Addressing the AI talent shortage

June 13, 2018 10:56
Hong Kong needs to create an ecosystem that will help nurture more professionals in advanced technologies. Image: Artificial Intelligence Society of Hong Kong

Artificial intelligence (Al) is regarded as a key to the world's future development. For businesses, acquisition of talent is crucial, which has led to universities becoming an important battlefield.

Last year, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) said he was unable to recruit 50 AI personnel for Chinese tech giant Huawei. This makes me wonder the number of Al talents we have in Hong Kong.

My rough estimate is less than 1,000 in the local tertiary institutions. According to Professor Francis Lau, deputy dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), there are only 100 AI talents in the whole of the university.

Although the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) had applied deep learning study as early as 2001, it only opened Hong Kong’s first deep learning elective course and a bachelor’s degree in finance and technology in the recent two years. No wonder financial institutions such as JP Morgan Chase and HSBC have complained about a shortage of technology talents in Hong Kong.

HKU, HKUST, and CUHK are among the world’s top 50 in several international university rankings. But why are there so few AI talents in the city and such a weak innotech atmosphere?

I believe the source of problem is lack of an ecosystem of government, business, academia and research; and lack of open data and market size.

An ecosystem of government, business, academia and research enables the commercialization of scientific research and technology, and improvement and marketing of products. We have only a few successful cases, let alone be certain that researchers are likely to share the financial returns of their efforts.

Basically, the government, as one of the largest users, can provide the much needed initial momentum to establish an ecosystem. However, the implementation of new measures by the government is complicated and time-consuming. For example, it takes three years for the trial of the first 50 smart lampposts from conception to commissioning. I wonder if the technology tested would become outdated by then.

At the same time, the success of AI depends on the quantity of data available. The government’s one-stop open data platform or common spatial data infrastructure (CSDl) will only be ready by 2023. This kind of information sharing platform has long been available in Europe, the US, and Singapore.

While it is not new, we still have to wait for several years to enjoy it, which definitely weakens the potential and retards Hong Kong’s development of AI and innotech. I feel very much helpless.

Recently, German venture capital fund Asgard proposed to European policy makers to promote AI, saying Europe must be united to build a market comparable to that of China and the US. The proposal is similar to Hong Kong’s strategy to integrate with the Greater Bay Area, which is yet to be accepted by the Hong Kong people.

Apart from rule of law, Hong Kong's long-standing strengths, as mentioned by Alibaba's Jack Ma at the HKU recently, are: spirit of accommodation, innovation, and young people. Chief Executive Carrie Lam also pointed out earlier that in today’s economic environment, only entities that recruit and nurture the right talent would be successful.

I sincerely hope all parties can embrace innovative thinking and provide more opportunities for our young people. Only then can Hong Kong develop into a leading international innotech hub.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong