Tencent has chosen Seattle for its new research laboratory
Tencent has chosen Seattle for its new research laboratory

Tencent, China’s most valuable technology company, is joining the influx of Chinese tech groups hunting for American talent by opening its first US-based artificial intelligence research laboratory in Seattle.

The Seattle AI Lab will be led by Dong Yu, who was recently poached from his role as a principal researcher at Microsoft, Tencent announced on Tuesday.

China’s “trinity” of tech titans — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — see access to global talent as one of their biggest obstacles as they crowd into the field of AI, which has historically been dominated by American companies such as Google and Amazon.

“We hope that [Tencent’s] AI Lab will become more than a laboratory, but a connector . . . bringing together the world’s leading experts in the field,” said Zhang Tong, the executive director of Tencent’s main AI Lab, which is based in the southern Chinese tech city of Shenzhen.

Baidu was the first of the Chinese tech giants to open a US-based AI lab in Silicon Valley in 2014. In March, the company opened its second AI lab in Silicon Valley, weeks after China’s ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing also opened its first AI lab in the area.

Talent-poaching is rife between the Chinese and American tech worlds. Earlier this year, Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, poached one of Microsoft’s vice-presidents as its new chief operating officer, while Facebook hired phonemaker Xiaomi’s vice-president Hugo Barra. Tencent’s Mr Tong was hired from Baidu in March.

Tencent’s new lab will focus on speech recognition, Mr Yu’s area of expertise.

“The new lab head Dong Yu has done important work in the past . . . to improve speech recognition,” said Jürgen Schmidhuber, AI pioneer and scientific director of the IDSIA lab. “I am sure his new lab will continue to produce excellent work.”

Voice input is seen as more convenient for mobile users — as opposed to tapping on a tiny phone screen. Tencent is the company behind China’s most popular mobile app WeChat, which provides everything from messaging to grocery shopping to ordering a taxi.

WeChat’s almost 900m monthly active users spend on average 66 minutes a day on the app, according to market research commissioned by Tencent.

Tencent established its AI Lab in Shenzhen last April, with 50 computer scientists and 200 engineers working on fundamental research and practical applications of AI.

The company plans to apply its AI research to social media, online games and cloud services as well as “content” — Tencent runs its own online news platform.

Tencent did not disclose the target size for its Seattle lab. By comparison, Baidu has 200 researchers at its first Silicon Valley lab and plans to hire another 150 for its second.

“[Silicon Valley] is becoming increasingly important in Baidu’s global strategy as a base for attracting world-class talent,” Baidu said at the time of establishing its second lab.

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