How Alibaba is using AI to power the future of business

A range of emerging technologies will impact Alibaba's future and the global retail landscape

Xiaofeng Ren presents at CeBIT
Xiaofeng Ren presents at CeBIT

Alibaba Group is powering ahead with a range of AI research and initiatives in a bid to realise its vision: To make it easy to do business everywhere and anywhere.

That’s according to an Alibaba Group chief scientist and associate dean of machine intelligence and technology, Xiaofeng Ren, who spoke at CeBIT about how to develop AI applications that power the future of business.

“Alibaba has changed the everyday life of the Chinese in China. Looking forward, our visionary leader, Jack Ma, wants us to be able to reach two billion consumers and to help 10 million businesses around the world. That’s a very big call, but we already have half of the platforms in place.”

He explained how the company’s enabling services including Ant Financial (mobile online payment platform); Alibaba Cloud (public cloud service); cainiao (logistics branch); and alimama.com (an online marketing and trading platform) are making the vision a reality.

With technology the one universal driver behind all of these things, Ren said AI is a big part of the strategic play. He noted the world is in the third or fourth wave of technological development, and AI fits right into the equation, promising to change both business and society on a massive scale.

“There’s a blending of the digital world and the physical world where we have IoT, robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnologies - there are a lot of things that are happening that could further power the growth of the fourth wave. And I certainly think that artificial intelligence will be a big part of this revolution,” he said. 

Ren's machine intelligence technology division spearheads Alibaba’s efforts into AI, and aims to bring sweeping and disruptive changes both to the online player and to China’s dynamic business landscape. The independent R&D division is working across the Alibaba group in areas including speech recognition, computer vision, natural language understanding and optimisation and learning.

Projects underway

Ren detailed how emerging technologies are being developed at Alibaba, and how they will impact its future and the global retail landscape and enhance customer experience. One example of business innovation comes in the form of AliMe, a chatbot Alibaba developed that understands what people say both in terms of the text and the speech.

“It can respond to you in a number of ways. It can be a shopping assistant. For example, if you want to buy a train ticket, it can help you with it. It can be a customer service. It can help you with some of the problems and provide information to you. It can also be a generic ‘chatty cathy,’” he said, explaining some people just want to chat if they are bored," he explained. 

“Last year, this system handled about 95 per cent of requests - 9 million requests - and people were really happy with how this system performed in the real-world as a stress test.”

Another example is the work the company has done over the past four years around ‘Image Search’, which is being used by Taobao, the Chinese online shopping website, headquartered in Hangzhou, China, and a subsidiary of Alibaba Group. Taobao is considered one of the world's biggest e-commerce websites, as well as one of the world's top 10 most visited websites according to Alexa.

“On the Taobao app, when you want to search for a product, you can actually take a picture and upload a picture and it will find a similar picture in the catalogue," Ren said. “There are certain limits on how you can describe a product. But on the other hand, a picture is worth a thousand words. One you put in a picture, it becomes much more clear what you’re looking for.”

He said 14 billion people use this feature everyday, and the company has three billion images of over 10 million products. “Once we have a technology and we get it to the mature point, we actually make it available for everyone to use.”

Image Search - which is now mature enough and announced as part of the Alibaba Cloud offering in March  - was recently picked up by The Iconic, an Australia online fashion and footwear store.

“Today you can actually use the search functionality in Iconic. It works in a similar way, you can take pictures, upload the pictures, and find similar products,” Ren said. “I’m excited to see in terms of the work of Image Search, not just into one product, or one part of the world, but useful to a lot more people and a lot more businesses.”

Other projects come in the area of media and video in terms of copyright protection and content, as well as indexing and search. Alibaba launched Whale Watching last year, a unified platform for protecting and trading video content.

"We created this platform to make it easy for people to trade video content, to search video content, and it also makes it easy to do copyright protection,” Ren said. 

Meanwhile, a more recent project is the videosummarisation project, which offers a multi-modal understanding of video content. 

The usefulness of the technology is not only limited to e-commerce and retail, but also making an impact across all sectors including farming, manufacturing and logistics. One interesting area is where artificial intelligence meets agriculture, Ren said. On the agricultural front, the company is developing systems that can do a number of things from tracking animal IDs to detecting nutrition management of the livestock.

Meanwhile, on the logistics front, Alibaba has developed express delivery robots aimed at, one day, alleviating the pressures of shipping one billion packages per day.

“It is a full-blown autonomous driving system. It cannot run into people and can navigate around people in very short distances,” he said, explaining the first model was used in a campus-style setting.

“The next version actually gets on the road so now we are trying to solve the last mile problem. It can go into campuses and apartments and deliver the products. This is something we’re working on.

“Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of these in the next few years, which will help us deliver these one billion packages that we ship everyday.”

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