Alibaba Cloud: Turning AI into actionable insights

Spearheading meaningful change through its ET Brains and advocating cooperation via the Tech for Change initiative, Alibaba Cloud is empowering progressive perceptions across a vast swathe of industries

The technological landscape has exploded in recent times, as the exponential rise of startups, innovation and R&D have pushed Industry 4.0 into full swing. 

With this has come a new wave of technological glitz and glamour. Be it digital transformation, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality or machine learning, technology has developed a kind of sexiness; an exotic, mysterious aura.

Not so long ago, cloud computing was painted with this same brush.

Having slipped out of the limelight in recent years, paving the way for the likes of blockchain, 5G and biometrics to take centre stage, cloud computing has taken a behind the scenes role in facilitating transformation.

To underestimate its potential, however, would be naïve. In fact, having quietly consolidated, cloud computing can now be considered as a behemoth technology empowering enterprise success.

“At Alibaba Cloud, we believe that cloud is the key technology in the digital era,” states Selina Yuan, Vice President of Alibaba Group and President of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence International.

“The scope for transformation is almost unimaginable. We have seen so many business practices founded in the cloud that have rocked established industries, constantly changing how we learn, work, shop, travel and consume media.”

An industry veteran with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, cloud computing has become Yuan’s passion for this very reason.

Instead of thinking whether or not they need to embrace the cloud, companies thriving in the era of digital transformation are already thinking how they can use it to optimise their business,” she continues. “It is by thinking outside the box that we believe the cloud can sooth bigger, organisation-wide pain-points rather than just siloed IT issues.”

Thinking big

As its name might suggest, Alibaba Cloud has been the perfect workplace platform for Yuan’s cloud-centric ambitions and passion to flourish.

The cloud computing arm of one of the world’s largest ecommerce companies and a top three sector-based service provider (according to Gartner), the firm has become a market leader in one-stop shop solutions to face and tackle digitalisation challenges across multiple sectors.

A core part of this ever-growing portfolio comes in the form of the Alibaba Cloud ET Brains.

From its ET City Brain, ET Medical Brain and ET Industrial brain to the ET Environment Brain and ET Agricultural Brain, each of these separate, specialised entities serve a similar purpose as ultra-intelligent AI platforms solving complex business and social problems.

“They are powered by new, advanced technologies,” Yuan affirms. “The Brains are already driving global breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning – their capabilities offer users multi-dimensional perceptions, global insights, real-time decision-making and continuous evolution under complex situations.

“In turn, users are become able to rapidly form knowledge-based, optimised decisions very quickly.”

For Alibaba Cloud, the Brains are all about combining its expertise across cloud, artificial intelligence, and other fields to create actionable insights – Yuan’s alternate definition for AI.

“Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is a key focus for us – it’s much more than just a buzzword,” she continues. “We’re not developing solutions for the sake of it. We are more interested in how we can apply technologies like AI to solve real, complex and urgent problems.

“These can range from how emergency service vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines can better negotiate and navigate heavily congested urban roads, to providing actionable insights for traditional industries such as manufacturing, allowing them to be more environmentally friendly, for example.”

Empowering perceptions

The company’s deployment of its ET Agricultural Brain in China stands as a particularly interesting case study.

Collecting reams of processed data from its enterprise clients, it has developed machine learning-empowered analytics technologies to create game-changing insights for the region’s farming community.

In essence, farmers have been provided with the necessary visual recognition and real-time environmental monitoring technologies to track the growth and conditions of crops and livestock via smartphone applications.

“Most companies are already sitting on a huge amount data, but making intelligent use of the amassed data is even more important if they want to maximise the opportunities that technologies present,” Yuan adds.

As the conversation continues, the Group Vice President is quick to iterate that there are not many regions or industries that cannot be optimised by technology, the ET Agricultural Brain standing as a prime example of how traditional industries are being transformed with new-age technologies.

Such transitions have not been entirely straightforward, however, with a commitment to customary practices and conventional operations often posing as the biggest challenge in terms of adoption.

Yuan explains: “Our biggest hurdle comes from the traditional enterprise mindset towards new technology. The scalablity, flexiblity and agility of public cloud is undebatable, although it still takes time for the larger enterprises to truly recognise these competitive advantages.

“As we have seen from the early days of technology, change management is often the biggest hurdle to overcome. On the plus-side, however, when the benefits are explained and change justified, people are more willing to embrace it.

“Bear in mind too that the way that the internet – and now, cloud – has revolutionsed life as we know it in the last two decades, people are generally more open to change; they see change as inevitable not just to keep ahead, but to keep up.”

Advocating collaboration

An increased willingness for collaboration has come in tandem with this openness to change, a second area that Alibaba Cloud is championing via its Tech for Change initiative.

Launched at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, it acts as a call out for ideas and joint efforts between enterprises, startups, young entrepreneurs and alike, encouraging them to work together to tackle global social and humanitarian challenges in areas such as education, economic development and the environment through technology.

“The Tech for Change initiative is all about bringing together creativity and innovation to tackle critical problems and challenges faced by humanity,” replies Yuan when asked about this initiative.

“By making technology more accessible and affordable, we can inspire creativity and nurture the next generation of game-changers who will make our world a better place.”

As part of this pledge, Alibaba Cloud is providing the cloud infrastructure needed to transform businesses globally, offering partners access to its technology expertise, global computing resources and talent development programmes.

These include Create@Alibaba Cloud, a global scheme focused on accelerating business success for startups, and Tianchi, its AI competition platform.

And while these tools, and indeed Alibaba’s role, are particularly proactive in this space, Yuan’s concluding statements resonate with one point: that the company can’t drive transformation alone.

“Nothing flourishes or survives in a vacuum,” she states.

“When it comes to innovation, a collaborative ecosystem is key to more agile and efficient development. As an advocate for applying technologies for social good, we believe that affordable cloud infrastructure and accessible, intelligent technologies have the potential to enable smaller organisations to make huge differences in creating a better world for all humankind.

“However, a single player – even one as big as Alibaba – cannot accompalish everything on its own. Therefore, we are calling for everyone to join forces and be part of the Tech for Change global community.

“Together we can make the programme more open, inclusive and sustainable.”