When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) and Chinese tech companies, thoughts often begin and end with Baidu. But Tencent, Asia’s second highest-valued tech company behind Alibaba, has reminded the world that it too is investing in the field.
Search giant Baidu was one of the first to make a major commitment to deep learning. It spent over $2.9 billion on R&D over a 2.5 year period, according to Bloomberg, and currently has more than 1,300 specialists working on a variety of technologies that include AI and augmented reality. Baidu, however, suffered a blow when its chief scientist Andrew Ng, who heads up its U.S.-based research team, announced his departure last week.
There’s one more exit to add to that list after Tencent announced today that it poached machine learning researcher Tong Zhang, who heads up Baidu’s Big Data Lab, to lead its own AI Lab. The Shenzhen-based lab is focused on computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.
Tencent, best known for WeChat, China’s top messaging app, announced the lab last April. It said today that it has 50 AI specialists housed there. Aside from that development facility, Zhang — who received a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford and has worked at IBM and Yahoo — will lead a team of 200 product engineers that’s tasked with converting AI advances into tangible features and updates for Tencent’s apps and services.
“Tencent is looking at four areas for AI application: content, social, online games and cloud services. At present, over a hundred Tencent products, including Weixin/WeChat, QQ and Tian Tian Kuai Bao, a Tencent news app, use AI technology,” the company added.
That’s a similar goal to Baidu, which got serious on deep learning when it hired Ng, a co-founder of online learning startup Coursera, in 2014.
A world renowned AI expert, Ng previously made his name when it helped found Google’s deep learning team, Google Brain. Ng said in his departure note that Baidu’s AI efforts had been felt across its “existing businesses in search, advertising, maps, take-out delivery, voice search, security, consumer finance and many more” areas.
“The team is stacked up and down with talent; I am confident AI at Baidu will continue to flourish,” he added.
For now, Tencent is talking up its AI prowess in the field of Go, the strategic game that Google made its mark on when its AI (AlphaGo) triumphed over world champion Lee Seedol last year.
Tencent said its ‘Fine Art’ AI, which was developed by 13 Tencent engineers, defeated high ranking Japanese Go player Ryo Ichiriki last week. All in all, the firm said the AI has taken on 100 “renowned human players,” winning 406 of over 500 rounds that it has competed in.