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AI is the fastest expanding discipline in China’s universities, with 180 more approved to offer it as a major

China’s Ministry of Education approved applications for 180 more colleges to offer majors in artificial intelligence in 2019, up from 35 the year before.

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Artificial intelligence has become the fastest expanding discipline at mainland Chinese universities, as the country charges ahead with its ambitions to become a global leader in the field.

China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) approved applications by 180 colleges to set up new AI-related majors for undergraduate students in 2019, compared to just 35 a year earlier, a circular issued by the ministry showed on Tuesday.

The ramping up of approvals comes as the country tries to attract more talent to drive what has been referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

China has laid out plans to become the global AI leader by 2030, but a shortage of high-tech talent has been cited as one of the factors hindering wider adoption of the technology in the world’s second-largest economy.

More than 60% of AI professionals surveyed found the implementation of AI systems “very difficult” under the current circumstances, which call for a larger pool of talent and data, according to a report released by technology research firm International Data Corp (IDC) and tech media outlet qbitai.com in December.

Education has been at the forefront of efforts for China to boost its AI industry, as it looks to narrow its talent gap with the US amid a tech war between the world’s two largest economies.

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Last year, the first batch of universities—including top universities Peking and Tsinghua—started accepting students under the dedicated discipline.

Technology firms, including the country’s AI champion SenseTime, and top universities have also been offering free online tech courses to students confined to their homes amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Among the new majors MOE approved last year, other disciplines related to new technologies also featured strongly. The ministry approved applications by 138 universities to offer new data science and big data technology majors, the second-highest number out of all disciplines, while smart manufacturing engineering came in third highest with 80 more universities approved to offer it.

The newly approved course offerings are meant to boost the quality of education and “foster a closer tie” between talent training and economic development, the ministry said in the circular. Schools can dynamically adjust their admissions based on social demand, it added.

Beijing’s detailed road map for AI, which it first set out in 2017, involves keeping pace with leading AI technology and applications in general by 2020, making major breakthroughs by 2025, and becoming the world leader in the field by 2030.

Authorities have projected that the area defined as core AI will be worth 150 billion yuan (USD 21.5 billion) and related industries will reach 1 trillion yuan by the end of the year.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post