17 April 2018
Domestic and Global Backing Sees Taiwan set to Become AI Powerhouse
Together with government funding of US$330 million, many of the world's hi-tech businesses, including Google and Microsoft, are looking to invest in Taiwan as it bids to become a truly global Artificial Intelligence development hub.
Over recent years, there have been huge leaps forward in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), with many researchers tipping such systems to be the cornerstones of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Understandably, then, Taiwan has been keen to establish itself as one of the pioneers in the development of this emerging technology.
In line with this, the Taiwanese government officially designated 2017 as Year Zero in its overarching commitment to AI development. This culminated in the territory's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) unveiling its Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan in September last year, an initiative that prioritised five particular strategic approaches.
Firstly, it advocated establishing AI R&D infrastructural facilities, as well as setting up AI innovation research centres, developing smart robot innovation facilities and investing in core technologies for smart device semiconductors (an initiative billed as the Semiconductor Moonshot Project). It also recommended that the territory actively seek out highly-skilled staff from around the world to contribute to its on-going AI research, a subsidiary project referred to as the Formosa Grand Challenge.
In term of assessing the potential for AI development within Taiwan, MOST cited the territory's existing strengths in wafer original equipment manufacturing (OEM) and integrated circuit (IC) packaging and testing (for which it is ranked as the global number one) and its IC design capabilities (globally ranked number two) as benchmarks for its likely success. In addition, it maintained that its domestic academic and research base had already demonstrated considerable mastery of several related fields, including artificial neural networks (ANNs), expert systems, machine learning and Big Data forecasting / analytics.
On the downside, the Ministry also highlighted several areas where Taiwan had notable shortcomings with regard to its potential for future AI development. Chiefly, these related to its comparative paucity of related R&D activities and its lack of expertise in the field of algorithm application.
In addition, according to MOST, the territory only has a relatively small number of patents related to core AI technologies. In particular, with regard to software and hardware systems integration and applications, as well as product and service provisions, Taiwan has made comparatively few breakthroughs.
In order to remedy these shortcomings, MOST announced that some NT$16 billion (US$330 million) would be made available to four of the territory's universities – Taiwan University, Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Chiao Tung University, and Cheng Kung University – over a five-year period in order to fund a series of AI innovation and research centres. Between them, these four establishments will undertake 67 AI-related research projects, with 300 AI professionals set to be recruited to ensure all the overall objectives are met.
In addition to these academic undertakings, the territory's industrial base is also expected to make a defining contribution to its bid to take a lead in the AI sector. As an existing asset, Taiwan already has considerable expertise in the design and production of chips, with several local manufacturers expected to up their game with regards to AI development.
In the case of MediaTek, a Hsinchu City-based leader in the IC sector, it has now signed up to the Open Neural Network Exchange (ONNX), a joint initiative by Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft designed to facilitate accelerated AI development. Two other high-tech Taiwanese IC businesses – Global Unichip and Faraday – have also confirmed their commitment to developing AI capabilities.
A similar commitment has been made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC), a Hsinchu City-based specialist in wafer OEM technology. In November last year, Morris Chang, the company's Chairman, announced that the business would be refocusing on four AI-related sectors – mobile devices, high-speed computers, the Internet of things (IoT) and automotive electronics. In line with this, he also revealed plans to invest heavily on in each of these sectors over the next 10 years.
With four of TSMC's major clients – Qualcomm, Broadcom, Apple and Nvidia –already established as leaders in global AI development, it is inevitable that the growth of the sector will provide a wealth of new opportunities for the company. In addition, with the emergence of a new generation of AI start-ups widely anticipated, it is expected that TSMC will gain something of a windfall in terms of a surge in demand for its wafer OEM production services.
In order to meet this increased output requirement, TSMC has already announced plans train an additional 300 engineers in the machine learning sector. It is far from the only AI-oriented Taiwanese business to be investing in staff development, however, with Taiwan Mobile, one of the territory's leading telecoms operators, already committed to working with Chiao Tung University on the training of 1,000 AI teachers, with the ultimate aim of allowing 100 local schools to develop their own AI resources.
It is not just local businesses, though, that are looking to build on the territory's existing strengths in the AI sector. Just last month, Google launched Intelligent Taiwan, an initiative intended to provide AI training to 5,000 local residents. This is in line with the California-based internet giant's commitment to establishing Taiwan as one of its Global AI Priority Centres.
A similar move has been made by Insilico Medicine, the Baltimore-based biotechnology business ranked as one of the world's leading 100 AI companies. This has seen it establish a dedicated AI R&D centre – Insilico Taiwan – in Taipei's Nangang Software Park, its first such facility in Asia.
This followed an earlier move by Microsoft, which saw the US software company launch its own AI R&D centre in Taipei back in January. The company is said to be planning to invest NT$1 billion over the next two years as it looks to build its research team. By 2023, it is believed that some 200 AI specialists will be employed at its Taiwan facility.
Robert Kang, Special Correspondent, Taipei