Alibaba Hires Chief Quantum Scientist in Continued Cloud Push

Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing arm of Alibaba Group, is taking steps to spur the development of commercial applications for quantum technology, as the Chinese tech giant recently officially announced its appointment of a prominent scientist Yaoyun Shi to head the company’s quantum computing efforts.

A tenured professor at the University of Michigan and recipient of the US National Science Foundation’s prestigious Career Award, Shi joined Alibaba in June, charged with building the company’s first quantum computing research lab dedicated to developing and commercializing the company’s quantum technology, which will allow for exponentially larger processing capacity and faster machine learning.

Shi is the latest addition to a series of top scientists Alibaba has recruited earlier this year, including Wang Gang in March, a leading artificial intelligence researcher at Alibaba’s AI Labs—one of his recent contributions is the Tmall Genie, the first voice-controlled smart device produced by Alibaba—and Ren Xiaofeng in June. Ren, former senior principal scientist at Amazon, has since been spearheading Alibaba’s AI drive as the chief scientist and deputy dean of the company’s Institute of Data Science and Technologies.

“Our long-term goal is to realize the potential of quantum computing. I myself have been a theoretical researcher [in this field] for almost 20 years,” Shi told Alizila. “My new role now is to make it real.”

“At Alibaba, we often say customers are our highest priority. That is the same philosophy that will guide the future of this laboratory, which is to serve our customers. That is why I really put emphasis on the end applications—I want to see our customers benefiting from our quantum technology,” he added.

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Alibaba’s chief quantum scientist Yaoyun Shi at Xixi campus.

Quantum computing is a new approach to computing that is potentially world-changing, as it can—in theory—tackle problems that are too complex and intractible in nature for classical computing systems to handle. Its arrival can potentially speed up real-world breakthroughs in everything from artificial intelligence to the discovery of new materials, drugs and chemical reaction pathways.

Classical computers encode information in a binary system, in which each “bit” represents either 1 or 0, like in the on-off state of a transistor. But quantum computers instead work with quantum bits or “qubits,” which can be both 1 and 0 at the same time. That quality, researchers believe, can allow quantum computing to process a massive number of calculations simultaneously and perform certain tasks significantly faster than today’s computers.

But what is prompting the Chinese tech behemoth to step up commitment in this arena? Shi said quantum computers would have immense impact on customers of Alibaba Cloud, if they can help to accelerate and open up new avenues for machine learning and optimization.

“They will be doing the heavy weight-lifting behind numerous applications, so that our customers can get a better experience out of their cloud services,” said Shi, adding that the world needs to see a large-scale quantum computer before conclusively announcing quantum computing can have such great impact on AI.

He also highlighted “post-quantum cryptography,” the study of techniques for secure data storage and transmission in an era of full-fledged quantum computers that can break all modern encryptions, as a possible solution that can have disruptive impact on cyber security and on industry as a whole, setting new protocols that can help organizations prepare for the future wave of quantum attacks. It is an area that Alibaba plans to invest in, to ensure its quantum cryptography is robust and more accessible to a wider range of customers, he added.

With several tech industry titans investing in quantum computing, each eager to be among the first adopters of the burgeoning technology, Shi emphasized the importance of quantum algorithms.

“Without algorithms, quantum computers are useless, like raw machines without software, and algorithms are the soul of software,” he said. “I want to build a team that can cover all important aspects of quantum algorithms, looking at fundamental problems and producing output that might end up useful ten years from now.”

Alibaba made its foray into quantum technology research as early as two years ago. In 2015, the group’s cloud division funded a Chinese Academy of Sciences-led lab in Shanghai, a research center devoted solely to quantum computing. The joint lab demonstrated in a paper, published in May, a light-based quantum computer could outperform the earliest classical computers on specific tasks.

During the joint lab’s launch, Alibaba’s then Chief Technology Officer Wang Jian told reporters that if he had to bet on one technology, quantum computing will be his choice. “The wave of quantum information technology is set to revolutionize cloud computing and truly provide people with limitless computational capabilities. We find ourselves at a very opportune time for tech companies, with the chance to shift from follower to leader,” said Wang.

Today, Alibaba Cloud’s new chief scientist of quantum technologies finds himself traveling around the globe in search of talent and collaboration opportunities.

“Our work location can be anywhere in world depending on where the talent’s at,” said Shi. “But we will definitely have offices in Hangzhou and Seattle.”

Shi stressed that it is critical to be open to collaborating with multiple parties, saying “making quantum computers real is not the task of a single team of scientists or engineers, as it requires a large number of expertise” and he will be looking for new recruits that “are the best in the world in their expertise and shares our mission—realizing the potential of quantum computing.”

The goal, he said, is to start fast and start strong.