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Alibaba Will Invest Billions in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing

Alibaba, the e-commerce conglomerate based in China, reported it will invest more than $15 billion over the next three years to develop artificial intelligence and quantum computing technologies. It’s just one more pebble in an avalanche of funding for artificial intelligence projects from both industry and academia.

The company’s executive chairman Jack Ma included these plans as part of his project to establish the Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook Academy (DAMO). He announced these plans during a recent computer conference sponsored by the company.

Ma said that the plan includes opening seven research laboratories in China, United States, Russia, Israel, and Singapore.

Alibaba officials believe that AI will be important, if not central, to the company’s explosive growth. The company already has a staff of more than 25,000 engineers, many of whom are working on AI technology to power everything from consumer products to cloud computing services, according to MIT Technology Review.

A reporter for MIT Technology Review interviewed Jeff Zhang, Alibaba’s chief technology officer, who gave an overview of the DAMO’s impressive vision.

“We hope to attract the top talent in many fields,” said Zhang. “Alibaba is a vast platform, so anyone who joins can try things out anytime. In universities, it’s very hard to do research related to big data and AI due to limited access to data and computing power. Some countries we’ll be recruiting in are the U.S., Singapore, Russia, and Israel.”

The CTO expects the company to focus on deep learning, stating that he believes “the most important issue right now is how to develop a set of solid theories of deep learning. We have achieved something using deep learning on an engineering level, but science is about mastering the laws.”

Deep learning focuses on using computers to mimic the human brain’s capacity to reason and learn. “So I think it’s important for us to really grasp the principles of neural networks, instead of just tweaking the parameters of a particular network to achieve a desired result,” Zhang added. “This will be one of the research areas of the DAMO Academy.”

Zhang said AI research would be integrated into Alibaba’s small and mid-sized business niche. “We hope we don’t turn this academy into a separate research institution. Instead, we want to form a deeper connection with our core business.”

As far as how Alibaba will use AI to power consumer technology, the technology may find a home in Tmall Genie, the company’s “smart speaker,” Zhang suggests.

We want to turn the voice-based AI technology that powers Tmall Genie into a standardized system and a module that can be embedded in other devices.

"For example, in September we announced a collaboration with a hotel in Sanya [a popular resort town in southern China] to turn its rooms into voice-enabled ones. Vacationers can draw the curtain and adjust the air conditioner using their voice. Tmall Genie can also make it possible for kids to talk to their toys, and help you talk to your oven so it roasts the chicken the way you want it.”



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