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Alibaba Cloud is making a deeper push into smart cities in an effort to demonstrate the transformative impact of its technologies on society.
In a marked shift away from touting its technological prowess, the Chinese cloud supplier went to great lengths at a company conference in Hangzhou, China, to demonstrate how smart cities has improved lives and reduced traffic congestions.
Take Hangzhou City Brain 2.0, for example. The artificial intelligence (AI) powered smart city platform that offers city planners and transportation authorities a way to gather and analyse data points, such as the number of vehicles on the road, has increased average travel speeds at traffic-clogged junctions in Hangzhou by up to 50%.
Wang Jian, chairman of Alibaba’s technology steering committee and the brains behind City Brain, said this was accomplished not by diverting traffic from one part of the city to another, but by leveraging data analytics to control traffic light timings and other factors that affect traffic.
“In Hangzhou, I can leave for work in the morning an hour later than if I were in Beijing,” Wang said.
Noting that Hangzhou used to be one of the most populous cities in the world at the peak of the Song dynasty, Wang said at the conference that cities must strive for sustainable development and deploy resources efficiently as they grow.
“There are some cities that lose as much as 40% of their water supplies due to leakages,” Wang said, adding that the use of data analytics can help to minimise such wastage.
Businesses, Alibaba executives said, have also benefitted from Alibaba’s AI and analytics capabilities.
These include lift manufacturer Otis, which has been using Alibaba’s AI capabilities to improve and optimise elevator performance based on passenger load, as well as Hangzhou Bank, which has been generating business insights using big data.
Making his appearance at the event was Alibaba’s co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, who gave a hint of the company’s priorities in helping manufacturers embrace technologies such as cloud, AI and the internet of things (IoT).
Noting that the manufacturing industry would soon face the same disruptive forces that gripped the retail sector, he called for manufacturers to embrace data-driven, smart manufacturing processes and automation, and work hand-in-hand with retailers to better understand consumer needs.
Ma said this was crucial with the soon-to-be blurred lines between retail and manufacturing, which can be taken on by robots with greater standardisation of manufacturing processes. “Machines can make the products, but they cannot yet deliver the retail experience that people can,” he said.
On the retail front, Alibaba has been making a pitch for so-called “smart retail” technologies that deliver a blend of online and offline experiences, riding on its expertise in developing cloud services for retailers in China.
Tim Sheedy, principal advisor at Ecosystm, a technology research firm, said Alibaba’s legacy in retail, and the fact that many retailers already use its platform positions the company well to move further into the retail space across Asia. “They will hope to benefit from the growth that the e-commerce providers are witnessing across the region,” he said.
To support its cloud and IoT business, and the needs of different industries, Alibaba said it is forming a chip company to develop customised AI chips and embedded processors.
By the second half of 2019, it will also launch an AI inference chip that can be used in autonomous vehicles, as well as smart city and logistics applications. This follows its recent introduction of a high performance deep learning processor (DLP) that it claims will meet low latency and high performance requirements at the same time.
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