China has approved a plan to create a next-generation national laboratory for deep learning. The lab is expected to help China close the gap with Western counterparts in the field of competitive artificial intelligence applications.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) approved plans for a national engineering lab to support the research and development of deep learning technologies. The lab will be online only, without a physical presence.

The NDRC commissioned Baidu, the Chinese search engine giant, to create the lab in collaboration with Tsinghua and Beijing Universities, as well as the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, and the China Electronics Standardization Institute.

The project will be led by Baidu’s deep learning institute chief Lin Yuanqing and scientist Xu Wei, along with academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zhang Bo and Li Wei. Baidu will also provide the deep learning computing, algorithms and big data for the project.

The lab will focus on seven different areas of the field: deep learning, computer vision and sensing, computer listening, biometric identification, new forms of human-computer interaction, standardized services, and deep learning intellectual property rights.

Yu Kai, the former head of Baidu’s deep learning institute, said, “As an open platform itself, the national lab will help more Chinese researchers, companies, and universities to access the most advanced AI technologies in China.”

However, he believes that China has a long way to go before overtaking the U.S. in deep learning and AI technology development. Others, in contrast, see China’s focus on engineering and science as shown by the large numbers of students pursuing advanced degrees, and the percentage of scholarly papers on AI generated in China, as evidence of the country’s growing competitiveness in the field.

The NDRC also chose Baidu to set up two related national labs, the National Engineering Laboratory for Big Data Systems Software and the National Engineering Laboratory for Brain-Like Artificial Intelligence Technology and Applications.

Baidu confirmed its participation in assisting the government in the creation of the national laboratories on its WeChat account, noting that the overarching goal of the deep learning project is to ‘boost China’s overall competence in artificial intelligence.’

Baidu has long been a leader in Chinese deep learning research, with last September’s launch of DeepBench, the first open source tool for benchmarking deep learning across different platforms, and the January 2016 launch of WARP-CTC, an open source deep learning platform for speech recognition.