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Alibaba's next avatar: A tech powerhouse

By He Wei | China Daily | Updated: 2017-03-14 06:54

Alibaba's next avatar: A tech powerhouse

Two men chat beside a logo of Alibaba at its headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. [Photo/Agencies]

New R&D unit to help transform e-commerce giant to serve 2 billion people in 20 years

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd said on Monday it is setting up a dedicated research task force to spearhead innovative and potentially revolutionary new paths to growth, with the goal of transforming the e-commerce trading platform into a well-rounded and technology-driven powerhouse.

The group said that through a new and independent research and development department dubbed NASA, the internet juggernaut is setting its sights on developing core technologies that would serve 2 billion people in 20 years.

Founder and Chairman Jack Ma said the R&D initiative accords with a broader plan to turn Alibaba into what he called "the world's fifth largest economy", creating 100 million jobs and enabling 10 million enterprises to become profitable in two decades.

"Just like how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fueled fundamental progress of science and technology and facilitated people's lives, new economies must be built upon new technology-enabled infrastructure," said Ma, who was speaking at the company's first internal technology conference held in its headquarters in Hangzhou last week.

Ma, whose comments were released in a statement by the company on Monday, added that Alibaba is ready to shoulder the responsibility of major technological breakthroughs.

Areas of focus would include, but not be confined to, machine learning, chips, the internet of things, operating systems and biometric identification, Ma said.

Alibaba's Chief Technology Officer Zhang Jianfeng said: "Today we've reached a tipping point when technology makes a real difference."

The new R&D agency intends to move away from the old business model, under which technology focused on supporting business operations.

Instead, Alibaba said it wanted to establish a pure holistic R&D mechanism that furnished the group with cutting-edge technological solutions that would be in the pipeline for the coming one or two decades.

The company currently employs more than 20,000 engineers, more than 500 of whom have PhDs. Nine of its 36 partners on the management board are experienced engineers.

Alibaba has been pushing hard on the technology front, from using facial recognition technologies in digital payments, adopting artificial intelligence to help mitigate traffic congestion around Hangzhou, to leveraging big data in anti-piracy campaigns.

Among the latest effort is a pilot program rolled out last week by the company's cloud-computing arm Alibaba Cloud in partnership with Intel Corp, under which the two agreed to build a cloud-based acceleration service that enables cloud-service customers to have virtual access to a larger set of computer resources more effectively.

Zhang Mengmeng, a senior researcher at Counterpoint Technology Market Research, said that as Alibaba grows its core businesses into a collaborative ecosystem, it will need technology as the firepower to enhance its complementary capabilities.

"It's a visionary move. Alibaba is no longer content with being recognized as an online trading platform," she said.

"It needs new technologies to fulfill and balance its multiple roles as a virtual shopping mall, a cloud computing provider, a payment tool, and a logistics network."

China's internet triumvirate known as BAT (for Baidu Inc, Alibaba and Tencent Holdings Ltd) are all sparing no efforts in their push for technological breakthroughs. Search engine Baidu is delving into artificial intelligence research, by championing a national lab for deep learning.

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