In search of pragmatic solutions to ubiquitous problems


The Alibaba Damo Academy is a unique hybrid research and development (R&D) facility. An independent, academic-oriented scientific organization established in 2017 in Hangzhou, China, is also an independent research affiliate of its founder, Chinese internet technology giant Alibaba. Damo’s project development pipelines are positioned around the development of data-driven technologies for fundamental business and social challenges, such as reducing traffic congestion in megacities and labor productivity in logistic. But the approach to solving these fundamental problems is deliberately focused on commercialization-centric principles and development, which Damo executives say helps shorten their development cycle and improve the efficiency of their scientific research.

Damo’s approach to R&D is a founding principle linked to an even deeper strategic objective: the academy must “survive Alibaba”, to become a sustainable, sustainable and independent developer of all the group’s technological innovations. Yet as Damo grows up “from the shadow of the Alibaba tree” (to paraphrase one of company founder Jack Ma’s favorite metaphors), the parent company is still vital to its success: technological challenges. and operational staff of Alibaba’s business ecosystem serve as a source of inspiration for Damo.

Damo categorizes its technology projects into “emerging” (advanced technology), “mature discussion” (market-ready technology) and “commercialized” (product-ready). The “commercialized” projects and some “mature discussion” projects are closely linked to Alibaba’s technological development processes via a virtuous R&D circuit, which aims to quickly bring concepts to market through a frugal innovation process that uses lightweight, scalable and shareable development resources: more than 80% of projects led by Damo’s speech recognition lab, for example, host their applications in the cloud.

These applications include AI-enabled medical image analysis technology, which Damo says can perform clinical coronary pneumonia tests in under two seconds and provide a full diagnosis with 99% accuracy in 20 seconds. , which helps hospitals dramatically speed up their diagnostic process. A robotics division of Damo is testing an autonomous last-mile logistics robot, inspired by the pressure that China’s rapidly growing e-commerce demand places on door-to-door delivery services. The robot can potentially make 500 100-kilometer-per-day deliveries on four kilowatt-hours of electricity, navigating complex road and city conditions and distinguishing between pedestrian and vehicle action.

Big brains for big city problems

Other Damo projects attempt to address a number of organizational and social challenges through multi-functional and multi-application programs. Damo’s projects that use natural language processing in AI-enabled digital assistants to increase the operational efficiency of businesses are a case in point. Seeking to elevate the capabilities of desktop smart speakers beyond the fairly rudimentary interactions consumers have with their devices (largely simple verbal commands for searching the internet or browsing e-commerce sites), Damo has developed a prototype of a natural conversation analysis tool called ting wu (Chinese for listening and understanding). It is designed to listen to meetings with multiple participants and will analyze discussion patterns to produce informative synopses and assign post-meeting actions.

Source: Alibaba Herbal Academy

Damo’s speech model was also used to develop a simultaneous translation service for AliExpress (Alibaba’s global retail market), which is integrated with its customer engagement platform and allows participating merchant vendors to translate from Chinese. into English, Russian, Spanish and French. The service launched during last year’s Alibaba World Shopping Festival (also known as Singles’ Day) on November 11, and Damo reports that 70% of its merchant customers have used the service. The technology was also used for the company’s customer service chatbot, Alime, which served more than 50 million active users on the company’s Taobao and Tmall e-commerce sites during Singles Day.

On the ground, but reaching for the clouds

Rather than being guided by formal KPIs, R&D direction is defined by five key terms, according to Xu Yinghui, vice president of Alibaba Group and director of Damo’s Vision Lab, all of which underpin the emphasis by the academy on practical innovation. “The first is scalable: we want all of our applications to have a big impact, and keeping things in demonstration state doesn’t make sense. The second is interpretable: it is necessary to transform the black boxes of algorithms and other new tools into white boxes. The third is speed, then affordability, then the public interest – so that as many people as possible can benefit from the technology, ”says Xu.

Jin Rong, vice president of Alibaba group and director of Damo’s Machine Intelligence Lab, believes that the academy’s “demand-driven” R&D approach sets it apart from other research institutes. “Good technologies must have application prospects and must effectively solve practical problems, not only technological, but organizational or operational. Projects are established for specific market needs and the results of research and development are quickly implemented into business and application scenarios, ”says Jin. This results in a productization process “where technology is deposited on our cloud platform as soon as possible”, ensuring both greater scalability and accessibility, as well as continued profitability – “the engineering of controllable costs. In the parlance of Alibaba. “It’s an early or late problem, but not a yes or no problem,” said Jin.

In this sense, the cost and time constraints of Damo favor innovation: in order to make the projects viable, profitability must be integrated into the thesis. While Damo’s research on AI is deep and meaningful, free-wheeling experimentation unrelated to practical application is frowned upon. “First, an idea has to survive on its own in the real world rather than in its mind,” says Hua Xiansheng, head of the City Brain Lab at the academy. Damo executives believe that it was this philosophy that prompted the academy to quickly claim many groundbreaking projects in fundamental sectors as diverse as new IT architecture and autonomous driving, as well as in industrial applications in sectors such as health care, logistics, transportation and education. Pushed to solve deep, pernicious and socially important problems, but with ingrained pragmatism, Damo is keen to continue to move away from the shadow of his parents.

This content was produced by Alibaba Damo Academy. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.

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