Ya-Qin Zhang Named Columbia Engineering’s 2020 Class Day Speaker

Apr 21 2020 | By Allison Elliott | Photo courtesy of Ya-Qin Zhang

NEW YORK—April 21, 2020—Ya-Qin Zhang, a pioneer in artificial intelligence (AI) and digital video and former president of Baidu, will deliver the keynote address to graduates for Columbia Engineering’s Class Day graduation ceremony on May 18, 2020. Due to current social distancing practices, the Class Day address and ceremony will be recorded and streamed to graduates and their families around the world.

While head of Baidu, the technology giant that provides services ranging from mobile internet to cloud computing to more than 2 billion people across the globe, Zhang oversaw the Intelligent Driving, Cloud Computing, Emerging Business, and Technology divisions. A much-published scientist and technologist, Zhang is widely acknowledged as having ushered in the use of machine learning as a revolutionary tool for complex decision making. He has been an active leader and speaker at the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and many public forums on the transformative impact of new technologies on society and how to narrow the digital divide. In 2018, he led Baidu to be the first Chinese firm to join the Partnership on AI (PAI), a U.S. AI ethics group, and is currently chair of Baidu’s Apollo Alliance, the word’s largest open-source autonomous driving platform.

“In the face of the global pandemic, engineering has become the most critical transformative force that shapes how we live, learn, work and entertain, with foundational technologies such as high-speed networking, software, and AI,” said Zhang. “As the world enters a new phase of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty, it is the defining moment for young engineers to answer the historic call of duty to lead with not only technological innovation, but also compassion, courage and humanity.”

Prior to Baidu, Zhang was a key executive at Microsoft for 16 years, serving as Corporate Vice President and Chair/Cofounder of Microsoft Asia-Pacific Research and Development Group. A long-time supporter of innovation at all stages, in 2011 he founded Microsoft Venture Accelerator in China. Now the largest start-up engine in the country, it has helped incubate over 200 companies.

In July, Zhang will join Tsinghua University as Chair Professor of AI Science to launch the institute for AI Industry Research (AIR), focused on technologies for the fourth industrial revolution, including autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things, and neuromorphic computing.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Ya-Qin Zhang speak to our graduating students to mark this important milestone,” said Mary C. Boyce, Dean of Engineering and Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor at Columbia. “In these extraordinary times, no one is better equipped to address the role of technology in our lives and its potential to help create a more connected, secure, and creative humanity. As we rely more than ever on technology to keep us connected—both professionally and socially—our graduates will be entering a changed world, poised to be change-makers themselves. Students will benefit from his perspective and be inspired by his own remarkable career path.”

Zhang entered the University of Science and Technology of China at age 12, the youngest college student in the country at the time. He went on to obtain a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from the school before coming to the U.S. to earn a Doctor of Sciences from George Washington University. He is a graduate of the executive business program from Harvard University and earlier in his career served as the Director of Multimedia laboratory of Sarnoff Corp in Princeton, NJ (now SRI) and was a Senior member of technical staff for the GTE Labs (now Verizon) in Waltham, MA.

Zhang is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. In 1997, at the age of 31, he became the youngest scientist ever to be named a Fellow of IEEE. He has authored more than 550 papers and 12 books and 62 U.S. patents, setting global standards for algorithms and theory in the areas of video coding, streaming, internet services, and machine learning, and has been named one of the top 10 CEOs in Asia, CEO of the year, 50 global shapers, and top ten innovators by IT Times, CNBC, Business Week, and Global business.

He is a proud parent of a student in Columbia Engineering’s Class of 2022 and a 2020 graduate of the Columbia Business School. Zhang is also a member of Columbia Engineering’s Board of Visitors and a Lulu Wang Senior Scholar for the Columbia Business School.