive linked above. Issue #6 featured translated excerpts from a book called Talent War by Dr. Wang, founder and president of the China Western (Overseas) Returned Scholars Association. 

Second, I’m glad people are following up on an issue from a couple weeks ago on the complicity of Chinese facial recognition startups in the securitization of Xinjiang. In that issue, I called out Megvii (Face++) and Sensetime (China’s two largest computer vision startups) for their participation in what a UN human rights panel has called “mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs.”

  • This past week, someone let me know that I forgot to include the link to the full translation of an article in which it’s mentioned that Sensetime and Leon Technology, a Urumqi-based security company, announce a joint venture company.

  • In coverage of the China-Eurasia Security Expo (where a lot of these deals take place), the article says, “In this exhibition, Leon Technology and Sensetime jointly launched their joint venture company Tang Li Technology.”

  • Here’s the link to that full translation. The past issue has been edited to reflect the addition of the translation.

This Week's ChinAI Links

Chinese phrase of the Week: 教主 (jiao4zhu3): the phrase literally means founder of a religion, but in this week’s article it’s used to describe Tiancheng Lou (楼教主) — I’ve translated it as “Master” Lou - my best guess is that it’s a term of reference/respect since Lou is a quasi-legendary figure, probably due to his impressive background: a top coder (by handle of ACRush), became Baidu's youngest T10 engineer, before co-founding Pony. Would be interested if others have run into this phrase before.

Good Bloomberg piece on how the talent for building autonomous driving is still located in Silicon Valley, which explains why Chinese startups like Pony.ai, Roadstar, and Jingchi.ai all have offices there.

A must-read piece by Lorand Laskai and Samm Sacks in Foreign Affairs that provides a balanced perspective on how the U.S. can balance collaboration and competition with China in technological innovation.

This Wired article on “The AI Cold War that Threatens Us All” has some good points but I found it a little winding with random asides and detours (e.g. a section devoted to Kissinger’s article on AI).

We’ve run into the idea of Shanzhai (I’ve translated it as bandit copy-cat) innovation in some past translations - this is a cool academic article on the innovation phenomenon, not the easiest read but a good exploration of the topic.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

Shout out to everyone who is commenting on the translations - idea is to build up a community of people interested in this stuff. You can contact me at jeffrey.ding@magd.ox.ac.uk or on Twitter at @jjding99