Alibaba plans technology boost

Alibaba plans to form independent research and development teams to build up core technologies that support its vision of serving 2 billion people in the future.

The giant e-commerce and technology company unveiled its grand plan at its inaugural tech summit, “New Technology, New Future”, at its Hangzhou headquarters in China. About 5000 engineers attended, plus thousands of other staff members, technical and otherwise, watched via live stream.

“Alibaba’s success in commerce has outshone its light of technology over the past 18 years,” Alibaba Group chief technology officer Jeff Zhang told the summit, describing it as “a tech-driven company that seamlessly combines business and technology”.

Over the past several years, Alibaba has rolled out a wide range technologies for an array events and business areas, including Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, payments, cloud computing and logistics. Zhang said Alibaba had reached “a critical point in technology innovation” and should gear up to develop more core technologies for future success.

Executive chairman Jack Ma said he expected Alibaba to become the world’s fifth-largest economy in the next 20 years, serving 2 billion customers, creating 100 million job opportunities and enabling 10 million businesses to make profits. To hit that goal, he said the new economy he envisioned should be built on the continuing development of technological infrastructure.

“An economy that serves 2 billion people must be backed by solid technological capacity. To shoulder the future responsibility, we will build Alibaba’s own ‘NASA”, Ma said, referring to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an organisation he admires for what it has contributed to mankind through technological advances.

“We will establish new teams to develop the core technologies of machine learning, chips, the Internet of Things, operating systems and biometric identification.”

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He said Alibaba once developed figurative “hand grenades”, but the new R&D-focussed team and mechanisms would allow it to develop “missiles”.

Ma said Alibaba needed to have a discerning, independent eye when judging technology trends. Technology developed by Alibaba should empower people in the virtual economy, making it more inclusive and creating opportunities. Technology needed to ensure the new economy would be sustainable and lead to its participants having happy and healthy lives.

Speaking about computers and robots, and the possibility they might one day replace or displace humans, Ma said machine learning should help humans do things that otherwise could not be done. Machines should serve as assistants to humans, rather than robbing them of human pleasure or becoming rivals.

Alibaba has more than 20,000 engineers on staff, including more than 500 with doctoral degrees. Among its 36 partners — the group’s powerful decision-making body — nine come from a technology background.

Alibaba has been investing in new technologies for many years, and has developed many key technologies of its own. These include…

Cloud computing

Apsara: A super computational engine developed by Alibaba Cloud. It offers clients powerful computing capability, robust technology services and software that can affect broader society.

Database systems

OceanBase: The first applied large-scale financial database system in China, developed by Alibaba Group and Ant Financial.

Artificial intelligence

ET: Artificial intelligence services that can be broadly applied to different areas in society. Cases include the Hangzhou City Brain master plan, which has enhanced the city transportation department’s efforts to ease traffic congestion. It has also helped Guangzhou International Airport with flight management.

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Personal recommendations: Tailored shopping pages on Taobao/Tmall with a most-suitable product recommendation for each buyer. About 6.7 billion personalised shopping pages were created during Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival last year.

Ali Xiaomi: A smart personal shopping assistant on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites. About 95 per cent of daily inquiries can be handled by Ali Xiaomi.

Ant Financial’s smart customer service: This can answer about 97 per cent of daily inquiries.

Quantum computing/communications

The Chinese Academy of Sciences -­ Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory was established in 2015. Quantum cryptographic data-transfer services became available on Alibaba Cloud this year.

Virtual reality

Buy+: Offers the world’s first end-to-end VR shopping experience, in which the entire transaction can be completed, from browsing, to order, to payment.

Biometric recognition

Facial recognition payment: Alipay enables facial-recognition payment with an accuracy of more than 99 per cent. It is listed among the top 10 technology breakthroughs this year by the MIT Technology Review.

Alibaba is also using biometrics to recognise eye patterns, irises, palm prints and handwriting.

Geolocation technology

QianXun location network technology: Using BeiDou satellite technology, this can achieve a positioning accuracy of 1 millimetre.

Operating systems

YunOS: The world’s third-largest mobile operating system works in mobile phones, cars, TVs, tablets and other Internet of Things items.

Blockchain

Ant Financial has started deploying this technology for charitable donations. Blockchains are a database — an open ledger that records transactions between two parties in an immediate, secure, verifiable and permanent way.

Smart logistics

Alibaba’s smart-logistics technology includes last-mile delivery robot and its intelligent warehousing system.

-Susan Wang

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