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Singles' Day

Alibaba lets AI, robots and drones do the heavy lifting on Singles’ Day

This year’s November 11 shopping ritual will engage a recommendation algorithm, robots, and chatbots capable of understanding human emotion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 12:02pm

Step aside humans. This Singles’ Day – the world’s biggest e-commerce shopping festival – will be powered by AI, robots and drones.

The widespread application of cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning by the e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba Group is borne out of necessity – the sheer volume of products that would be moved would make it practically impossible for employees to keep up, and is part of a broader push by China to embrace AI.

China’s President Xi Jinping highlighted the inclusion of big data and artificial intelligence in his keynote speech at the 19th party congress to power future economic growth. China has set a target to build a 1 trillion yuan (US$150 billion) AI industry by 2030 that will find use in automated cars, advanced manufacturing and even shopping.

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And it is on Singles’ Day, automation, robots, AI and machine learning will be widely applied to all aspects of the annual shopping ritual, right from product selection to delivery.

As consumers scroll up and down the company’s shopping portal for their favourite products, Tmall Smart Selection, an AI-powered recommendation algorithm will, in no small measure, help buyers to make a decision.

Through parsing inputs ranging from brand reviews to buyers’ behaviour, Tmall Smart Selection predicts potential successful products and reminds retailers to increase inventory accordingly.

“We are confident AI would prove more efficient in helping retailers boost sales,” said Cai Xiaowu, Alibaba Group engineer responsible for the development of Smart Selection.

He said that compared with seasoned fashion industry professionals, big data and AI would excel in picking products such as clothes where there are numerous brands and variables if evaluated manually.

Cai gave an example of Smart Selection accurately predicting a pair of boots that would be immensely popular among consumers despite not having received top reviews. “We were surprised when we found out the reason. The boots were worn by the star of the blockbuster movie Wolf Warrior 2.”

The recommendation algorithm is backed by the latest advances in deep learning and natural language processing, which is also used by Amazon in its recommendation engine and text-to-speech service Polly.

We are confident AI would prove more efficient in helping retailers boost sales
Cai Xiaowu, Alibaba Group engineer

AI-powered customer service chatbot Dian Xiaomi is another of Alibaba’s tech tools to help make businesses smarter and more efficient, especially around events like Singles’ Day. The tech giant claims the chatbot can understand more than 90 per cent of customer enquiries and serve almost 3.5 million users a day. “Dian Xiaomi, right now free of charge to shop owners, does not look to replace customer service staff, but offers extra help to address sharp increase of enquiries in times like November 11,” said Liu Jianrong, product manager at Alibaba.

In the more advanced “cloud” version made available this year, the service also features capability to understand customers’ emotion through text analysis and alert customer service staff for priority handling.

Once the products are selected, the orders are received automatically by robots for packaging and transport.

About 200 robots – automated guided vehicles – will work round the clock to deliver the orders placed at a newly opened automated warehouse operated by Alibaba’s delivery arm, Cainiao Network, in Huizhou, a city near Shenzhen in China’s south.

“These 200 robots can process 1 million shipments per day,” said Li Yakun, a worker at the automated warehouse. “They are three times more efficient than manual operations and need to be charged for just one hour after every six hours of use.

“All the robots are automatically connected with each other and they assign shipping tasks themselves without a central control room.”

The warehouse would mainly serve Tmall Supermarket consumers in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The efficiency of the logistics service means customers could receive same-day deliveries – orders placed in the morning would be delivered to customers’ doorsteps in the afternoon.

These 200 robots can process one million shipments per day
Li Yakun, a worker at Cainiao Network’s automated warehouse

Cainiao also has such warehouses in Tianjin, and Wuxi in Jiangsu province and in Malaysia.

Li said that since it was difficult to find people to work in warehouses the robots could easily cover the labour shortage. “We will have more such smart warehouses next year.”

Other Chinese companies are also investing in technological upgrades. JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce giant, also has its own smart warehouse where only robots operate. Besides, the Alibaba rival launched JD-X in May, a logistics lab to develop robots, drones and smart warehouses.

Once the products are packaged and ready for delivery, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones come to the fore. Alibaba and JD.com, who have been successfully using drones for deliveries, have been experimenting on its versatility.

JD.com, which offers drone delivery services in the western city of Xian and eastern China’s Suqian, said in August it would offer 100 million yuan to the winners of a competition to find the best solution for conducting widespread drone delivery services across China.

Last month, Alibaba used drones to deliver packages over open water for the first time. The flying robots delivered six boxes of passion fruit weighing a combined 12 kilograms from Putian in Fujian province to nearby Meizhou Island – a distance of 5.5 kilometres.

Alibaba said it would consider using the drones in the future to deliver high value products such as medical supplies and fresh food.

Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group,said in October that the company’s front end garners most of the attention even though it was strong in technology. “People tend to recognise our platforms and services, but overlook the technologies that make it happen,” Ma said during the Alibaba Computing Conference, in Hangzhou.

Alibaba to spend more than US$15bn on technology research with launch of collaborative academy

Alibaba will spend more than US$15 billion to open seven research labs in Beijing, Hangzhou, Singapore, Moscow, Tel Aviv, San Mateo, and Bellevue as part of the project. These will focus on areas that include machine learning, network security, visual computing and natural language processing.

But for now, Alibaba’s chief technology officer Zhang Jianfeng wants his staff to take it easy and watch technology do the work this Singles’ Day.

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.

Additional reporting by Zen Soo