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With $600M AI Investment, Could China Leapfrog the US in High Tech?

Alibaba led a group of investors that poured $600 million into SenseTime, among China’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) firms, in a move that could push the Asian nation ahead in the global race for leadership in high-level tech.

It’s the single-largest venture capital investment in the AI space and tops the record-setting $410 million the company raised in Series B funding last July. More important, the investment demonstrates China’s commitment to advancing AI and aiming for global dominance in this arena, even as it contends with a long-standing reputation as a country that gets ahead by stealing and copying technology from Western firms.

SenseTime maintains one of China’s largest high-performance, deep-learning supercomputing platforms that can categorize hundreds of million data points, train billions of images and support those who want to build models with hundreds of billions of parameters, the company noted in a statement. It’s working with China’s largest consumer electronics retailer Suning to develop the “store of the future,” providing big-data analysis of customer information as well as facial recognition to give shoppers a cashier-less checkout experience. In February, SenseTime became the inaugural participant in MIT’s Intelligence Quest project, partnering with the school to create an AI alliance exploring machine and human intelligence.

According to SenseTime, the new capital funding will go toward advancing its AI platform and pursuing new business opportunities.

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“SenseTime has established an AI ecosystem anchored with robust research, deep industry collaboration, and diverse partnerships,” Li Xu, SenseTime co-founder and CEO, said. “Our Round C funding will maximize these advantages by accelerating the development of a global footprint with a larger ecosystem incorporating both domestic and overseas partners.”

Joe Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group, described SenseTime’s work as “pioneering,” and said Alibaba has already achieved “tangible benefits” from its AI investments with the tech firm. “Our strategic partnership with SenseTime will spark more innovation and create value for society,” he said.

The competition in AI is heating up as leaders in the field see the technology as one that could change the global landscape.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said, as quoted by Russian state news organization RT last fall.

China has also publicly stated its ambitions to take a leadership position on AI, unveiling a plan last July to invest $150 billion to develop a domestic industry around the technology that it thinks will soon be the foundation for all computing.