Artificial intelligence

China’s Tencent, Alibaba locked in battle to back next AI superstar

China has laid out a road map to achieving global leadership in artificial intelligence. President Xi Jinping recently called on the country’s companies to step up and own the core technologies

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 4:20pm

China’s SenseTime held on to its title as the world’s most valuable artificial intelligence start-up for less than a month before UBTECH Robotics claimed bragging rights with a new funding round backed by Tencent Holdings.

Shenzhen-based UBTECH Robotics, which designs and manufactures humanoid robots that interact with humans, announced Thursday it has secured US$820 million in funding in a so-called Series C round led by Tencent, putting its valuation at an estimated US$5 billion. That trumped the US$3 billion valuation attributed to SenseTime, which specialises in facial recognition software and raised US$600 million from Alibaba Group and other investors in early April.

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The latest funding underlines the rate at which China’s tech giants are pouring investments into artificial intelligence. The world’s second-largest economy last year unveiled its plan to build itself into a world leader in AI by 2030 and named Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – collectively known as BAT – as well as voice intelligence specialist iFlyTek, as the first group to spearhead the development of next generation AI technologies.

AI refers to the field of advanced computing system that are able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages. Some of the most prominent displays of AI include AlphaGo, the first computer program to defeat a Go world champion. A deep neural network model developed by Alibaba, parent of the South China Morning Post, has scored higher than humans in a reading comprehension test. 

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China has pushed ahead with plans to create a more savvy work force, including rolling out an AI curriculum for high school students, to supplement a master plan to create an AI industry. Those efforts have drawn the attention of the US government, which may reportedly scrutinise informal partnerships between American and Chinese companies in the field of AI on worries about theft of intellectual property and technology transfer to China.

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According to mainland news portal, Tencent invested about US$120 million in UBTECH. Investors including Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and home appliance giant Haier Group also took part in the round, according to the report. Tencent did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the investment.

To put the US$5 billion valuation in perspective, UBTECH would be worth as much as Foot Locker Inc., the New York-based footwear retailer, if it were a publicly traded company. Foot Locker made US$284 million in net income in its last financial year on US$7.8 billion of revenue.