Why Alibaba named its semiconductor company after the honey badger

‘A chip is small [like the honey badger], and we hope that such a small thing will produce great power,’ said Alibaba chief technology officer Jeff Zhang

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 5:14pm

Alibaba Group Holding is looking to make a splash in the semiconductor industry, and it is hoping to take after the honey badger – a small, fearless animal that is native to Africa, Southwest Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and known for its ability to kill cobras.

The Hangzhou-based e-commerce giant on Wednesday said it would establish a semiconductor subsidiary named after the honey badger, known as Pingtou Ge in China. Pingtou Ge, which translates to “flat head brother”, is the nickname given by Chinese internet users to the honey badger, as the animal looks like it has a flat-top haircut.

“Many people know that the honey badger is a legendary animal: it’s not afraid of anything and has skilful hunting techniques and great intelligence,” said Alibaba chief technology officer Jeff Zhang on Wednesday at the Alibaba Computing Conference in Hangzhou.

“Alibaba’s semiconductor company is new; we’re just starting out. And so we hope to learn from the spirit [of the honey badger].”

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Zhang also said that Alibaba believes in “the power of small”, since the company wants to help millions of small companies around the world do business.

“A chip is small [like the honey badger], and we hope that such a small thing will produce great power,” he said.

The honey badger’s fearless personality has long been a well-known trope, thanks in part to a 1980s cult comedy film The Gods Must Be Crazy II. One of the characters in the film accidentally kicks a honey badger, which resulted in the persistent animal following him across the desert to take revenge. The honey badger also went viral in 2011 after several videos parodied the animal’s tough and tenacious personality, which made it unafraid of larger predators such as hyenas and even lions.

Alibaba’s creation of a chip subsidiary comes on the heels of the intensified trade war between China and the US. In light of the growing tensions between the world’s two largest economies, China has sought to accelerate its efforts to gain self-sufficiency and parity in semiconductors. These integrated circuits go into and power everything from smartphones to smart speakers to the most advanced super computers and driverless cars.

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The branding effort for Alibaba’s nascent semiconductor business further bolsters its commitment to develop what company executive chairman Jack Ma Yun has described as a “core technology” for China. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Alibaba’s global research programme – the Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook (Damo) Academy – is expected to launch its first neural network chip in the second half of next year, and is currently developing its own CK902 series of smart chips that will form the foundation of its internet of things infrastructure.

The Damo Academy plans to launch its artificial intelligence chip, known as the AliNPU, for potential use in the fields of autonomous driving, smart cities and smart logistics.

In April, Alibaba acquired Chinese chip design firm Hangzhou C-Sky Microsystems to increase its own semiconductor expertise. C-Sky Microsystems develops embedded CPU and chip architecture.

Following that acquisition, Ma said Alibaba had invested in five semiconductor companies in the past four years, according to a Bloomberg report.

While Alibaba has sharpened its focus on semiconductors, internet users in China have more superficial concerns.

These netizens have pointed out the resemblance of Ma to the honey badger, with some even quoting a viral online manifesto that supposedly embodies the spirit of the animal.

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“Who are you fighting with? Pingtou Ge is always either in a fight, or on its way to a fight!” wrote Weibo user 52Hezidengdai.

Another Weibo user, with the handle Tiandabai Troy, took notice of the honey badger’s fighting spirit: “Pingtou Ge: Although I might not beat others, I’m unafraid. I’ll do it anyway!”

Ma also acknowledged that spirit on Thursday during a session on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin.

“Some of my colleagues said to me that I have a Pingtou Ge hidden in my mind, in my body,” Ma said. “Pingtou Ge is an awesome animal when it comes to fighting with others. [Like a Pingtou Ge], I won’t ask who the opponent is or how many of them I have to fight. Just tell [me] the place and time. I’m not someone who is afraid of challenges.”