What is Tongyi Qianwen? Alibaba's ChatGPT Rival – UC Today

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Everything we know about Alibaba’s LLM
Published: September 29, 2023
Rebekah Carter
Tongyi Qianwen, the latest proprietary large language model developed by Alibaba Cloud, is causing quite a stir in the AI landscape.
As interest in large language models and generative AI continues to expand, accelerated by the hype around OpenAI, Alibaba’s new service will earn plenty of attention. This ChatGPT-style solution aims to compete with other would-be OpenAI killers, from Google’s Bard to the new Falcon 180B open-source model.
Already, Alibaba Cloud has shared an ambitious vision for the model, promising to integrate the technology into all of its business applications. So, what is Tongyi Qianwen exactly, what can it do, and does it have the potential to outperform ChatGPT?
Tongyi Qianwen (通义千问) is a large language model trained on vast amounts of data to produce conversational, creative responses to user prompts. Much like many of the other significant LLMs being developed by OpenAI, Microsoft, Meta, and other market leaders, this LLM can perform various tasks, from summarizing meeting notes to drafting business proposals.
Alibaba Cloud announced the impending arrival of Tongyi Qianwen in April 2023, saying the solution would be designed to make AI computing more accessible and affordable, particularly to companies in China. The new solution comes when a handful of Chinese and global brands are working on alternatives to ChatGPT now that the tool is banned in mainland China.
Unlike in the United States and parts of the EU, AI companies in China have more regulatory hurdles to overcome when introducing AI systems to the country. In June, the Chinese government published guidelines, active from August 15th, 2023, which outlined a specific vetting and certification process for every new AI initiative.
Several Chinese companies, including Baidu, TikTok, Tencent, ByteDance, and Alibaba, were approved to launch models. The new Tongyi Qianwen model will be subject to various provisions, including rules barring the generation of images in the likeness of China’s president.
Tongyi Qianwen isn’t just a product of Alibaba Cloud but the brainchild of an AI enthusiast and senior researcher, Li Wei. After joining Alibaba Cloud Intelligence in 2019, Li became the head of the chatbot team and launched a strategy to make chatbots more human and intelligent.
With the help of his team, Li Wei developed Tongyi Qianwen based on the latest advances in NLP and generative AI. They leveraged Alibaba’s massive cloud computing resources and a broad range of data sources to train the model.
Tongyi Qianwen is built on  billions of words and sentences from various languages and domains. This includes social media, news, literature, and e-commerce. Additionally, the model features multiple cutting-edge AI techniques, such as transformer networks, self-attention, and pre-training tools.
Since Alibaba announced its impending generative AI solution, the team has shared very little insight into the model’s exact specifications. The solution is based on Tongyi, the pre-trained AI framework produced by Alibaba.
The cloud giant used a massive corpus of Chinese and English text to train the system. Initially, people suggested Tongyi could be trained with as many as 10 trillion parameters. Alibaba has released two 7-billion-parameter open-source models based on similar architecture.
Alibaba Cloud notes the proprietary framework for the solution unifies various AI models. This includes models capable of turning text into short videos and images. It also builds on the company’s previous developments in AI. For instance, Alibaba previously introduced the  “ModelScope,” an open-source model as a service platform. This solution also includes hundreds of AI models, such as a text-to-image Tongyi-based solution.
According to the CEO of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, Daniel Zhang, the company believes we’re entering a “technological watershed” moment, accelerated by generative AI and cloud computing. The Tongyi Qianwen service aims to democratize the latest innovations in LLMs, making them accessible and “inclusive” for developers and enterprises.
Large language models, such as GPT4 by OpenAI and Tongyi Qianwen, use deep-learning algorithms for natural language processing and understanding. The Alibaba model can produce human-like responses to queries, serving as the basis for the generative AI experiences we are familiar with today.
The official Alibaba website describes Tongyi Qianwen as an “idea-generator” and “efficiency assistant.” More than just a chatbot capable of answering questions, the solution can generate highly creative and unique content, such as stories, business pitches, or catchy slogans.
Notably, Tongyi Qianwen is a multilingual chatbot capable of interacting with users in both English and Chinese. It can also translate texts from one language to another with high accuracy. Like ChatGPT, users will also be able to adapt the tone, style, and vocabulary of the content produced by the bot according to their needs.
Alibaba says the technology will appear in all its business applications. Plus, it’s coming to Alibaba’s Alexa-style intelligent assistant (Tmall Genie). Users can use the assistant to generate diet plans, workout playlists, and travel tips.
Additionally, Alibaba will offer access to its large language model in the cloud, allowing enterprises to reap the benefits of AI innovation by creating customized models. Enterprises can fine-tune the model with proprietary intelligence and industry insights to develop tailored AI solutions and bots.
Alibaba is still in the early stages of developing its LLM and implementing the solution into its portfolio. Going forward, the company promises to embed AI into all its business applications. Tongyi could power everything from e-commerce and search to enterprise communication.
Currently, Tongyi is enhancing a variety of tools within the Alibaba ecosystem, including:
Alibaba is also currently experimenting with offering its LLM as an API for developers in China. Though the solution has amazing potential, current use cases revolve mostly around boosting productivity.
Previously, only a handful of users could use Tongyi Qianwen as part of a “beta testing” phase. However, since China loosened its AI restrictions, Alibaba has updated its availability. The AI model will now feature in various Alibaba products.
Alibaba also announced the arrival of low-cost packages for critical cloud products, such as the Elastic Compute Service (ECS) and Object Storage Service (OSS). The ECS package targets small and mid-sized enterprises and promises cost savings of up to 40%.
Once you can access the large language model, using the technology is as simple as working with a system like ChatGPT. Users just need to speak or type prompts into the system and wait for the model to generate a response.
The company says the expanded availability and updated affordability of the large language model should spark a new “wave of growth” for customers. The brand hopes to eliminate the need for expensive and resource-intensive pre-training processes when building foundational models by giving companies an all-in-one, customizable platform.
Alibaba Cloud isn’t the first major Chinese company to introduce a self-developed large language model, and it’s unlikely to be the last. The brand’s solution already competes with the Baidu “ERNIE” bot. Plus, other tech heavyweights like Huawei and SenseTime may follow suit.
Though China’s regulations do create complexities for AI developers, the opportunities for innovators are evolving. China is still investing heavily in AI research and development, and companies like Alibaba are rapidly taking advantage.
This new entry to the generative AI arms race could be a powerful competitor as LLMs evolve.
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