E-commerce giant Alibaba has released a self-developed artificial intelligence (AI) chip, as the company increases its focus on chipmaking and aims to improve efficiency on its shopping platforms.

Why it matters: The chip, a neural processing unit, is developed by Alibaba’s chipmaking subsidiary T-Head, known as Pingtouge in Chinese. The company was set up in September last year.

  • China has set its sights on driving its domestic semiconductor industry while simultaneously pushing to become a leader in AI by 2030.
  • Observers have said that China’s lack of hardware prowess is currently preventing the company from overtaking the US in the race for AI supremacy.

“The launch of Hanguang 800 is an important step in our pursuit of next-generation technologies, boosting computing capabilities that will drive both our current and emerging businesses while improving energy efficiency.

—Jeff Zhang, Alibaba Group chief technology officer

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Details: While Alibaba is currently using the Hanguang within its own operations, the company plans to make the chip’s computing power available through its cloud services.

  •  The chip “largely outpaces” the industry average, Alibaba said in a statement.
  • The company added that the task of classifying and tailoring product recommendations for the 1 billion images uploaded every day to e-commerce platform Taobao used to take one hour, with the new chip cutting that time to five minutes.
  • The chip is currently being used to optimize product search and automatic translations on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, and is also being applied to personalized recommendations and advertising, the company said.

Context: T-Head was formed under Alibaba’s research and development unit DAMO Academy in late 2018. The company earlier this year released an internet of things processor based on RISC-V, the open-source instruction set architecture.

  • Alibaba has made investments in s slew of chipmakers, including China-based Cambricon, Kneron, ASR, and DeePhi.

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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