Chinese Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. plans to double down on technology research and development to strengthen its core competence and support its vision of serving two billion people in the future.
The e-commerce company unveiled its grand plan at its inaugural tech summit, called "New Technology, New Future" held at its Hangzhou headquarters on March 9, with over 5,000 engineers in attendance.
Jack Ma, Alibaba’s executive chairman, reiterated his expectation that Alibaba will become the world’s fifth-largest "economy" in in the next 20 years, serving two billion customers, creating 100 million job opportunities and enabling 10 million businesses to make profits.
Ma said to hit that goal, the new economy he envisions must be built on the continuing development of technological infrastructure, without giving detailed plans.
"An economy that serves two 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 organization 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," said Ma.
Over the past several years, Alibaba has rolled out a wide range of technologies, including cloud computing, database systems, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, virtual reality, biometric recognition, block chain and smart logistics.
In the field of artificial intelligence, Alibaba participated in the Hangzhou City Brain master plan, which has enhanced the city transportation department’s efforts to ease traffic congestion. It also helped Guangzhou International Airport with flight-management.
The company’s AI technology has been helping with personal recommendations that creates tailor-made shopping pages on its Taobao and Tmall shopping channels. Some 6.7 billion personalized shopping pages were created during Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in 2016.
Alibaba has also developed a smart personal shopping assistant called Ali Xiaomi, that can handle around 95% of daily inquiries. Its financial services affiliate, Ant Financial, uses AI-enabled customer service bots that could answer around 97% of daily inquiries.
The company made available a cloud-based quantum cryptographic data-transfer service this year, after establishing Alibaba Quantum Computing Laboratory with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2015.
In terms of virtual reality, Alibaba’s Buy+ offers the world’s first end-to-end virtual-reality shopping experience, in which the entire transaction, from browsing, to order to payment, is completed within a VR environment.
Ant Financial’s third party payment system, Alipay, enables facial-recognition payment with an accuracy rate over 99%. Alibaba is also using biometrics to recognize eye patterns, irises, palm prints, and handwriting.
"Alibaba’s success in commerce has outshone its light of technology over the past 18 years," said Alibaba chief technology officer Jeff Zhang at the summit. Zhang said Alibaba has reached "a critical point in technology innovation" and should gear up to develop more core technologies for future success.
Ma said Alibaba needs to have a discerning, independent eye when judging technology trends. Technology developed by Alibaba must empower people in the virtual economy, making it more inclusive and creating opportunities. Technology needs to ensure that new economy he envisions will be sustainable and lead to participants in it having happy and healthy lives.
Speaking about computers and robots and the possibility that they might one day replace or displace humans, Ma was emphatic that machine learning should help humans do things that otherwise couldn’t be done. Machines should serve as assistants to humans, rather than robbing them of human pleasure or becoming rivals.
Alibaba has over 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.