Alibaba shells out millions of dollars for top vision tech researchers to regain smart speaker edge

Its smart speaker Tmall Genie may soon come with a screen.

Photo:Shutterstock.com

Alibaba just hired two world-class scientists in the field of vision technology research to join its AI Labs, as the Chinese internet heavyweight prepares itself for the upcoming 5G era when voice interaction is set to evolve into visual interaction, the company said in a press release.

The two scientists are Chen Ying, the former chief engineer at Qualcomm, and Tan Ping, a tenured associate professor with Canada-based Simon Fraser University.

Chen will serve as the chief scientist of artificial intelligence and edge computing at Alibaba’s AI Labs, while Tan the chief scientist of vision technology, according to the release.

Chen will help Alibaba produce smart home appliances at more affordable prices by bringing down the cost of IoT-relevant vision technologies as well as developing vision technologies for smart gadgets.

Tan, on the other hand, is tasked with building a vivid virtual world by specializing in researches on three-dimensional modeling and holographic technique.

Alibaba said that Chen and Tan will be paid USD 1 million annually.

The announcement came as Baidu exceeds Alibaba to become the top vendor of smart speakers in China and as the second-largest vendor worldwide, following Amazon.

Baidu shipped 4.5 million smart speakers in the second quarter of 2019, up 3700% year-on-year, according to data released Monday by market researcher Canalys. Baidu’s smart speaker resurgent owes largely to its Xiaodu Smart Display, a smart speaker with a screen that sells for about USD 50 per unit. The screen-equipped model accounted for 45% of Baidu’s total smart speaker sales.

In the same quarter, Alibaba shipped 4.1 million units of its Tmall Genie smart speaker, a product of the AI Labs.

Smart speakers have been one of the most popular categories amongst China’s AI-enabled smart living gadgets sector.

Huang Jiping, assistant president of IDC China, said in June that smart speakers are comparable to personal computers and smart TVs in terms of popularity, although they are apparently still not a match for smartphones.