Empowering traditional industries with AI: an interview with Benyu Zhang, CEO of CloudBrain

Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken the tech sector by storm in the past year. Yet, what remains unanswered in many people’s minds is how else AI might be applied and what changes it will bring about in our daily lives. China’s AI startup CloudBrain provides part of the answer to this question.

The Beijing and Silicon Valley-based startup, which secured several millions (USD) in funding for series A in July, aims to equip traditional sectors with AI technology, making them more productive and more impactful, much in the way the advent of the internet changed and capacitated these industries.

Benyu Zhang, founder and CEO of CloudBrain. Photo from CloudBrain

An AI startup founded by an AI expert

Unlike many other entrepreneurs who recently began pursuing the trend of AI, Benyu Zhang, founder and CEO of CloudBrain, has been developing his expertise in AI for 18 years.

Zhang’s interest in AI was piqued at an early age when he was still in high school. Back then, he was fascinated by a computer game in which players could write rules to make a bird in the game more vivid.

“I was curious about how to combine computers with living things,” Zhang said.

This curiosity led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Peking University. He continued to study at the university’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and graduated with a master’s degree in 2002. After graduation, Zhang worked for Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for more than a decade, focusing on machine learning, deep learning, and other AI-related fields.

In 2015, Zhang decided to return to China and found his own company, CloudBrain.

“Internet and mobile internet have accumulated abundant digitalized data for AI. It’s time to analyze and utilize this data,” Zhang told AllTechAsia.

At present, CloudBrain is headquartered in both Beijing and Mountain View, California, with a small office in China’s eastern city Hangzhou. Zhang said he spends more time in the US office, leading its 10-person team focusing on AI research and development. Meanwhile, a crew of around 20 people in Beijing mainly targets the application of the company’s AI technology.

Empowering traditional sectors to achieve more with AI

AlphaGo’s wins over global top-notch Go professionals have stunned the world, leaving people wondering what changes AI will bring to our lives. In fact, AI has already been widely integrated into search engines and advertising. Google and Facebook, for instance, leverage AI technology to show users tailored ads based on search history and other online behavior.

Zhang believes AI has created significant value in online search and ad businesses and believes it will achieve even greater value if applied across other traditional industries.

With this philosophy, Zhang designed CloudBrain as an AI platform to provide operational benefits to traditional industries. The startup collaborates with enterprises from finance, energy, human resources, among other industries, and makes businesses smarter by harnessing the power of AI.

CloudBrain’s co-founder Zhiyong Long, who oversees the startup’s business expansion, explained how the collaboration works.

CloudBrain is working with UnionPay Smart, a subsidiary of the world’s largest card payment organization, China UnionPay, to help business owners find consumers more efficiently and accurately. Based on UnionPay’s massive card payments data, CloudBrain is able to define a group of consumers that buy certain products. It can then locate potential buyers with similar consuming characteristics but who have not yet made a purchase. It will recommend these likely shoppers to business owners to make the deal happen.

This strategy is slightly different from the personalized recommendation methods utilized by Amazon and Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, which recommend items to shoppers based on their own shopping or search history.

Photo from 699pic.com

When it comes to the human resources sector, it’s all about match-making. According to Long, CloudBrain is working with Shixisheng.com, China’s largest intern recruitment site, to help both companies and interns find the right match.

When looking for interns, HR departments of sizable and established companies spend a great deal of time evaluating far too many applications. The HRs of less-known companies, however, face the opposite dilemma—too few or even no candidates. This is precisely where AI can make a difference. CloudBrain’s AI technology will analyze both the resumes of candidates and job descriptions then match the parties as suitably as possible.

In the case of large-scale companies, this system will help sort all candidates’ resumes and create a rank list based on matching degree. In this scenario, HRs of large companies need only evaluate, for instance, the top 500 resumes rather than all 5000, in order to find the candidates they need.

As for smaller companies, they no longer need worry about the problem of attracting zero candidates. CloudBrain’s AI system will recommend candidates whose resumes match job descriptions to apply for those internships.

“What’s more exciting is that we are thinking about making more precise matches based on job interviews and offer results, and even how those interns perform at work, instead of simply analyzing resumes,” Long added.

As for the energy sector, CloudBrain provides solutions that help electricity power companies predict the consumption volume of a certain geographic area, so that electricity can be better allocated in advance.

The startup is also collaborating with one of China’s top ten smartphone manufacturers to develop built-in AI software enabling smartphones to recommend customized contents to users.

Photo from deepmind.com

DeepMind is their ultimate goal

AlphaGo’s developer DeepMind, founded in London in 2010 and acquired by Google in 2014, is one of the globe’s most prestigious AI companies. CloudBrain has its eye on it.

“We’re learning from DeepMind and hope someday we will surpass it,” Zhang boasts.

Despite the fact that both are AI companies, CloudBrain differs considerably from DeepMind.

According to Zhang, Google’s subsidiary focuses more on cutting-edge research, while CloudBrain prioritizes the application of AI technology across different industries. Zhang believes his company is nimbler and more flexible than DeepMind because it’s an independent company rather than part of a larger conglomerate. What’s more, he holds the view that the data and scenarios in CloudBrain’s application will facilitate the development of AI technology in return.

As an AI scientist who has spent years both in and beyond China, Zhang spoke about the differences between Chinese and international AI scientists. He opines that AI scientists from other countries are better at putting forward new concepts and theories, while their Chinese counterparts are more adept at digging deep into these issues. “Personally, I am more skilled in a combination of technology and application,” Zhang said.

The future of AI remains unclear, but we’re thrilled to see where Zhang and other innovators take us.

(Top photo from 699pic.com)

Alex Liao
Alex Liao

Alex writes for AllTechAsia. Previously, he worked as a tech editor for Caijing magazine’s website for almost three years. He graduated from Beijing Normal University with a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. He is interested in gadgets, new technology, cycling, running and hiking.

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