To stay ahead in the race for artificial intelligence (AI), Taiwan needs a world-class educational infrastructure, Appier CEO Yu Chih-han thinks. For Yu, this entails that universities should pay competitive salaries to professors and provide adequate funding for students.
Additionally, industry talent should be provided opportunities to enhance their business skills, thus helping Taiwan’s fledgling AI industry to go global.
Appier, itself a leader in AI-driven cross-screen adtech, actively launches this reform through generous scholarships.
Retaining and attracting talent
To become a leader in AI, Taiwan must foster the academic infrastructure to develop and retain both scholars and talent. Yu believes that this requires first that Taiwan’s universities raise to international levels the salaries of instructors to attract more teaching professionals from overseas.
“We can’t let talented people give up salaries to come to Taiwan,” he said. In the same vein, Taiwanese companies also need to raise their pay to attract talent.
“If Taiwan’s artificial intelligence field is competitive and can be a platform for the world, talent won’t keep flowing out,” Yu told Business Next in an interview published in March.
“They will come back home and be with their families. Not only would people who have left [come back], but even foreign professionals could be attracted.”
AI at the heart of Taiwan’s industry reform
The island nation has been known for decades as a manufacturing hub for IT hardware, but recently the government began pushing a multi-billion reform agenda designed to diversify its industry.
With software development and AI in particular being central tenets of this plan, Yu argues that the administration should connect schools and developers, thereby allowing students to develop more interest in software innovation.
“Admittedly, there’s a bit of a gap between academia and the industry in Taiwan,” Yu told Meet. “More often than not, most engineering or computer science graduates in Taiwan join big corporations after graduation.”
Universities, on the other hand, still focus on tech manufacturing and semiconductor development, since both are old “cornerstones” in Taiwan, as industry analyst Ray Han points out.
“With most talents going to well-known traditional enterprises, smaller companies and startups focused on AI are stifled by the difficulties in recruitment they encounter,” Lin said. “Moreover, many homegrown software engineers have been headhunted by foreign technology companies.”
International competition for talent
According to a report by management consultant firm Accenture, AI is expected to double annual economic growth rates in 2035. Additionally, AI technologies could raise productivity rates by 40 percent, as well as dramatically increase efficiency for employees, the consultancy adds.
Although AI has been around for more than 30 years, it is only gaining traction now because of the volume of information available and access to the necessary computing power, Yu said.
In Taiwan, about 8,000 AI professionals emerge each year, with a gain of 2.7 percent from 2011 to 2016 according to TrendForce.
This number, however, “lags far behind the demand,” the report states, and growth of a competitive domestic AI industry would require all national universities to graduate 30-50 more people from information engineering programs.
What’s more, due to the persistence of low wages, both in general and in academia especially, graduates in AI-related fields tend to work overseas or in domestic high-tech manufacturing, TrendForce analyst Christy Lin said.
“What worries us the most is that even though Taiwan is able to cultivate AI talent, with these exceptionally low salaries, we may not be able to prevent them from going to foreign companies,” Ray Han added.
Beyond that, most Taiwanese companies still hesitate to invest in AI-related R&D, while smaller firms may lack the capital, Han said.
Appier: Leading by example
Appier announced in March that it would award scholarships of $165,000 (NT$5m) aimed at helping Taiwanese students “enter the global AI stage.”
This follows an earlier initiative, which saw the ad company provide $66,000 (NT$2m) for academic fellowships.
Appier develops AI-powered content-placement technologies, which allow businesses to better target users over multiple devices. The company’s innovative portfolio has garnered interest from the likes of Google, Intel, or Yahoo, Yu said.
“Together as an industry, whether we're companies or universities, we need to encourage more interest in coding and AI amongst students,” Yu told Meet.
“Really, innovation in AI could come from anywhere. Asia has all the ingredients that can make it an innovation hub in this space.”