Zhang Tong, head of one of Tencent’s key artificial intelligence (AI) units, has quit, potentially dealing a blow to the company’s research ambitions.

The AI veteran will return to academia, a Tencent spokesperson confirmed to TechNode. The company did not specify where he is heading nor who replace him.

Zhang joined Tencent’s AI Lab in February 2017, leading over 250 fellows and engineers focusing on fundamental research in artificial intelligence. Its main research fields include computer vision, voice recognition, natural language processing, and machine learning. According to company executives, the lab functions without KPIs.

Rumors of Zhang’s departure began circulating on the Chinese internet yesterday, saying the top AI expert left his post on Dec. 31 after being at the company for less than two years. The Stanford-trained researcher previously oversaw Baidu’s AI program in its Big Data Lab and worked at IBM and Yahoo.

Chinese reports claimed Zhang plans to head the computer science department at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Tencent’s AI Lab was founded in 2016 and is affiliated to the company’s Technology and Engineering Group. The Chinese internet giant is also known for its other AI initiatives. Wechat AI is attached to the Wechat Group, working on voice-to-text and chatbot solutions for users of its popular messaging platform Wechat.

The other, Youtu Lab, is led by Jia Jiaya from CUHK. The lab falls under the company’s Social Networking Group. Initially set up in 2012, the lab announced an organizational upgrade in September last year amid a broader restructuring plan at the company.

According to Tencent, Youtu has been providing smart solutions to 70 product lines within the firm. It also claimed to have empowered industry clients including logistics firm SF Express and mobile operator China Unicom with software development kits for computer vision.

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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