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Alibaba sets up academy to study social impact of technology

Employees play table tennis inside the headquarters office of Alibaba on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province on May 21, 2012. Photo: Reuters

Alibaba Group has stretched its tentacle to working out solutions to the global challenges faced by the societies arising from the fast development of digital technologies.

The Chinese e-commerce leader, which doubles as a technology powerhouse, has taken the initiative to establish the Luohan Academy in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, an open research institution which will delve into the social and economic changes caused by technological innovation.

Luohan is a Chinese Buddhist term used to describe Arhat, which refers to people attaining nirvana.

The Luohan Academy has two missions: studying the profound impacts that digital technologies will have on the societies and finding new ways to help the societies realize common goals by using technologies and social sciences.

The Hangzhou-based academy features an all-star team, which is initially made up of 15 Nobel laureates and top international social scientists including Bengt Holmstrom, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics, Preston McAfee, chief economist at Microsoft, and Qian Yingyi, dean of the School of Economics and Management of Tsinghua University.

More economists and social scientists will be invited to join the research team as the study on the digital economy progresses, said the academy, which is also seeking opportunities to cooperate with top research institutions worldwide.

"The rapid development of technologies has changed almost every aspect of the human society. So when we enjoy the benefits, it is equally important to understand the challenges brought by the technologies and work out solutions to these problems. As a technology company, Alibaba has the responsibility to help the societies overcome the challenge, which is the original intention of setting up the Luohan Academy," said Jack Ma, Alibaba's founder, during a closed-door meeting with scientists in Hangzhou last week.

After the closed-door meeting, which is considered as the first conference of the academic committee of the Luohan Academy, the scientists jointly signed a mission statement, vowing to help the societies get ready for the unprecedented digital revolution brought by the advanced technologies such as big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics.

The Luohan Academy is seen as a sister research body for the Damo Academy, which Alibaba opened in October last year to develop the cutting-edge technologies including quantum computing, machine learning, basic algorithm, network security and natural language processing in collaboration with scientists from the world's top universities including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Peking University.

In April when US President Donald Trump banned American firms from selling chips and software to Chinese telecommunications company ZTE as part of his unilateral trade action against Beijing, the Damo Academy revealed that it was developing its own neural network chip called the Ali-NPU, which will be used in artificial intelligence applications such as machine learning and image-video analysis. A month later, the Damo Academy announced the successful development of the world's most powerful quantum circuit simulator as a challenge to Google's supremacy in the field.

"Simply speaking, the Damo Academy focuses on the advanced productivity while the Luohan Academy on the productive relations [with the development of productivity]," said Chen Long, secretary general of the Luohan Academy.

Over the recent years, Alibaba has invested heavily in technological innovation by establishing its own research units or funding promising technology startups, with a focus on recruiting technological talents across the globe.

The Hangzhou-based company is a member of a "national team" established at the behest of the Chinese government, which calls on domestic technology giants such as Baidu and Tencent to contribute to the country's efforts to attain global technological leadership.

The need seems to have become more urgent as Trump is putting more restrictions on technological exports to China.

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