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Tech giants bet big on AI with startup investments

2018-05-05

An intelligent robot, made by Shenzhen-headquartered UBTECH, attracts visitors at an industry expo in Qingdao, Shandong Province. (Photo by Wang Haibin/for China Daily\)

China's technology giants are placing a slew of fresh bets on artificial intelligence by investing in startup firms that are set to disrupt the burgeoning sector.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd announced on Thursday it will fully acquire Beijing Sound Connect Technology Co, a speech solution provider for smart devices, as it ramps up efforts to enhance sound recognition and human-machine interactive technologies.

Founder of Sound Connect Fu Qiang, who is a former acoustics expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, will join Alibaba's Damo Academy, an in-house research and development program, to broaden the application scenarios of voice interaction, including smart home furniture.

In his new post, Fu and his team will help beef up the e-commerce giant's audio signal processing technologies, the internet of things technologies and hardware and software solutions. He is also expected to establish two physical acoustic labs.

According to Fu, Chinese companies are not lagging behind their foreign rivals in the accumulation of voice processing-related technologies, but they lack successful products.

"Given the rather lengthy chain of voice interaction technology, some ideas are just difficult to put into practice without excellent product designs," Fu said. "A bigger platform like Alibaba would help our technologies generate more value."

On the same day, Tencent Holdings Ltd led a $820 million Series C funding in Shenzhen-headquartered UBTECH Robotics, a leading intelligent humanoid robot maker, marking the single largest financing round for an AI company.

Under the agreement, Tencent will work closely with UBTECH on future product development, based on an existing partnership that already integrates a suite of Tencent technologies from its cloud-computing Xiaowei service and the AI-powered Dingdang assistant.

"The latest capital infusion represents a new round of strategic funding, with UBTECH and Tencent committed to building an ecosystem of services and content for intelligent, humanoid robots," said Zhou Jian, UBTECH founder and chief executive officer.

The country's tech titans Alibaba, Tencent and search engine Baidu Inc have collectively participated in 39 equity deals into startups building AI software and AI chips since 2014, according to a report by venture capital database CB Insights in April.

China has upheld the development of AI as a national strategy and has recruited Tencent, Alibaba, iFlytek and Baidu Inc to an "AI national team" to have them each focus on one specific field.

  

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