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Alibaba Cloud unveils ‘cloud computer’, delivery robot

At its annual Apsara conference, Alibaba Cloud debuts a thin-client computer and a logistics robot that can carry 50 packages in one go

Chinese cloud giant Alibaba Cloud has developed a thin-client PC that will alleviate the need for powerful desktop hardware to perform compute-intensive tasks.

Dubbed the cloud computer, the palm-sized machine weighs just 60g and leverages Alibaba’s cloud resources to do the heavy-lifting.

Alibaba Cloud claimed that the device can reduce the time it takes to render one frame of high-resolution animation from 90 minutes using a traditional PC, to only 10 minutes.

“We hope our cloud computer can help people access resilient computing power whenever they need to, so they can conduct complex tasks which usually require sophisticated and powerful PCs, such as video editing, animation rendering, software development, and online customer services, with a tiny personal computer at hand now,” said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud intelligence.

“As working from home becomes the new normal during and after the pandemic, we believe our innovation can also help users more easily enjoy the benefits of cloud computing anytime, anywhere, in a cost-effective yet secure way,” he added.

To improve the integration between the cloud computer and Alibaba Cloud, Alibaba has developed a proprietary app streaming protocol that has been touted to reduce latency in a 2K display environment to 70ms, the lowest in the industry so far.

In addition, users can buy and access licenced software including Linux, Windows and various office productivity applications. Available initially for enterprise customers, the cloud computers will be available for purchase by consumers in future.

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Separately, Alibaba’s Damo research and development outfit has developed an autonomous delivery robot on wheels that can carry 50 packages at one time for last-mile deliveries. It can cover a distance of 100km on a single charge.

This will enable Alibaba’s Cainiao logistics arm to deliver as many as 500 packages a day to a single designated community or campus, meeting the rising demand for speedy last-mile delivery in China where 200 million packages are delivered daily.

Powering the delivery robot are reinforcement learning capabilities that enable it to schedule routes even in a crowded environment. With proprietary, high-definition positioning technology, the robot can operate even with weak or no GPS signals.

And by leveraging Alibaba’s heterogeneous computing platform and deep learning, the Lidar-based robot can also identify obstacles and predict the intended movement of people and vehicles a few seconds ahead of time to enhance safety.

“We are expecting a rapid spike in delivery demands brought by the thriving new retail and local services businesses in the increasingly digitalised world,” Zhang said. “To meet the strong delivery demand for our internal business growth and for the larger society, we have been investing in smart logistics, including logistics robots, for years.

Moving forward, Zhang said Alibaba will leverage its experience in developing the delivery robot for other types of service robots, such as service robots in the airport and tourism guide robots in scenic spots.

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