Alibaba to invest $15b in tech, set up research labs around the world
Jack Ma is well-known for his worldly ambitions. In 20 years, the tech founder aims to expand Alibaba’s coverage to two billion customers – or about a fourth of the world’s population.
To do that, the Chinese tech giant is betting on tech research. Lots of it.
Today, Alibaba announced it was launching a new research institute dubbed the “Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook” (DAMO), which includes seven new research labs in China, the United States, Russia, Israel, and Singapore.
In addition to the new research academy, Alibaba is also committing US$15 billion to research and development over the next three years – almost doubling its average annual spend. For the company’s 2017 financial year ending in March, the company spent about US$2.6 billion on product development.
DAMO’s research centers will tackle a number of different areas, including internet of things, quantum computing, fintech, human-machine interaction, network security, and natural language processing. DAMO will also include internal research teams at Alibaba, as well as its financial and logistics affiliates Ant Financial and Cainiao, respectively.
“A lot of researchers need real data and use cases to carry out their research,” Jeff Zhang, chief technology officer at Alibaba and head of DAMO, tells Tech in Asia. Alibaba has plenty of these business cases and can work with researchers to solve them, he says.
Indeed, the main purpose of DAMO, which is looking to recruit about 100 researchers from around the world, is to develop technology that can be funneled into Alibaba’s business. Big data and artificial intelligence capabilities, for instance, could become part of Alibaba Cloud’s service offering. Some research results from DAMO will also be opensourced, says Zhang.
In addition to researchers around the world, DAMO also plans to partner with universities, like the University of Berkeley, on specific research domains. The academy has set up its own advisory board made up of various professors around the world, such as Harvard’s leading genetics researcher, George Church.
Over the past few years, tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Baidu have raced to set up their own AI labs and poach tech talent. Alibaba too has upped its investment in tech research. Earlier this year in March, Ma announced Alibaba’s aim to build its own NASA, emphasizing the company’s commitment to building up its technical prowess.
The firm has its own AI Lab, which develops consumer-facing products like its smart speaker, Tmall Genie, which launched in July. This year, the ecommerce giant also hired ex-Amazon scientist Ren Xiaofeng to head its fundamental AI research group, Institute of Data Science and Technologies, from Washington state in the US.
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