Why Alibaba Is Betting Big on AI Chips and Quantum Computing
Meet the man behind Alibaba’s gamble on emerging tech
By Yiting Sun
During the opening ceremony of Alibaba’s 2018 computing conference last week, Simon Hu, president of Alibaba Cloud, invited the MC to taste some tea on the stage — but, first, to distinguish between tea roasted by hand and by machine.
While the MC stared helplessly at two saucers filled with nearly identical-looking tea leaves, Hu pulled out his smartphone. He took a photo of each saucer and fed them into an app developed by Tmall, one of Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms. Using an algorithm specially trained to tell the difference between different kinds of tea leaves, the app solved the problem.
It was a small example of the interplay between Alibaba’s research on fundamental technologies and the demands of its business. Later on in the four-day conference, the company announced more plans to develop technologies that could be turned into useful things in everyday life, including an AI-chip subsidiary called Pingtou Ge and a team that’s developing a quantum processor.
The person leading all these research efforts is Jeff Zhang, Alibaba’s chief technology officer and head of its DAMO Academy research lab. Zhang sat down with MIT Technology Review at the event to discuss his company’s plans.
TR: Why did Alibaba create a chip company?
Zhang: This gives us an advantage. Chips are becoming more specialized. Many companies are developing AI chips, but each company has different data loads and business needs. This means each company needs customized chips optimized for its own software. This is something traditional chip companies can’t do.
But of course, we will also utilize some already widely used chip designs, and combine these with our own designs to create more value.
What business model will the chip company pursue?
There are three routes. The first is IP licensing. We can license our chip designs for other companies to use. The second is providing processor solutions for various industries through IP aggregation. For example, we can provide customized processors for home appliances and cars…