by Yuchuan Wang
JD.com is in the process of transforming itself from a retail company to a technology and services enterprise. The company is now one of the highest investors in R&D among Chinese Internet companies. As the chair of JD’s technology committee and president of JD Cloud & AI, Dr. Bowen Zhou is acting as the helmsman to lead JD’s technology transformation.
Going Abroad – AI Dream Starting with Deep Blue
On May 11th, 1997, an IBM computer called Deep Blue defeated a world chess champion in a tournament for the first time: two wins for IBM, and one for the champion, Garry Kasparov, and three draws. Not only was this a historical day in the challenge of man vs. machine, it has also become one of the key milestones in the development of artificial intelligence technology. Multiple parallel processors enabled the supercomputer to calculate more than 200 million chess moves per second.
Screenshot of CCTV’s Dialogue show
“The photo was taken on a summer night in 1997. I was working in my laboratory on speech and semantics-related research,” said Dr. Bowen Zhou, who was studying at Chinese Academy of Sciences for his M.E. degree at the time. “I was shocked by the news that Deep Blue defeated Kasparov. But it also inspired me to wonder, if coupled with the ability to understand language, how will the powerful computing and reasoning ability of Deep Blue change the world?”
Motivated by Deep Blue, Zhou enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1999 to study for a PhD in artificial intelligence. He wished to combine his study with computing power and develop some new systems that might have a big impact on human lives.
In 2003, Zhou finished his PhD and joined IBM Research, just as he’d hoped to. “Joining IBM was my dream; my office was even on the same floor as the Deep Blue team,” he said. That same year, Zhou developed the world’s first embedded large-vocabulary speech-to-speech bi-directional real-time translation system, leaning on technologies such as speech recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis. It enables users to communicate by voice in multiple languages via portable devices and can work efficiently even without network connection.
Since then, whether doing research or leading a team, Dr. Zhou’s first consideration for any technological development is the feasibility of application and the true value it brings to users. “I don’t chase after trends. I will sometimes choose something unpopular. So long as it is valuable, I’ll stick to it,” he explained.
Dr. Zhou later joined IBM Watson Group, which is the world’s first AI platform for enterprise-ready AI services. As chief scientist at IBM Watson, Dr. Zhou focused on technical empowerment of traditional industries. He and his team launched several game-changing applications such as Watson NLU Services and Watson Assistant, which were later used by IBM’s clients in industries such as tourism, service, banking, insurance, legal, transportation, education, gaming and medical care.
“Coincidentally, towards the end of my 15 year-career in AI research at IBM, the former main R&D leader of the Deep Blue team joined my team and reported to me.”
Coming Back to China – Exploration of Large-scale AI Application
In 2017, Richard Liu, the founder, Chairman and CEO of JD.com, emphasized the nature of the company’s transformation, promising that JD “will leverage technology to transform the business model we built over the first 12 years to become a purely technology company.” That same year, Dr. Zhou completed nearly two decades’ of study and work in the United States, and returned to China to join JD.com, as the head of JD AI Platform and Research, to fully lead JD’s AI academic research and technology commercialization.
“With the rapid development of China, there is a great need for emerging technologies such as AI. There is no doubt that China has the richest AI application scenarios and a group of diligent talent. To generate the true value of technology, we must carry out our research based on real operations and real scenarios. JD.com has a lot of such scenarios as China’s largest retailer, across retail, e-commerce, logistics and finance and more. This motivated me to come back to China to do research and application.” Dr. Zhou hopes the next milestone for AI, no matter if it is in fundamental technology or commercial application or improvement for people’s daily lives, will be born in China. He wants to not only be an outstanding scientist, but also the scientist with the best understanding of applications of technology in business.
After joining JD.com, Dr. Zhou and his team published over 130 papers in top AI conferences and periodicals, and won 12 international championships in CVPR, ECCV, WikiHop as well as in other international academic competitions. He also led the commercial launch of a number of technologies to both optimize JD’s internal business and service external clients.
Dr. Bowen Zhou at the press conference to launch NeuHub in April 2018
In 2018, Dr. Zhou’s team released the NeuHub open AI platform, targeting to provide the core advanced AI technology covering natural language processing, speech recognition, computer vision, and machine learning, etc., to JD’s internal business, external developers, small-to-medium sized enterprises and even students at a very low threshold. Since its launch, it has served thousands of clients, with daily inquiries exceeding two billion.
