Scientist leading Sino-Australian research center urges society to embrace artificial intelligence
(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)
At the World Economic Forum in Dalian in June it was claimed that in 43 percent of the top academic papers relating to AI, or artificial intelligence, one or more of the publishing researchers were Chinese, regardless of where in the world they were working.
Furthermore, it was said that China is fast becoming a critical global hub for AI development.
China’s proud history of mathematics, engineering and science has become the foundation for the country’s future in the 21st century as it positions itself to become not only a technology innovator but leader.
Professor Tao Dacheng is a product of that talent pool.
When Tao joined the University of Sydney’s faculty of engineering and information technologies in 2016, he was ranked by Thomson Reuters as one of the most cited researchers in his field — engineering and computer science.
Recently he was named the inaugural director of a new research center the Australian university has set up with UBTECH Robotics — a world leader in humanoid robotics based in Shenzhen in South China’s Guangdong province — to “explore the untapped opportunities artificial intelligence will bring to mankind”.
But not everyone shares Tao’s enthusiasm for AI and where it could take us as human beings.
Professor Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time and one of the greatest scientists of his generation, is on record as saying the development of “full artificial intelligence” could spell the end of the human race.
Other luminaries questioning where AI is taking us have included billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, inventor of the Apple computer.
Tao has his own views.
“To understand artificial intelligence is to understand human intelligence,” he said. “Human intelligence is about four categories of capabilities — perceiving, learning, reasoning and behavior.
“If we can put such capabilities into machines, those machines will be able to carry out functions like humans. They may even perform better than humans on some specific tasks.
“That is the challenge with artificial intelligence … transferring those human capabilities to a machine.”
Tao understands the fears many express about AI.
“Earlier this year, the world’s best Go player was beaten by Google’s AlphaGo,” he said, referring to the ancient Chinese board game and the AI developed to tackle it.
“A long time ago, AI researchers thought that computers can play chess but not Go, because Go is more complex. When AlphaGo beat the best player, the community raised more questions about AI.”
Tao agrees there is much uncertainty about AI and the impact it will have on humans.
“But we can’t deny the benefits. We are living in a world where technology is taking over more of what we do. Artificial intelligence is simply taking us to the next level.
“As humans we are able to make decisions and react or behave in certain situations,” he said.
“I expect sometime in the future we will have machines that will be able to do the same thing. Not only that, they will have the capability to perceive and learn.”
Growing up in Northwest China, where his father was an engineer, Tao fell in love with mathematics at an early age. He enjoyed the challenge of tackling tricky mathematical problems.
“Some of my teachers suggested I should go into electrical engineering, but I found myself drawn to technology and computer science.
“I saw this as the future. I could have gone into the commercial world but found university suited me. It gave me freedom to research and pass on knowledge to students … lots of students. These students will carry what we are doing today into the future.”
Tao said the study of AI is growing as a research subject.
“The application of artificial intelligence cuts across all disciplines,” he said. “Take medicine: We are seeing students transferring across to study AI when they finish their medical degrees.
“It is very exciting to mix AI with medicine. We cannot ask doctors to fully understand AI. The key is building the bridge so that doctors can see the benefits of AI.
“We are already seeing AI being used in surgery with great success. It will not replace surgeons or doctors, but it will enhance their work. You still need a human to monitor the technology.”
Tao said access to UBTECH’s innovative technology will put his team at the forefront of training, research and innovation in robotics and AI.
“By utilizing UBTECH’s state-of-the-art technology and outstanding creativity, we will be able to thoroughly develop, analyze and evaluate AI algorithms and theories for humanoid robots, which will bridge the gap between AI studies in universities and real-world AI utilization.
“We’re working toward a future where humanoid robots walk out of our research center and into ordinary people’s households.
“Yes, technology is taking over jobs that humans once did. We saw it in Japan, decades ago in the auto industry, where robots started to do the work,” he said.
Tao noted how modern technology and AI now play a role in almost every aspect of our lives.
“Facial recognition can pick individuals out in crowds, we have driverless cars, surgery being performed by robots … this technology is changing the way we work and how we work.
“It is changing the way we learn, discover and communicate.”
He added that society should embrace AI, “not be afraid of it”.
“This technology holds not only social benefits but economic benefits as well. We are only at the beginning of this new revolution,” he said.
Tao’s AI research focuses on computer vision, deep learning and statistical learning.
Two years ago, when he was at the University of Technology Sydney, he and his research team made a significant breakthrough in facial recognition technology. Such technology is now being used in many countries around the world.
“Artificial intelligence will give us a better understanding of what human intelligence is,” he said.
“It is not just about programming information into a computer or robot. It is about other things as well, such as image processing, data mining, cognitive sciences, psychology and mechanical engineering.”
Much of Tao’s research has been with sight.
“About 80 percent of how we perceive the world comes from sight,” he said. “We can recognize objects, but the question is still, why?
“Related to this is our ability to learn things and our ability to reason, and how we behave.”
Tao said Australia has made a significant contribution to AI, machine learning and cognition.
“Our problem is attracting talent,” he said. “We find many of our young, talented people continue to go overseas, usually to the US. In recent years, China is doing very well in attracting overseas talent.”
He said Australia has many top-quality universities, but more funding is needed “for us to support our research and attract talented researchers and retain our young graduates”.
“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Australia but for mankind,” Tao said. “There is no turning back … it is a fact of life and we have to embrace it.
“If we don’t, we will fall behind other countries that have made technology and artificial intelligence a priority. We may not see the benefits now, but we will in the future.”
Director, UBTECH Sydney Artificial Intelligence Centre
2004-07: PhD in computer science, Birkbeck, University of London
1997-2002: Bachelor of engineering in electrical engineering and information sciences, University of Science and Technology of China, Anhui province
2002-04: Master of philosophy in information engineering, Chinese University of Hong Kong
2017: Director, UBTECH Sydney Artificial Intelligence Centre
2016-present: Professor of computer science, School of Information Technologies, University of Sydney
2010-16: Professor of computer science, University of Technology Sydney
2008-14: Visiting professor at institutes including Xidian University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan University and Birkbeck, University of London
2008-10: Assistant professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
2007-08: Assistant professor, Hong Kong Polytechnic University
How do you see artificial intelligence (AI) evolving?
I see it evolving to the point where, sometime in the future, humanoid robots have the power to perceive, learn, reason and behave.
What will the future look like with AI?
One would hope much easier.
What got you interested in AI?
Hard to say. From an early age I loved mathematics … I guess that got me started.
Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
I owe a great deal to so many people, from teachers and professors to my many mentors. It would be difficult to name just one person.
Date of birth: Sept 3, 1978