Alibaba's Modest Research Proposal

Wang Jianfei

Alibaba’s latest project has a simple, straightforward goal: serving the whole of humanity.

At its annual conference in Hangzhou last week, Alibaba formally announced the first incarnation of its so-called “NASA Project,” a new research institute called DAMO, an acronym for the English “[Academy of] Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook.” It is, according to Jack Ma, a visionary research institute dedicated to exploring the frontiers of technology.

Ma says that there is a longstanding perception that Alibaba’s technological foundation is the weakest among China’s frontline internet companies, because Ma himself, as the founder, does not have a technical background. Thus, for the last 18 years he’s had two rules in the company: one, don’t boast about technical prowess, and two, don’t boast about the quality of their service. Because while there’s no shame in not being technically savvy, there is in pretending to know more than you really do.

By contrast, it’s widely acknowledged that Alibaba’s business operations are formidable, but that would not be possible without some technical support. So if Ma cannot claim to be an expert in technology, he nevertheless appreciates its importance.

Which is why Alibaba decided that it didn’t want just an ordinary corporate R&D center.

For its first 18 years, Alibaba has been focused on surviving and then thriving as a business. It didn’t have the energy to spare for pure research, instead putting everything it did have into generating practical results.

Now, it invests more in research than any other Chinese internet company, with a staff of 25,000 engineers and scientists forming the backing for its commercial empire.

But as of this year, Alibaba has found itself in a new position. Though it has been at the top of China’s tech industry for years, it now also ranks among the top ten largest companies in the world, and this past week even edged past Amazon. It has as many resources as any private company could ever hope to have. The question, then, is what to do with them. Spend them on safe bets and short-term returns? Or reach for something bolder?

Evidently, Alibaba has opted for the latter.

DAMO is promised to have a measure of independence from the company, with the freedom to study cutting-edge technology that will be beneficial to the world, rather than merely profitable. (Notably, it doesn’t carry “Alibaba” in its name, a break from convention when compared with similar institutes founded in recent years by the Alibaba’s peers).

“A lot of people are curious about why we’re doing this,” Ma says. “They ask, are you trying to learn from Microsoft, or IBM?”

It’s a crucial distinction in Ma’s mind. There are two general approaches for such institutes: doing research with an eye towards profit, or for the sheer joy of discovery. The former leaves researchers as vassals of their patron corporation, but the latter isn’t sustainable. Ma believes that neither is the ideal for a research institute. Thus, DAMO is built towards solving problems—just not necessarily those put to it by business executives.

DAMO’s initial slate of research topics cover quantum computing, machine learning, basic algorithms, network security, visual computing, natural language processing, human-machine interaction, processor technology, sensor technology, and embedded systems, all as related to fields like machine intelligence, IoT, and fintech.

Its consultation committee currently includes members from China’s Academies of Science and Engineering, as well as researchers from US institutions, such as UC Berkeley’s Michael I. Jordan, Prof. Li Kai from Stanford, Zhou Yizhen from Columbia, Henry M. Levy from Washington University, George M. Church from Harvard and MIT, and Avi Wigderson from Princeton.

Alibaba’s CTO Zhang Jianfeng, who will serve as director of the instiute, said: “Alibaba today has the ability and the responsibility to make a larger contribution to driving human technology and progress … We hope that the next revolutionary technological innovation, the next electricity or computing, will be born in DAMO.”

Ma has laid out three rules for DAMO:

1. It must outlive Alibaba itself, at least to 103 years (Ma has famously said several times that he intends for Alibaba to make it to at least 101). For a company, making it to a century is difficult enough, but for an institute that aims to make a contribution to humanity in the study of technology and society, something more has to be expected.

2. It must serve at least two billion people around the world. It is not meant to serve just one company, one country, or one region, but to address global problems.

3. It must solve problems facing humanity’s collective future.

To realize these three objectives, over the next three years Alibaba will be investing more than 100 billion yuan into the institute. But Ma believes it cannot rely on corporate funding alone, nor on government or private fundraising. Therefore, DAMO will in the future produce its own products to help defray its costs.

Currently, DAMO has started to organize research centers in other locations around the world, including in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. There are already offices in Beijing, Hangzhou, San Mateo, and Bellevue, Washington. Within three months, a lab will open in Singapore, followed by others in Moscow, in Israel, and elsewhere, each with their own research directions.

“Today, a lot of people have been reacting against globalization, because in the last 20 years its benefits have not been evenly distributed.”

Ma doesn’t pretend to modesty, and says that Alibaba is the best company in integrating technology with business operations. But that fact can sometimes mask the company’s technical ingenuity behind the glamor of its commercial success.

He notes that with technology pushing globalization, and suggests there has been a change from the infamous “20-80” rule to an “80-20” one, by which he means that there is no one company, organization, or country that can lay claim to all technology, data, and users. To achieve the greatest value, they must be shared. And that, in turn, demands a more cooperative, even cosmopolitan, approach.

Thus, in the era of data technology there needs to be an emphasis on mutual benefit, cooperation, and openness. In the future, Ma believes, every company can be global, regardless of its size. Every company can be a high tech, AI-powered, mobile-driven business.

And DAMO, it seems, is one more piece in Alibaba’s grand scheme for making that a reality.