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Alibaba Cloud to offer custom LLMs-as-a-service

'Tongyi Qianwen' will drive cloud consumption, industry-specific AI, and smarter smart speakers

Alibaba Cloud has revealed a new large language model and plans to use it in everything from the cloud to smart speakers.

The Chinese cloud giant’s latest LLM is called Tongyi Qianwen, and is being hyped as an answer to OpenAI's ChatGPT: a bot that you can converse with in natural language and the software will carry out what you ask of it. Though, bear in mind Alibaba's service is available to select customers only on for the moment.

When it's ready for prime time, Tongyi Qianwen will first be integrated into Alibaba’s DingTalk collaboration suite, we're told, to deliver table-stakes functionality, such as summarizing meetings, writing emails, and creating proposals and other forms of documents. The chatbot will also be baked into Tmall Genie, Alibaba’s competitor to the likes of Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. Alibaba has promised Tmall Genie will evolve to handle tasks like providing meaningful help to children tackling homework.

Of perhaps more interest to Reg readers is a plan to use Tongyi Qianwen as the foundation of custom large language models (LLMs) that use what Alibaba has described as “customers’ proprietary intelligence and industrial know-how”. A cloudy cut of Tongyi Qianwen will be made available to create LLMs tailored to organisations’ specific needs, letting them build AI-infused apps without having to go through the tedious complexity of building a model from scratch (while also stimulating consumption of Alibaba Cloud). The custom LLM service is already in beta for Chinese organisations.

A beta version of a Tongyi Qianwen API is also already in operation for Middle Kingdom developers.

Alibaba’s announcements offered scant detail on what’s needed to put Tongyi Qianwen to work, or the cost of doing so. The company’s also said nothing about the infrastructure behind the model and its associated cloud services, an item of interest as Alibaba has its own Arm-CPU design and is working on RISC-V silicon as China finds ways to fight sanctions on exports of certain technologies to its territory.

Nor did the company detail a new Alibaba Cloud “universal instance family” that is reputed to offer 40 percent cost saving compared to its other infrastructure-as-a-service offerings.

The reason for the newly introduced 50 percent discount for the Chinse cloud leader’s storage-as-a-service offering is easier to divine: it applies if users reserve capacity in a specific region for a year.

The above were all announced at Alibaba’s Cloud Summit, which also featured the debut of three-month trials for its IaaS and PolarDB services. That extended offer comes after rival Tencent recently said it has also finished its program of encouraging low-margin IaaS customers to look elsewhere, and two weeks after Alibaba announced a plan to split into six businesses, one dedicated to cloud and AI.

Five of those six businesses may be able to float as independent entities. Alibaba Cloud can now contemplate that step with what looks like a decent AI capability among its products, plus a plan to monetise it.

Alibaba Cloud can also point to existing customers for Tongyi Qianwen, which will be integrated across all Alibaba products. And there are plenty of those, from e-commerce to logistics, and even a digital media and entertainment group that produces films, games, and music.

It's far from certain that Tongyi Qianwen could write a film script or pen a pop hit. But Alibaba has the tech, and the breadth, to make it happen. ®

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