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Local tech majors mine data to develop top online games

Updated: 2017-03-29 07:43

BEIJING-China's mobile app major Tencent is demonstrating its ability in gaming through "Jueyi", its own version of DeepMind's Alpha Go in Japan.

Jueyi won all 11 of its matches in a field of about 30 entrants, beating the eventual runner-up-Japan's DeepZenGo-twice along the way.

The company will use the techniques it's learned to teach its games to put up a better fight-addressing, among other things, a longstanding complaint of expert players.

While Zhang Tong, the newly appointed director of AI Lab, Tencent's research unit, didn't provide names, he didn't rule out titles like League of Legends or Dungeon Fighter.

Zhang, 45, whose AI career includes stints at International Business Machines Corp and Baidu, said one of the biggest attractions for him was Tencent's trove of data, hoovered up especially from its social media apps.

Tencent amasses data predominantly from semi-public content on QQ and WeChat and social media postings on sites like Weibo, China's Twitter-equivalent. It places strict limits on what data staff can access, said Zhang.

For instance, the company doesn't use personal conversations on WeChat, which has more than 889 million users. The company will use certain mechanisms to wipe names from conversations so user identities will be protected, Zhang said without elaborating.

His team of more than 50 researchers and 200 engineers were pulled from among the ranks of technology stalwarts such as Google and Facebook Inc. He turned to the rest of Silicon Valley and China's top universities for talent.

Now that the staff is in place, one of their immediate goals is to bolster speech-recognition: helping machines comprehend and converse with humans.

The team also works on content generation, including creating automated news stories, photos and music. The company is building a platform that will provide tools for small businesses and startups that want to develop their own AI technology.

Tencent's looking for ways to keep users glued to WeChat. On March 22, it signaled its intention to keep spending on areas from payments to content to increase social media engagement.

Pony Ma, Tencent's founder, said the company could explore AI technology for driverless cars and online health care in the future.

In many of those areas, Tencent will be competing with a pair of powerful local rivals: Baidu and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd are also in the race to develop AI use cases. They too can harness a vast database of information.

Baidu, the country's largest search engine, already employs 1,300 people in its artificial intelligence business and this year hired former Microsoft AI-architect Qi Lu to helm its operations.

Another thing all three have in common: they want to rank among the foremost companies in the field of AI, despite competition from Alphabet Inc, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft.

"We want to be on par with the best technology companies in the world," Zhang said. "We don't just want to import, but also create innovation."


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