China is emerging as a global powerhouse for artificial intelligence (AI) and Ireland offers an ideal location for Chinese companies to extend their international reach in this critically important space. China’s growing pre-eminence in this area is in line with the “One Belt One Road” initiative announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 and the latest Chinese Government Work Report has also prioritised AI development.
Overall, the Chinese government has set some $120bn aside for investment in this critically important technology. “This pretty much blows everyone else out of the water in terms of investment scale”, says IDA Ireland chief technologist Ken Finnegan.
Earlier this year, the Chinese National Development and Research Commission (NDRC), announced the launch of a new national engineering laboratory for the research and application of deep learning, a key AI technology, and appointed tech giant, Baidu Inc to lead it. The lab will research a range of topics including machine learning-based visual recognition, voice recognition, new types of human-machine interaction and deep learning intellectual property.
China’s two other internet giants, Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings, are also making major strides in the area. Alibaba’s cloud-computing arm is making AI technology more accessible to businesses through tools like ET Medical Brain and ET Industrial Brain. ET Medical Brain enables the use of computers as virtual medical assistants while ET Industrial Brain offers rapid identification of and solutions to production process issues.
Tencent has established its own 250 strong AI research team to focus on the application of AI to online entertainment content, social media, online games, and cloud services.
This is indicative of a fundamental global shift in emphasis when it comes to technology development, according to Finnegan. “For the past 10 years mobile first has been the expression, AI first is the new expression”, he says.
What is AI?
He explains that AI is not a single technology but is actually an umbrella term for quite a range of different yet complementary technologies. “It covers software, big data, data analytics, vision processing, natural language processing, and machine learning”, he says.
He point out that the leap forward is achieved by adding machine learning to these other technologies. “To recognise a cat, a computer using advanced vision processing and big data technologies would first have to look at millions of cats, store them in its memory, and then compare the cat it sees to those images before deciding if it is a cat. Machine learning takes this one step further and knows why a cat is a cat so doesn’t have to go through all the images.”
That additional capability is enormously significant. “Previously, when disruptors came along they came along one industry at a time. AI is a disruptor for all industries, however. As a result, it is believed that 60 per cent of children in primary school today will work in jobs which don’t yet exist.”
It is also a global technology and international collaboration will be a prerequisite for success. No single organisation or country can lead on its own and the leaders in the field have been extending their global reach in order to maintain their position.
Ireland has proven especially attractive to these organisations. “Already, global giants such as Amazon have research teams in Ireland working on technologies like natural language processing while Zalando developed its analytics platform in Ireland”, says Finnegan. “There is also a vibrant AI start-up scene in this country with companies like Aylien using artificial intelligence to create a data analytics solution to make sense of vast quantities of web content. Another start-up, Artomatix is developing quite revolutionary technology which will speed up the 3D modelling and animation process.”
Ireland’s strengths in this area begin with the country’s location at the natural crossroads between Europe and America. “Companies wishing to develop AI solutions and launch them into both the European and US markets are increasingly looking to Ireland as a base”, says Finnegan. “Ireland is a perfect home for AI research and development. The country is part of EU, it is English speaking, and offers a great platform for entry to the European and American markets. Companies from outside of Europe are coming here for access to the EU while quite a few European companies are coming here looking for a launch pad into the US.”
But there is more than location involved. Pedigree is also vitally important. “If you look at Ireland you can see that we are in a very good place when it comes to AI”, Finnegan continues. “But to understand where we are you’ve got to understand where we came from and that story begins 61 years ago when IBM came here. It started with a small sales office and today the company’s largest software engineering facility outside the US is here in Dublin.”
This is a pretty fair analogue for the story of Ireland’s progress in the ICT sector generally and the AI area in particular. The timeline begins in the 1950s with the arrival of the first multinational companies; the period from the 1980s to the 2000s saw these manufacturing and support operations evolve into advanced services and software functions; in the 2000s cloud and digital companies migrated to Ireland, many with major software development functions; and the past five years has seen the next wave of software development analytics companies to Ireland.
