Why an AI Pioneer Ditched Silicon Valley for Beijing

Mo Zhang, CEO of Y+

Mo Zhang is revolutionizing the path from seeing a product to buying it. Say you’re watching a program on a smart TV or another device, and you like an outfit being worn by a particular model on screen. Her software can identify the items and send you to a site where you can purchase the goods. Like the look of a cityscape on a travel show? Search for flights and hotels. It’s all possible thanks to the flagship computer vision software at the Beijing startup Yi+ AI.

Of course, there are more unsettling uses. The types of technology being developed by Yi+ have been the focus of much controversy in China in recent months thanks to their increased use in public security and policing.

Zhang, 36, recognizes this, drawing on a Steven Hawking quote: “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we have to recognize the dangers and control them.” But as far as she’s concerned, Yi+ is focused on improving the technology for application in marketing and e-commerce. “Use of similar technologies outside of that is beyond our control,” she says.

The company’s smooth, charismatic founder and CEO wouldn’t be so out of place in Silicon Valley, except for the fact that she’s a woman. And for Zhang — whose firm is at the forefront of visual recognition in artificial intelligence — China is not only more favorable to female tech leaders but tech, period.

She founded Yi+ in Silicon Valley in 2013. After less than two years, recognizing the changing tide, she relocated the company to Beijing’s Zhongguancun district. “It will not be too long before China overtakes Silicon Valley as far as tech innovation is concerned,” she says unequivocally, highlighting government support for the artificial intelligence industry and the growing number of Chinese and foreign tech companies setting up shop in the capital.

But the omnipotence of the Chinese government cannot be totally ignored. “All private enterprises in China make money at the sufferance of the regime, and if the regime wants access to their databases or technologies, they will not resist,” claims Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University and chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights. This is particularly important in the field of AI. “Strictly speaking, there’s no clear human rights standard against the use of facial recognition or other AI-empowered surveillance technologies,” he says.

Zhang has more female company among top entrepreneurs here: A 2018 report by Silicon Valley Bank noted that 35 percent of tech companies in China boasts a female founder or co-founder, compared to 24 percent in the United States; 63 percent of Chinese tech companies employ at least one woman in their C-suite, against 43 percent in America. But her rise was not an easy one.

The journey started in middle school in far northern Heilongjiang Province, when she decided she didn’t care much for China’s ingrained gender conventions. Entering the school’s Olympic-style tech competition, she outperformed the all-male field and her love of technology was born.

After her undergraduate studies, Zhang followed her passion to the capital where she obtained a master’s in software at Peking University. She was the only woman in a class of 10 students. “That’s just the way it was,” she says with a shrug of inevitability. She went on to face similar scenarios at a number of major tech firms, including Huawei, Microsoft and IBM.

Zhang, who also has a master’s degree from Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University, always strived to do everything in her power to further opportunities for women in China’s tech industry. Until recently, that involved focusing on her own journey through a male-dominated industry.

With Yi+’s success — having launched with 12 employees, it now has more than 80 and has signed agreements with more than 4,000 partners — Zhang is now in a position to accelerate this transformation and influence the makeup of the industry on a wider scale. She contributes to a number of organizations and summits that promote women in the sector, and Yi+ makes a point of providing equal opportunity for young female scientists and technicians. Guan Zixuan, an algorithm engineer at Yi+, draws inspiration from Zhang’s approach that women can create infinite possibilities, and it gives her the encouragement that she will be treated fairly. “It makes me feel like there’s no difference between male and female engineers,” she says.

Read the source article in OZY.