CES ASIA, SHANGHAI: JD.com and Baidu, two of China’s largest internet companies, separately outlined ambitious plans to gain the technological edge in artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and customer personalisation to expand their already massive footprints.
Following the example of Google and Amazon in the US, the China-based companies have moved quickly beyond their initial focus to create ubiquitous cloud-based platforms using the latest technologies to wow customers and streamline their operations.
The companies are also taking steps to open up their databases to help grow the wider ecosystem.
Chen Zhang, CTO of JD.com – the second largest e-commerce company in China after Alibaba – (pictured, left) said in a keynote the company is focused on three things: enhancing the user experience; cutting costs; and improving efficiency.
The company invested heavily in everything from cloud storage and payment systems to AI and drones. It is already using AI to improve order processing efficiency, implement an intelligent supply chain and personalise the inventory for customers using its website.
Chen said JD.com doesn’t see itself as merely an e-commerce company, but as a technology company or, more importantly, an infrastructure service provider.
He explained the company developed a 12-year plan covering elements including fully automating its warehouse and delivering packages in urban areas by autonomous vehicles capable of navigating inside buildings (pictured, right). Drones will deliver goods to rural communities which are not cost-effective to reach by roads.
It envisions using AI to better understand users’ preference and tastes, with Chen saying it will follow a household for 18 years, from the first purchase of nappies, through to making recommendations on relevant goods as the child grows.
JD.com is well on its way to many of those goals. It began developing drone capabilities in late 2015 and recently tested a model capable of carrying 1 tonne. Earlier in 2017, it announced plans to establish 150 drone launch centres in Sichuan province.
The company is already using robots in its warehouses, a move Chen said will allow it to increase the volume of storage at its facilities by five- or six-times and reduce labour costs: “We must move to automation in China as land and labour costs rise.”
Its move to automate its warehouse, the CTO insisted is: “not some futurist scenario. The technology is there and we’re moving there step-by-step.”
Previously, Chen said its pricing strategy was made using hunches, but is now based on big data which considers the customer lifecycle, seasonality and current promotions to offer dynamic pricing.
He said one goal is to open up its e-commerce platform to suppliers to push retail-as-a-service and already opened up its supply chain database to the public.
Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, highlighted its aggressive connected car programme, which it is putting a huge amount of resources behind.
Gu Weihao, GM of Baidu Intelligent Vehicle (pictured, left), said it is applying its advanced search technology (which uses new deep learning algorithms) to its image-based automated driving computing platform.
Like Google, Baidu’s vehicles are traversing the country’s roads to develop high-precision maps. It is importing this data to a simulation model it created to accelerate autonomous driving testing.
He said studies showed self-driving vehicles need to log as many as 200 million miles to reach the skill level of a human driver.
Baidu opened up a number of its driving datasets, including HD maps and imagery, to partners to speed development of autonomous vehicles: “But it is insufficient only to open the data,” the GM said. As a result, the company also plans to offer partners access to its Apollo autopilot software.
In May, Baidu signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Germany-based engineering and electronics company Bosch covering joint development of autopilot sensors and related hardware, and vehicle location services.
Gu said the autonomous driving market “will be gigantic”, but is still in the early stages and won’t take off before 2020: “We’re opening up and partnering to speed up that move and taking steps to move towards the mass production of self-driving car.”