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Alibaba chief hails ‘tech watershed’ as group unveils ChatGPT challenger

Chinese tech giant Alibaba pledged to introduce artificial intelligence across all its business lines as it launched its ChatGPT-like generative artificial intelligence model in Beijing on Tuesday, with the country’s tech groups racing to catch up with US efforts in the field.

Chief executive Daniel Zhang said on Tuesday that Tongyi Qianwen, which roughly translates to “truth from a thousand questions”, would be incorporated in workplace collaboration tool DingTalk and the company’s Tmall Genie smart speakers before appearing in all its products at some point in the future.

“We are at a technological watershed moment driven by generative AI and cloud computing,” he said, as Alibaba became the latest Chinese company to declare it would try to emulate US start-up and ChatGPT creator OpenAI.

“Ten to 20 years from now, when we look back, we will realise we were all on the same starting line,” Zhang said. “Seizing these future opportunities is our common wish and requires a shared vision.”

On Monday, Xu Li, chief executive of Chinese AI software leader SenseTime, gave a live demonstration as he unveiled its SenseChat bot, which was able to write an email and tell a story about a cat catching a fish.

Baidu last month unveiled its chatbot Ernie to mixed reviews. Users said the chatbot could create vivid pictures but struggled with basic logic and was unable to write code like GPT-4 could.

Alibaba’s efforts are tucked inside its cloud arm, which Zhang personally took control of in December amid slumping growth.

“We have persisted in making cloud computing a core strategy for 14 years,” Zhang said.

While Alibaba has repeatedly trumpeted cloud computing’s importance to its future, the business has yet to contribute meaningfully to the group’s results. Annual revenue growth slowed to 3 per cent in the fourth quarter, and the unit was barely profitable.

Zhang is betting that a radical restructuring announced this month will help reset the ageing tech giant’s fortunes. Alibaba will split into six entities while remaining controlled by a common holding company, allowing each entity to be more nimble.

Tongyi was opened to corporate clients for testing last Friday. Early user feedback posted online shows the chatbot can write poems in both Chinese and French and solve basic mathematical problems but struggles with simple logic.

When one user asked Tongyi how to stir-fry reinforced concrete, it offered a recipe that included slicing the concrete into small pieces. Baidu’s Ernie similarly tells users to mix concrete with garlic, onions and peppers, noting concrete is “a very special ingredient with a unique texture”.

When asked the same question, ChatGPT says it does not understand the question and notes concrete is not edible. Other Chinese user tests show Ernie and Tongyi making up facts about non-existent people.

The Financial Times was able to replicate the queries and problematic answers in Baidu’s Ernie but does not have access to Tongyi.

The flurry of generative AI announcements has helped boost Chinese tech groups’ stock prices. Baidu’s shares have risen more than 15 per cent from the start of the year, while SenseTime is up nearly 50 per cent. Alibaba’s shares rose 1 per cent in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

The gains in AI stocks have alarmed Chinese regulators and state media, which have repeatedly warned investors against chasing the speculative frenzy.

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