Business Maverick

Business Maverick

Alibaba enters ChatGPT fray with AI speaker, slack-like app

Alibaba enters ChatGPT fray with AI speaker, slack-like app
Signage displayed at the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou, China, on Monday, 21 February 2022. (Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Alibaba Group Holding will integrate its new artificial intelligence model in Amazon Echo-like smart speakers as well as office chat software, joining the race to offer a competitor to ChatGPT for the Chinese market.

The new AI model will be added to the company’s Slack-like DingTalk app as well its smart home appliance provider Tmall Genie, CEO Daniel Zhang said when he unveiled the model at the company’s tech summit in Beijing on Tuesday.

The large language model — dubbed Tongyi Qianwen, roughly translated to “Truth from a Thousand Questions” — will be incorporated across all of Alibaba’s products and services in the “near future”, the CEO said, without providing a timeframe.

It comes hot on the heels of similar debuts from SenseTime Group Inc and Baidu Inc. All aim to build the definitive next-generation AI platform for the world’s largest internet market. That mirrors a growing wave of development abroad with Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft among the many tech companies exploring generative AI, which can create original content from poetry to art just with simple user prompts.

Alibaba shares rose as much as 3.8% in Hong Kong on Tuesday, while Baidu slumped 6.4% and SenseTime gave up most of the gains of an early surge of 11% in the wake of its introduction the prior day.

Alibaba hopes to further benefit from the AI frenzy stirred up by OpenAI’s ChatGPT by enticing more customers for its cloud computing platform — who will need massive processing power to train their own models — with lower pricing, the company said.

“We are at a technological watershed moment driven by generative AI and cloud computing, and businesses across all sectors have started to embrace intelligence transformation to stay ahead of the game,” Zhang said.

On Tuesday, Zhang spent most of his keynote speech reliving Alicloud’s years-long history, talking about Tongyi Qianwen’s potential to better serve enterprise clients both large and small. The presentation came a day after Chinese AI specialist SenseTime spent hours demonstrating how its new models SenseNova and SenseChat could handle a range of common questions in both English and Chinese.

He also stressed that tech companies are all “at the same starting line” in the AI race, in an apparent nod to the jostling by domestic rivals to launch their own large language models.

Alibaba Cloud began offering invitation codes for corporate users and developers to test out its flagship AI product last Friday. Like SenseTime, Alibaba’s AI model will provide services in English and Chinese, and will soon include capabilities for image recognition and text-to-image generation.

The Tuesday debut marked the first major product launch since Zhang personally took charge of the cloud intelligence arm in Alibaba’s newly reconfigured corporate structure. Zhang has spoken of AI as a driver of potentially exponential growth for Alibaba, which has the capability to both provide services of its own and support other AI businesses with its cloud computing products.

“All of these technologies are going to require massive computing power. So we can expect to see exponential growth in demand,” Zhang said at a December conference call.

Alibaba’s DAMO Academy launched M6, a 10-trillion-parameter pre-training model, last year. The model has been used to power searches and recommendations on Alibaba’s marketplace Taobao, especially for text and image pairing. Alibaba’s ChatGPT-like bot is also currently conducting internal testing. Online retailing rival JD.com Inc has said its cloud business is working on natural language processing and conversation generation.

AI has become the next big arena for tech competition between China and the US, raising concerns over whether Chinese companies will be able to retain reliable access to the high-end chips needed to develop large-scale AI models in the long run. While Chinese AI efforts are playing catch-up to their American competitors, investors have cheered domestic efforts from every major tech firm to build ChatGPT alternatives.

Baidu was the first in China to announce its public entry in the race — with its Ernie Bot last month — ramping up pressure for similar offerings from Alibaba and Tencent Holdings, the other major player in China’s internet sphere. BM/DM

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