Alibaba Is Doubling Down on AI Chips and Quantum Computing

October 1, 2018 - 5 minutes read

At Alibaba’s 2018 computing conference, the company showed off their Tmall app, an AI mobile app developed to identify the variations between different kinds of tea leaves and their roasting quality level. While this use case was subtle, it foreshadowed an announcement later on in the four-day conference.

Alibaba revealed its plans to invest in and develop similar technologies to the application above; ones that could be useful for everyday life. A couple of these investments will be in Pingtou Ge, a subsidiary that develops AI chips, and in a team to build quantum processors.

The Spirit of the Honey Badger

Jeff Zhang is Alibaba’s CTO and the leader of DAMO Academy, an Alibaba research initiative with seven labs across the world, including one development hub in Seattle.

When asked to clarify why Alibaba named the research company after “Pingtou Ge”, the Chinese name for “honey badger”, he responded, “Many people know that the honey badger is a legendary animal: it’s not afraid of anything and has skillful hunting techniques and great intelligence. Alibaba’s semiconductor company is new; we’re just starting out. And so we hope to learn from the spirit [of the honey badger].”

Zhang recently gave an interview to MIT Technology Review about the new AI and quantum computing Alibaba subsidiary, and cited one of the reasons for making a chip company included, “[It] gives [Alibaba] an advantage. Chips are becoming more specialized. Many companies are developing AI chips, but each company has different data loads and business needs.

“This means each company needs customized chips optimized for its own software. This is something traditional chip companies can’t do. But of course, we will also utilize some already widely used chip designs, and combine these with our own designs to create more value.”

AI Income Streams

To stay in business, Pingtou Ge will take several income-generating routes. First, the company will license all of their intellectual property (IP) for other companies to use. Second, Pingtou Ge will provide specialized consulting by aggregating and analyzing their IP work.

Third, the company will decrease spending at Alibaba and its other subsidiaries by manufacturing the chips in-house for use in the cloud and data centers.

At the DAMO Academies, the researchers are working on data and intelligence: figuring out how to optimize collection, storage, and processing all of it. According to Zhang, “We process almost all our data using AI, which is the intelligence part of DAMO’s research. And this includes algorithms and processors.”

Making Quantum Computing Scalable

Zhang spoke candidly about Alibaba’s progress in quantum computing. He admitted the company doesn’t have a processor yet, and the company is still talking about the best long-term plan for this in-house technology. He says, “Once we have a processor, we’ll need to answer the question of what to use it for. Quantum computers might be good for applications in cryptography or large simulations of materials, but they will not be suitable for all kinds of tasks.”

He spoke about quantum computing applications creating tons of qubit data (a qubit (or “qbit”) is a basic unit of quantum information). He explained that “the more qubits you have, the more challenges there are because you need to make sure all these qubits can work together seamlessly and reliably. The number of qubits is not our only goal. We want to solve the engineering problems of quantum computing.”

Zhang is referring to problems like: “How do you run existing programs on quantum processors? You’re not going to run every program on quantum processors, right? So you’ll need to determine which computation tasks are for quantum computers and which are for classical ones. We are building a superconducting quantum computer in our Hangzhou headquarters, and we want to reach a point where quantum computing is scalable.”

Just as Google is expanding into China, Chinese startups and multi-billion dollar corporations are expanding into America and across the world. As our planet becomes more intimately connected through the Internet, we see more diversity in our products and devices for the next decade.

Alibaba is working on some exciting stuff! What was your favorite takeaway from its 2018 conference?

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