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A Chinese Internet Giant Enters the AI Race

Tencent, which provides the immensely popular mobile app WeChat along with games and entertainment content, is determined to build a formidable AI lab.
December 8, 2016

One of China’s leading tech companies is building an AI lab that could soon rival those operated by the likes of Google, Facebook, Baidu, and Amazon.

Tencent, based in Shenzhen, in southern China, operates a range of online and mobile services, including the hugely popular social mobile apps WeChat and QQ. The company created its AI lab in April, and it is growing rapidly. Tencent sent a delegation of AI researchers, recruiters, and business representatives to the industry’s preeminent event, the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, held in Barcelona, Spain, this week.

Tencent’s push into AI research reflects a broader shift across China’s consumer technology industry toward more fundamental research designed to spur real innovation. As the domestic Internet market has matured, the country’s big players aim to become technology leaders rather than innovative imitators. And as AI research increasingly shapes the products offered by big technology companies in the West, rivals in China are gearing up to compete on this front (see “AI Winter Isn’t Coming”).

Tencent already makes use of machine learning in its products, for personalized news recommendations and search, for example. But investment in AI could help the company improve its existing offerings, and develop innovative new products.

So far, Tencent’s AI Lab has around 30 researchers, mostly PhDs, says Xing Yao, vice president at Tencent overseeing the AI lab and the AI platform group. This is a modest number compared to the labs operated by Google or Facebook, and but the plan is to grow it quickly, and to begin publishing original work at leading conferences next year.

Yao believes that Chinese companies may have an important edge when it comes to recruiting AI talent—a major issue for all tech companies aiming to do cutting edge work today. “Chinese companies have a really good chance, because a lot of researchers in machine learning have a Chinese background. So from a talent acquisition perspective, we do think there is a good opportunity for these companies to attract that talent.”

WeChat and QQ are widely used in China for much more than just communications, including gaming, mobile payments, and consuming news and entertainment (see “WeChat Is Extending China’s School Days Well into the Night”).

“Ten years ago, you could say Chinese companies were copying from the U.S.,” Yao told me, speaking through a translator at the conference. “As we develop, we are going from that to innovation on the product side. WeChat is a really good example of that—we came up with a lot of things that U.S. companies hadn’t really thought about. But in addition to product innovation, we want to deep dive into research and the fundamental side of things. And AI, being the next platform or big thing, we want to be part of this.”

Tencent said in its most recent quarterly results, issued in November, that the monthly active users of WeChat had reached 846 million, and that users of QQ hit 877 million. These numbers exceed China’s entire online market because users can register multiple accounts with different phone numbers.

Tencent isn’t the only Chinese technology company building up expertise in artificial intelligence. A report issued by the U.S. government in October said that the number of papers published by Chinese researchers mentioning “deep learning"—a leading machine-learning approach—recently exceeded the number published by researchers from the U.S. China’s leading search engine, Baidu, has had a dedicated AI research lab for several years, and it now regularly publishes fundamental advances.

U.S. tech companies might be wise to keep an eye on rising AI competition from the East. “We are trying to create a world-class lab,” Yao says. “And we do have the patience and the resources to support that.”

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