Brain behind TikTok’s AI engine quits to join the University of California as professor

·2 min read

A director at the artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory at Beijing-based ByteDance, the company behind global sensation TikTok, is leaving to take a position at the University of California, following other prominent AI scientists like Fei-Fei Li and Andrew Ng who gave up their corporate jobs for teaching and research.

Li Lei, the director of ByteDance AI Lab, tweeted on Sunday that he was “excited to join” the University of California Santa Barbara’s computer science department as an assistant professor. His LinkedIn profile still lists ByteDance as his current employer.

Li has worked at ByteDance since 2016, helping to build “scalable algorithms that learn and mine knowledge from all kinds of data”, according to his profile on GitHub, an open-source software publishing and collaboration platform.

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The company has built its app empire, including the short video app TikTok, Chinese version Douyin as well as content aggregation app Jinri Toutiao, on the back of its AI-powered recommendation algorithm to provide personalised user experiences.

Li obtained his bachelor’s degree at China’s prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 with a doctoral degree in computer science. He then spent three years as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley.

Before ByteDance, he worked for two years at Baidu as a principal researcher, focusing on deep learning and natural language processing. He also interned at Google, IBM and Microsoft.

Neither ByteDance nor Li immediately responded to requests for comment.

Li isn’t the first case of an AI scientist going from business to academia. Former colleague Ma Weiying resigned from his vice-president position at ByteDance last year to join Beijing’s Tsinghua University, one of the country’s top schools known for their engineering and science programmes, as a professor.

Other tech companies have also lost outstanding scientists to education as well. In 2018, Google’s AI chief, Fei-Fei Li, famous for her work in computer vision, left to return to Stanford University. A year earlier, Andrew Ng announced his departure from Chinese search giant Baidu. Afterwards, he started the AI education platform Deeplearning.ai and continued teaching at Stanford.

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