Tencent to put AI to work exploring space – not ways to extend its monopolies

Beijing likes space. Big tech? Not so much – at least this week


Chinese tech giant Tencent has joined forces with the nation’s National Astronomical Observatories to journey into AI space exploration, CEO Pony Ma told the 2021 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Thursday.

The forward-looking announcement came during a tough week for Chinese tech companies, as Beijing tightened data security and antitrust regulations.

Tencent is best known for its WeChat messaging service and very healthy gaming arm, but also operates a decent cloud and increasingly invests in AI through its in-house AI research division YouTu Lab.

The company will leverage the latter two capabilities to conduct AI analysis in hopes of finding evidence of pulsars among the 30 million signal images collected each week by China’s 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).

Tencent Vice-President Zhang Lijun reckons use of his company’s facilities will reduce the time to process a week’s worth of images from one year to three days.

Tencent CEO Pony Ma, who has not been seen publicly since March, spoke remotely at the conference – albeit over a voice link.

Tencent was fined earlier this week by the State Administration of Market Regulation (SAMR), alongside DiDi Chuxing and Alibaba, for failing to report merger and acquisition deals for approval.

This is not the first time SAMR has cracked down on Tencent. the government regulatory body fined the tech giant last March for violating anti-trust laws, and since then has repeatedly warned the company to comply with local laws.

In April, Tencent was one of 13 web giants ordered to attend “supervision interviews” and in May, Beijing identified the company as one of 33 illegally collecting data. The Administration gave Tencent ten days to rectify the behaviour.

The story of CEO Pony Ma vanishing from the public eye amid a government tightening on his company echoes the story of another Ma: Alibaba co-founder and former executive chairman Jack Ma. He mysteriously went silent for three months after criticising China’s interference in the company’s attempt to float financial services arm Ant Group.

Jack Ma seems to be back in Beijing’s graces, as the government has granted Ant Group approval to operate a consumer finance company. However Jack Ma, a regular speaker at the AI conference, was absent this year.

Also absent was DiDi Global CEO Cheng Wei, perhaps off licking wounds following a tough week in which DiDi stock fell 5.1 per cent in its fifth day of trading as a US-listed company. The company copped fines for poorly reporting merger and acquisition deals, and was booted from Chinese app stores.

More crackdowns are expected on Chinese tech companies as SAMR announced Thursday new rules for fair competition reviews – including increased monitoring of local regulators to make sure they are holding companies accountable and playing by antitrust rules. ®

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