Becoming the Helmsman of JD’s Technology Service Strategy
With one of the largest e-commerce fulfillment infrastructures in the world, as well as a wealth of technology expertise proven in diverse real-world scenarios across the company, JD has opened up its services to partners in many different industries expanding the impact of its technology well beyond its own territory.
To continue to drive the company’s technology transformation, last December, the JD Technology Committee was formed, and Dr. Zhou was appointed as the Chair. On March 5th, JD announced that JD Cloud & AI under Dr. Zhou’s leadership, would be the fourth core business to provide technology services, joining the ranks of its major businesses, JD Retail, JD Logistics and JD Digits. Dr. Zhou has now become the commander-in-chief of JD’s top-level technical design and commercial application. He is also responsible for the building of JD’s technology brand, talent team, and promoting JD’s technology service strategy.
Dr. Bowen Zhou, second from left, at Davos 2020 (Read Dr. Zhou’s article on “Trustworthy AI” from the World Economic Forum’s blog here)
“Our research and development is broken down into ABCDE (AI, Big Data, Cloud, Devices, or IoT, and Exploration), and can serve as a model for other companies,” Said Dr. Zhou. “Looking more closely, if we are to imagine ABCDE as representing different parts of the human body, AI represents the brain, IoT represents the nerve endings, Cloud Computing represents the torso, muscles and blood vessels, and Big Data represents the oxygen that runs up and down the body. Finally, E is about maintaining a degree of curiosity, exploring new practices and pushing the edge of the aforementioned ABCD technologies.”
Under “E”, Dr. Zhou will also establish an exploration research institute, where global scientists can partner with JD on academic and commercial collaborations.
Below is a Q&A with Dr. Zhou where he shares his thoughts on JD’s technology services strategy.
Q：Why does JD position technology service as a key strength?
- Every technical strength of JD has originated from JD’s own rich and diversified scenarios that have been tested repeatedly in real applications. Internally, technology has brought enormous improvements for JD’s operations, cost and efficiency.
- It is quite natural for JD to open its accumulated mature technology services to external partners, from e-commerce to logistics to finance, to enable partners down and up the supply chain to improve their own efficiency.
- For example, to support JD’s own business, we built JD’s smart customer service that can detect human emotions and provide appropriate response which has helped improve our user satisfaction by 57%. Right now, the technology has been provided to clients such as China Unicom and Affiliated No.2 Hospital of West China of Sichuan University to deal with customer inquiries in different scenarios.
Q：Amidst the fierce competition, what are JD’s advantages offering technology service?
- In addition to JD’s technology abilities and rich application scenarios, there is no doubt that service ability is one of our competitive strengths.
- One of my observations is that when some of the internet companies in China from the consumption end start to transform to provide enterprise services, they all face a similar challenge – their service ability.
- But JD.com, as a reliable retailer trusted by hundreds of millions customers and partners has always had a strong awareness for providing the best services. We’ve built a reputation for rapid logistics service, quality products and a zero-tolerance of counterfeits. Service is in JD’s genes. So, in technology services, we also uphold this value. Apart from technical ability, this is one of JD’s most valuable advantages.
Q：What inspirations have COVID-19 brought to JD’s continued development?
- I think the sudden outbreak is a big test for the digital infrastructure of not only China, but also the whole world. Different enterprises with different degrees of digitization are performing completely differently faced with the same epidemic, both in terms of the speed of recovery and the scale of operations resumption. COVID-19 will undoubtedly accelerate the digital transformation across various industries. This is a very obvious trend that I see.
- For JD, our solid digital infrastructure and supply chain ability played a powerful role in fighting against the epidemic. Since the outbreak, JD has supplied 220 million items of daily needs products to nationwide customers. At the same time, as JD’s main technology service provider, JD Cloud & AI have ensured the work efficiency of our employees while releasing 16 technology products.
- For example, our emergency information platform has served more than 20,000 clients including 645 municipal departments and 560 medical institutions, and supplied 660 million products. JD’s cloud video conferencing service has been offered for free for over 3,000 enterprises and its free online classroom service has been offered to students and teachers in Hubei province.
- Because of JD’s long-term technology accumulation, we have the ability to respond and develop new services and products in such a short period of time.