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Alibaba's next mission: A tech powerhouse

By He Wei | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-03-19 12:48

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

Alibaba Group said on March 14 that 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, technology-driven powerhouse.

Through a new, independent research and development department, dubbed NASA after the United States space agency, the internet juggernaut is setting its sights on developing core technologies that will serve 2 billion people in 20 years.

Alibaba's next mission: A tech powerhouse

Employees walking through Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Wei Xiaohao / For China Daily

Jack Ma, Alibaba's founder and chairman, says the R&D initiative accords with a broader plan to turn the company into "the world's fifth-largest economy", creating 100 million jobs and enabling 10 million small enterprises to become profitable in two decades.

"Just like how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fueled fundamental progress in science and technology and enhanced people's lives, new economies must be built upon new technology-enabled infrastructure," Ma recently said at the company's first internal technology conference, which was held at its headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

Ma, whose comments were released on Mar 13, added that Alibaba is ready to shoulder the responsibility for major technological breakthroughs.

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

"Today we've reached a tipping point, where technology makes a real difference," says Zhang Jianfeng, Alibaba's chief technology officer.

The new R&D department will move away from the old business model under which technology focused on supporting business operations. Instead, Alibaba says, it wants to establish a pure, holistic R&D mechanism with a long-range vision. Advanced technological solutions may be in the pipeline for one or two decades, the company said.

Alibaba 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.

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

Among the latest efforts is a pilot program that was rolled out recently 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 virtual access by cloud customers to a larger set of computer resources.

Zhang Mengmeng, a senior researcher at Counterpoint Technology Market Research, says that as Alibaba grows its core businesses into a collaborative ecosystem, it will need technology 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 says. "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."

Each member of China's internet triumvirate known as BAT (for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) is sparing no effort in the push for technological breakthroughs. Search engine Baidu is delving into artificial intelligence by championing a national lab for deep learning.

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