Why an Artificial Intelligence Pioneer Ditched Silicon Valley for Beijing

Why you should care

Her innovative AI image recognition will be a boon to e-commerce, but what about China’s police state?

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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.

63 percent of Chinese tech companies employ at least one woman in their C-suite, against 43 percent in America.

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.

She admits that gender discrimination still creates obstacles. A recent report from Human Rights Watch criticized two of China’s tech giants, Baidu and Alibaba, for sexist job ads. In one posting, Baidu specified “man” between “degree” and “relevant work experience” as a requirement.

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Mo Zhang, CEO of Yi+.

While China offers no specific government initiatives or support programs in the tech industry for women entrepreneurs, Zhang believes there are greater advantages to being a female CEO in her native land than in the U.S. “My story attracts much wider attention here,” she explains, believing the subsequent brand awareness sets the foundation for the success of Yi+.

An even bigger draw: The enormous wealth of user data available in China, a country with 772 million internet users at the start of 2018 and fewer privacy protections than in the West. “Big data is the single most important factor for an AI company like Yi+,” she says, adding it is more abundant and easier to access than in the U.S. “It is vital in the AI software development and test phases.”

It has all led to a host of awards that she recites with a mix of extreme pride and muted embarrassment, which comes across as genuine modesty. While this modesty should not be confused for anything close to a lack of ambition, it appears to have secured the loyalty of the technicians and software engineers who ooze youthful exuberance — and glowing admiration for their CEO.

From the splashes of 70s disco-inspired color to the Rubik’s cubes on every desk to the two casually dressed, scruffy-haired millennials lounging on the stoop-cum-communal area sipping seemingly endless amounts of coffee, the Beijing headquarters screams trendy tech start-up. Emblazoned on the wall behind a politely smiling receptionist sits a Mark Twain quote: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

Zhang enters a meeting room lined with psychedelic wallpaper. “You’re from England,” she notices warmly, lifting her foot to show me the Union Jack stitched into the toe of her shoe. She proceeds to describe her love for every British city she has visited. The list is extensive. “It’s a beautiful country,” she says in a way that makes it feel like a personal compliment.

Still, it’s clear that for Zhang, shoes aside, nothing compares to Beijing.

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