That last period is the most interesting from Finnegan’s perspective. “Ireland now has the world’s top 10 ICT firms here, nine of the top 10 global software companies, and 15 of the top 20 cloud firms. What we see happening around 2010 was the achievement of critical mass. Not only do we have a lot of pure technology firms coming here to develop AI and other advanced software technologies but we have seen a whole series of non-technology companies coming to Ireland to develop their technology needs.”
Not only does this create a magnet for other companies it also exerts an almost irresistible gravitational pull on the best talent from around the world. “Ireland already has a very skilled pool of talent but the ability of companies to attract the very best international talent is critically important in this space”, says Finnegan. “Augmented reality company Daqri is a nice example of how a company managed to attract the leading talent in its field in Europe. There is a halo effect around the AI and advanced technology sectors in Ireland at the moment. Talent will go to where the best companies are.”
This talent mobility is aided by the fact that companies in Ireland have access to the 250 million European labour force and an accessible global visa programme operated by the Irish government. Ireland has improved its employment permits regime resulting in quicker turnaround times to ensure that the country remains a top location for mobile talent.
Ireland's Research Centres
Ireland also boasts a world class state-supported research base. This includes the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded Insight, Adapt, Lero, and Connect research centres. “Between those four centres alone there is hundreds of millions of euro in funding from government matched by industry”, says Finnegan.
The Insight Centre for Data Analytics is made up of leading international researchers from areas including the semantic web, machine learning, automated reasoning, the sensor web, and recommender systems.
The CONNECT Centre of for Future Networks and Communications, provides a one-stop-shop for telecommunications research, development and innovation. The centre focuses on IoT and smart sensors; radio access nodes and cooperative wireless; service-aware networks, and network-aware services.
The ADAPT Global Centre of Excellence for Digital Content focuses on research and technologies that will help businesses manage, personalise and deliver digital content more effectively. Research expertise in ADAPT includes natural language processing; translation and localisation of content; information retrieval; multimodal user interaction; and multilingual content interoperability.
Lero the Irish Software Research Centre, is focused on advancing the state-of-the-art in software engineering and related topics with a particular emphasis on evolving critical systems which must be predictable and reliable, but operate in environments that demand flexibility.
“These centres have some of the world’s leading AI researchers working in them and are also collaborating with the world’s top companies on the development of new breakthrough technologies”, Finnegan notes. “We recently held a seminar in Dublin where industry experts, academics and others came together to look at AI and where we need to go next in relation to it. One topic we looked at was Ireland’s secret sauce when it comes to this technology. We know that Ireland has become a perfect partner for the industry but we also wanted to know why. One reason is our collaborative culture. Not only are Irish people good at collaborating but they are good at bringing other people together to collaborate. That is key success factor in this incredibly fast moving field.”
He also points to the extensive range of supports available from IDA Ireland for organisations setting up in the country as well the highly competitive and transparent corporate tax regime which includes a very generous research and development tax credit offering.
But there is also something deeper which is making Ireland a global hub for AI development. Finnegan believes it comes down to a natural affinity with computing that gives Ireland an unrivalled pedigree in the space. This dates back to George Boole developing his Boolean algebra, the basis of modern computer logic, in University College Cork in the 1850s.
The seed planted by Boole in Ireland continues to flower with his great-grandson, Geoff Hinton, a cognitive psychologist and engineer in the University of Toronto, being responsible for ground-breaking work on artificial neural networking which is the basis of many machine learning technologies.
“We should not forget George Boole’s youngest daughter Ethel Lilian Voynich either”, says Finnegan. “This Irish novelist and musician was a very significant literary figure and remains best known for her novel The Gadfly which enjoyed bestseller status in China for many years. That quite interesting connection between Ireland, China and the birth of computing could yet have very powerful resonances in the years ahead.”