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Alibaba announces ambitious plans for building own AI chips

China’s king of tech entrepreneurship, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has been vocal about the importance of shedding dependence on US technology in the current political atmosphere. It appears Ma, along with the rest of Alibaba’s shareholders, is now putting his money where his mouth is, as his brainchild company unveils ambitious new goals for its research and development plan.

Chief Technology Officer Jeff Zhang announced the roadmap at the group’s Cloud Computing Conference on Wednesday, saying that Alibaba DAMO Academy will ramp up efforts to develop quantum processors.

“We have to leverage Alibaba’s advantage, not only to develop chips, but also the system and environments to test and apply it, using Alibaba’s platforms, artificial intelligence and computing power, to develop [quantum technologies] to their full potential,” Zhang was quoted as saying on the company’s news website.

The academy is hoping to introduce its first artificial intelligence chip, called Ali-NPU, as soon as next year, for possible applications ranging from autonomous driving to smart cities.

The DAMO (discovery, adventure, momentum, outlook) Academy project was launched in 2017 as a vehicle for more than US$15 billion worth of R&D funding. DAMO announced the development of the Ali-NPU chip last April, boasting that its cost performance will be 40 times that of existing products.

During the conference, the company also announced a new Alibaba subsidiary which will focus on developing customized AI chips and embedded processors to be used in cloud computing and internet of things applications.

Last April, Ma shed light on the motivation for the project.

“America was the early mover and China, we need a lot of things. 100 percent of the market for chips is controlled by Americans,” Ma was quoted by Bloomberg as telling students at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “And suddenly if they stop selling – what that means, you understand. And that’s why China, Japan, and any country, you need core technologies.”

The comments came following a decision by the US to slap a ban on exports of key components to Chinese chipmaker ZTE, only to later walk back the penalty. The action increased the urgency for China to develop domestic alternatives to US products its technology companies rely on.

“We’re entering a world where people don’t trust each other. That’s why we have trade wars and so many problems,” Ma said in his speech in Tokyo. “But don’t give up. Trust isn’t just gained, it’s about building. And we can build.”

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