Alibaba launches low-cost voice assistant as it delves into artificial intelligence


China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. launched on Wednesday a cut-price voice assistant speaker, similar to Amazon.com Inc’s Echo, its first foray into artificially intelligent home devices.

The Tmall Genie, named after the company’s e-commerce platform Tmall, costs 499 yuan (an equivalent of $73.42), significantly less than western counterparts by Amazon and Alphabet Inc’s Google, which range from $120 to $180.

These devices are activated by voice commands to perform tasks, such as checking calendars, searching for weather reports, changing music or control smart-home devices, using internet connectivity and artificial intelligence.

China’s top tech firms have ambitions to become world leaders in artificial intelligence as companies, including Alibaba and Amazon, increasingly compete for the same markets.

Baidu, China’s top search engine, which has invested in an artificial intelligence lab with the Chinese government, recently launched a device based on its own siri-like Duer OS system.

The Tmall Genie is currently programmed to use Mandarin as its language and will only be available in China. It is activated when a recognised user says Tmall Genie in Chinese.

In a streamed demonstration on Wednesday, engineers ordered the device to buy and deliver some Coca Cola, play music, add credit to a phone and activate a smart humidifier and TV.

The device, which comes in black and white, can also be tasked with purchasing goods from the company’s Tmall platform, a function similar to Amazon’s Echo device.

Alibaba has invested heavily in offline stores and big data capabilities in an effort to capitalise on the entire supply chain as part of its retail strategy, increasingly drawing comparisons with similar strategies adopted by Amazon.

It recently began rolling out unstaffed brick-and-motor grocery and coffee shops, using QR codes that users can scan to complete payment on its Alipay app, which has over 450 million users. Amazon launched a similar concept of stores in December.

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