How China's AI startup 01.AI transformed into a unicorn

There's a Chinese startup called 01.AI and it’s made quite a splash in the tech world.

How China's AI startup 01.AI transformed into a unicorn
AI (Artificial Intelligence) letters and robot hand miniature in this illustration taken, June 23, 2023. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

The backstory: About a year ago, the world of generative artificial intelligence (AI) started buzzing with excitement when OpenAI's ChatGPT was launched. Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance are also entering the generative AI arena, as these American models aren’t available in China. According to data from the brokerage firm CLSA, China now has 130 large language models, which makes up 40% of the global total, just behind the US at 50%.

More recently: There's a Chinese startup called 01.AI and it’s made quite a splash in the tech world. In less than eight months, it’s skyrocketed to "unicorn" status, meaning it’s now valued at over a billion dollars. 01.AI is led by a computer scientist named Kai-Fu Lee, who's also the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a Chinese venture capital firm. He began putting together his team for 01.AI in March and by June, it was officially in business.

The development: 01.AI’s latest creation, Yi-34B, is causing a lot of buzz. It's a super-smart computer algorithm trained on lots of data to understand and generate human-like text, images and code. Yi-34B is even outperforming other models like Meta's Llama 2 on certain metrics. It’s now available to developers worldwide in both Chinese and English.

In a recent sit-down with Bloomberg, Lee talked about how the challenges of US-China tensions are affecting advanced AI semiconductor technology. To tackle this issue head-on, 01.AI has been actively securing semiconductor resources, and it’s got the financial backing of Sinovation Ventures to make it happen. The company has a team of over 100 professionals, including AI specialists and experienced business professionals. Besides its Yi-34B model, 01.AI plans to work with clients to develop industry-specific AI solutions. It also aims to expand language support beyond English and Chinese. 

Key comments: 

“Llama 2 has been the gold standard and a big contribution to the open-source community,” said computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee in an interview over Zoom to Bloomberg. “We want to provide a superior alternative not just for China but for the global market.”

“Every field can rewrite their existing apps with the aim of creating a more profitable model,” said Lee in his Sinovation Ventures speech in March.

“China is very much ahead of the game in terms of self-regulating AI within their own nation-state,” said US Senator Mark Warner to Politico in June.

"Technological innovation has become the main battleground of the global playing field and competition for tech dominance will grow unprecedentedly fierce," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in 2021.