Tencent stole Baidu’s big data lab head. Can it win the AI race?

The past week has been quite difficult for Baidu, dealing with the aftermath of its leading AI trio leaving the group’s AI development arm. Tencent, Baidu’s major rival in the AI arena, however, is beaming. It is welcoming former Baidu Big Data Lab head Zhang Tong to lead its own AI lab.

Tencent has shown its ambition to develop its own AI capabilities in establishing the Tencent AI Lab last April. The Chinese tech giant has since assembled 50 world-class AI scientists, researchers and experts. After poaching Zhang Tong from Baidu, the firm is going deeper into AI-related research and placing a much stronger bet in the competition of AI-driven products.

“Make AI everywhere” – this is the first thing that greets you upon opening Tencent’s AI lab website. The simple but sharp design of the site introduce the Shenzhen-based lab’s focus in speech recognition, natural language processing, computer vision and machine learning.

(Photo sreenshot from Tencent AI Lab)
(Photo screenshot from Tencent AI Lab)

Aside from leading Tencent’s AI scientists in exploring these research areas, Zhang will also lead a team of over 200 engineers to implement technology and develop the company’s existing products in social media, gaming, content and online tools.

Zhang, 45, is a Cornell- and Stanford-educated AI expert with a solid background in machine-learning research and product development. His time teaching at Rutgers University in the United States has apparently earned him extensive academia contacts. Also, having his expertise polished at IBM, Yahoo and Baidu, Zhang is not only a veteran manager of research labs but also knows how to turn theory into practice.

The deep-learning expert joins Tencent at a good time: the tech company was clearly not hesitant to show off what it’s capable of in AI development, bringing its Go program “Fine Art” or “Jueyi” to a computer Go tournament in Japan earlier this month. It won the championship title after winning all 11 games.

Regarded as AlphaGo’s major rival, Tencent’s Fine Art demonstrated how mature the Chinese company’s AI technique is and its clear ambition to step up its game in the field.

With millions of existing users, Tencent has a strong and solid starting point. The company is best known for WeChat, which started off as a messaging service and has rapidly grown its business to everyday services such as food ordering and taxi hailing. The quantity and depth of big data that it has amassed is almost beyond imagination.

According to Bloomberg, Zhang said that one of the biggest attractions for him was Tencent’s trove of data, collected especially from its social media platforms like WeChat, QQ, and Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Alibaba, Chinese e-commerce giant, has also been developing AI-powered products, such as Alibaba Cloud which just announced its latest services targeting the healthcare and manufacturing industries. The company has earlier applied a face recognition feature in Alipay, a third-party online payment platform, and reportedly 150 million users have already started to use this function.

While Baidu currently seems to lead the charge in the fierce competition of AI research among the tech firms in China, Tencent, by contrast, is actually a latecomer in the area. It set up its AI lab just last year, but poaching talents like Zhang at least shows the Chinese company’s intentions to seriously join the game.

While Tencent still has some catching up to do, one thing’s for sure: there’s a lot more to watch regarding China’s AI scene. Grab your popcorn while those tech firms battle it in the race to find new ways of making our lives easier.

(Top photo from Baidu images)

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