China Industry

Shi is Key to Ma’s NASA

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba announced on September 11 that the respected University of Michigan professor will lead fundamental research on quantum technology at its Seattle lab.

Yaoyun Shi recently flew from his Michigan home to Stanford University in sunny California to give a speech on quantum technology. Hundreds of students from the Bay Area’s top universities were waiting for him.

The rock star reception reflected Shi’s new position as Chief Scientist of Quantum Technology at Alibaba Cloud. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba announced on September 11 that the respected University of Michigan professor will lead fundamental research on quantum technology at its Seattle lab.

“Alibaba is exploring a form of ultimate computing, which is likely to be quantum computing. This is the goal that drives me to leave academia for Alibaba,” is how Shi began his speech.


Before Shi jumped on board, Alibaba was barely noticeable in the field of fundamental research. Eager to change that, the company began accelerating its development of frontier technologies this March, when Founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma announced what he called “Alibaba’s own NASA,” to explore state-of-the-art technologies such as quantum technology, artificial intelligence, and biometric identification.

Alibaba sees quantum technology as key to its NASA program. At October’s Alibaba Computing Conference in Hangzhou, Shi announced the Quantum Computing Cloud Platform, launched by the Alibaba Quantum Laboratory (AQL). AQL is a joint research lab developed by Alibaba Cloud and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2015.

Also at the October conference, AQL released a 15-year roadmap. By 2025, it expects to have built quantum computers that will be the world’s fastest by today’s measure. By 2030, AQL hopes to achieve a general quantum computing prototype with 50-100 quantum bits.

Alibaba Cloud will provide quantum-based services to users. It has already employed quantum technology in cryptographic tasks. By using quantum key distribution, the most well-known application of quantum cryptography, Alibaba Cloud can enable “unconditional security” that totally blocks third-party access to encrypted messages.

“In the future, Alibaba Cloud’s customers will be able to use the quantum computer cloud to store their own data and applications without concern for security issues,” says Shi.

Shi hopes quantum technology can be applied to AI-related hardware as well. Transistor-based classical computers can hardly keep pace with increasingly demanding machine learning algorithms and the exponentially growing scale of datasets. By contrast, quantum computers based on the properties of quantum bits, which are in superpositions of states, can in theory process information exponentially more quickly than classical computers.

Since joining Alibaba Shi has spent much of his time flying between Asia, Europe, and North America; visiting academic and research institutions to introduce Alibaba, share quantum technology research experience, and seek potential partnerships.

Alibaba is under pressure to catch up with industry leaders like IBM and Microsoft. IBM began its quantum technology research back in 1984 with the arrival of Charles H. Bennett, the father of quantum cryptography and author of quantum cryptography protocol “BB84.” Microsoft has been investing in quantum technology since Fields Medal-recipient Michael Freedman joined the company in 1997.

Alibaba has no distinct advantage in recruiting quantum technology talents with strong engineering capabilities. Such local talents are more likely to choose IBM or Microsoft where there are clear benefits. “It is common that US companies offer scholarships at universities when recruiting talent. However, Chinese companies have not done so yet,” says Shi.

Shi flew to Stanford to change that. He spent the evening encouraging students to study quantum technology, and to potentially join his Alibaba team. He wasn’t disappointed: “What impressed me is that students at Stanford University are so passionate about quantum technology.”

Some students, however, had reservations. Second-year master student Yuexing Yin told Synced he wonders how an advanced technology like quantum computing can actually help an e-commerce business like Alibaba.

In his presentation, Shi poked fun at both talent recruitment and his new boss, with a slide of Jack Ma’s head photoshopped onto an iconic image of Uncle Sam. “We Want You” was the caption.

Alibaba hopes to use its Seattle springboard to dive deep into quantum technology, and to that end, Shi’s first step is recruiting talents from top schools like Stanford University.

Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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