Alibaba Group Holding has revealed its own home-grown high-performance AI inference chip, a neural processing unit (NPU) named Hanguang 800, as it pushes further into the field of artificial intelligence and seeks to make its ecommerce platform more efficient.

Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post and is China’s biggest ecommerce player, unveiled the chip – which specializes in the acceleration of machine learning tasks – at Alibaba Cloud’s annual Apsara computing conference in Hangzhou on Wednesday.

“The launch of Hanguang 800 is an important step in our pursuit of next-generation technologies, boosting computing capabilities that will drive both our current and emerging businesses while improving energy-efficiency,” said Jeff Zhang, Alibaba Group chief technology officer and president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement. “We plan to empower our clients by providing access through our cloud business to the advanced computing that is made possible by the chip, anytime and anywhere.”

Jeff Zhang, Alibaba Group, chief technology officer, speaking at the Apsara conference in Hangzhou, September 2019. (Picture: Handout)

The chip’s launch comes amid a national drive by China to integrate emerging technologies such as AI and next generation 5G wireless networks into its economy, spurring an industrial upgrading at a time when it is engaged in a tense trade and tech stand-off with the US. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also called for greater self-sufficiency in core technologies such as semiconductors.

The new chip is currently being used within Alibaba to power product search, automatic translation, and personalized recommendations on the company’s websites. It is not for sale to third parties yet, said an Alibaba spokeswoman.

Zhang added that with the Hanguang 800, only one-tenth of the hardware is needed to do the same task compared with using traditional GPUs and CPUs. At the same time, average latency is reduced by half, and power consumption is reduced by more than half.

He gave an example of its impact on Pailitao, Alibaba’s visual search engine, which needs to process more than a billion images every day. With the help of the new chip, Zhang said what used to take hours can now be done in around five minutes.

“The chip is high-performing… overall performance though will still depend on the specific scenarios where the chips are used,” said Zhao Xiaoma, executive director of Shanghai-based China Insights Consultancy. “With the coming age of AI and the internet of things, tech companies will need to handle massive data. By getting involved from the very beginning, they can take the initiative and shorten the time in takes to design and produce chips that serve specific applications.”

Alibaba has been expanding its cloud computing business and diversifying into digital entertainment as growth at its massive core ecommerce business slows. In the quarter ended June 30, revenue from cloud computing was 7.78 billion yuan (US$1.13 billion), a 66% year-on-year increase mainly driven by an increase in average revenue per customer.

Founded in 2009, Alibaba Cloud now operates in more than 200 countries and territories. It is China’s largest public cloud services provider, with a 43% share in the first half of 2018, according to research firm IDC. The company was also the fourth biggest cloud services provider worldwide last year, behind Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure business and Google Cloud, according to Canalys.

Last week Huawei Technologies, the world’s biggest network gear maker, said that over the next five years it will invest an additional US$1.5 billion in incentives to expand its developer base from 1.3 million to 5 million to enable Huawei and its worldwide partners to come up with the next generation of intelligent computing applications and solutions.

Huawei’s deputy chairman Ken Hu Houkun said part of the investment will be used to establish an ecosystem for its Kunpeng series of server CPU chips, which are aimed at meeting the computing needs of corporate customers.

Last month, Huawei unveiled a new high-end artificial intelligence (AI) chip for servers, Ascend 910, designed to grow its share of the booming cloud services market. Huawei claims the device is the “world’s most powerful AI processor” targeted at AI model training, which is crucial to Huawei’s future business growth as it sees AI as a general purpose technology that can be used in almost every sector of the economy.