Alibaba-backed SenseTime unfurls China’s latest ChatGPT rival

Shanghai-based SenseTime, best known as a leader in computer vision, is joining a global race to develop generative AI since OpenAI’s ChatGPT captured the popular imagination. — Reuters

SenseTime Group Inc showed off new artificial-intelligence capabilities developed with the company’s access to vast troves of data and deep computing power, the latest Chinese challenger to AI phenom ChatGPT.

Chief executive officer Xu Li took the stage to demonstrate the large AI model SenseNova and a user-facing chatbot called SenseChat. Xu showed off how SenseChat could tell a story about a cat catching fish, with multiple rounds of questions and responses. Then he demonstrated how the bot could help with writing computer code, taking in layman-level questions in English or Chinese and then translating them into a workable product.

Xu said that now human programmers do about 80% of the work in AI development, but in the future it will be reversed so that AI can handle 80% of the effort while humans take on 20% of the work to direct and polish. The AI model can also help double-check, translate and revise code, he said.

Shanghai-based SenseTime, best known as a leader in computer vision, is joining a global race to develop generative AI since OpenAI’s ChatGPT captured the popular imagination. Microsoft Corp pledged a US$10bil investment toward the US startup, while rivals from Google to Baidu Inc unveiled AI services that can similarly create original content from poetry to art just with simple user prompts.

SenseTime, which in March telegraphed Monday’s event by disclosing progress in training text-to-image large generative models, is also backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Like every other major tech firm, the Chinese online commerce leader founded by Jack Ma is working on integrating generative AI across its various services, and began inviting corporate cloud customers to test drive the service last week.

There are concerns however over whether Chinese companies can secure reliable access to the high-end chips and technology needed to develop large-scale AI models over the longer term. SenseTime itself is operating under US sanctions that inhibit its access to capital as well as crucial American components, and the Biden administration last year imposed restrictions on the sale of AI accelerator chips to Chinese customers – a critical component in the development of any large-scale generative model.

SenseTime, co-founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology alum Tang Xiao’ou, was one of the most highly anticipated debuts of 2021. Despite the uncertainty around the fallout from US sanctions, SenseTime surged as much as 23% on its debut, making Tang briefly one of the world’s wealthiest people.

The company has soared about 25% in the days since news of its April 10 event surfaced on social media, firing up expectations among investors glued to every major AI revelation. But it still remains more than 10% below its debut price.

At the time of its IPO, SenseTime claimed in its prospectus to be the largest AI software firm in Asia with an 11% overall market share. Its technology is deployed in a range of areas, including helping police in China, providing product placements in films, even creating an augmented reality scene in a mobile game by Tencent Holdings Ltd. But its revenue began declining sharply in 2022 as the Chinese economy wobbled.

Now, investors are hoping advances in AI could rekindle the sort of growth that once excited markets.

“Enthusiasm over AI development is a potential catalyst for China tech, but we are still in the early stages, and monetisation of the technology may be a while away,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Marvin Chen.

China’s made no secret of its wish to elevate AI at a time the country is locked in a conflict with the US over technology from chips to EVs. But it remains uncertain how ts government intends to both galvanise and police the emergent field.

Beijing plans to introduce rules to govern the use of artificial intelligence across a swath of industries. That may be intended to ensure ChatGPT-like services are subservient to the Communist Party’s rigid ban on controversial or undesirable content online. But it could also boost companies like Baidu and SenseTime by providing clearer ground rules for future services.

Baidu, which introduced its Ernie Bot to a mixed reception just last month, is considered a leader domestically.

Baidu intends to integrate Ernie into its search and other software services over time, in similar fashion to Microsoft’s integration of ChatGPT in its Edge browser and Google’s use of Bard to augment search results. Alibaba and Tencent executives have also talked about integrating AI into their products. – Bloomberg

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