Google has been a long-time supporter of net neutrality and the general concept of a free and open internet. This is why, seven years ago, Google drastically slashed its business interests in China, even threatening to leave the country entirely: Chinese censorship and government control simply went against the values of Google as an entity, and Google wouldn’t play ball.
But a lot has changed in the past seven years when it comes to China. Now Google may be slowly warming up to the idea of doing major business there again…however reluctantly.
Today, Google announced that it will be opening a Chinese research and development center focused on artificial intelligence. While this move is not as much a reversal of policy as something like bringing the Google Play Store to China, or even having Google.cn not automatically forward you to the Hong Kong variant, it is a clear sign that Google has not been blind to China’s growth as a tech powerhouse.
Although Google’s headquarters is here in the United States, government science funding has been slashed domestically, so the talent and resources are flocking to places like Beijing where the money flows freely. If Google wants the best people in A.I., it has no choice but to have a presence in China.
The two people tapped to run Google’s Chinese A.I. center are Fei-Fei Li, who currently runs the artificial intelligence sector of Google’s Cloud business, and Jia Li, who also works with Google Cloud. Both are of Chinese descent and are Stanford University alumnae.
“Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing, or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better for the entire world,” Fei-Fei Li wrote on Google’s blog. “As an A.I. first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best A.I. talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”
There’s no question that Google’s refusal to work in China has cost it billions of dollars. With one billion mobile phone users in the country, the lack of Google products like search, Gmail, YouTube, and the Google Play Store, has forced citizens to use competitor’s products. With today’s announcement, the tech industry will be watching closely to see whether Google’s hard stance on Chinese ethics will soften.