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Tencent names Zhang Tong head of its artificial intelligence lab

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 11:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 March, 2017, 11:22pm

Tencent Holdings, the operator of China’s largest social network, has appointed a machine-learning expert to head its artificial intelligence lab, joining competitors in making a push to claim the next frontier in internet technology.

Zhang Tong, an expert in big data, and the former head of Baidu Inc’s big data lab, will oversee AI Lab, according to a Tencent statement. Zhang will lead 50 AI scientists in research and development in areas involving machine learning, computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

He will also lead a team of more than 200 engineers with product development backgrounds to transfer technology to Tencent’s existing products in gaming, social media, content and online tools.

The Shenzhen-based company is expected to compete in many areas with rivals Baidu and Alibaba Group, which are racing to expand their own AI activities.

The appointment is part of a move by Tencent to take a leading role in AI development, following the launch of the AI Lab in April 2016.

“We’ve been developing AI for the past 18 years at Tencent and will continue to invest in building world-class AI capabilities and applications. Our hope is for AI to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” said Martin Lau, president of Tencent in a statement.

Tencent didn’t reveal how much it plans to invest in AI. But in an email reply to the South China Morning Post, the company said that it will keep making investments in the sector based on the demands of strategy and business.

“Talent is a critical part for AI development. So this [talent] will be a focus for our future investment on AI,” the company said.

Tencent’s popular WeChat service, known as Weixin in China, is a part of daily life on the mainland, enabling users to hail rides, shop, order food at restaurants, pay utility bills and navigate using geolocation services.

“Tencent will make for a formidable competitor in AI as it has a huge cash pool and a rich product portfolio with massive users to apply the technology,” said Zhao Ziming, an analyst with Beijing-based consultancy Analysys.

Beijing-based Baidu employs 1,300 people in AI-related research and business development. In January the company hired former Microsoft executive and leading AI scientist Lu Qi as its chief operating officer. Baidu is remaking itself as an AI-first organisation and aggressively competing with companies such as Alphabet (also known as Google) in autonomous driving.

Pony Ma Huateng, founder and chairman of Tencent, said at Wednesday’s post-results press conference that the company could “explore AI technology for driverless cars and online health care in the future”.

Ma added that Tencent would strive to incorporate AI technology into WeChat.

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.