Stage at Singles' Day Gala

World’s largest e-commerce event embraces AI, robots and other technologies

Image credit: Reuters/Aly Song

The adoption of emerging technologies to assist with the world’s biggest online shopping event is part of a larger Chinese shift towards away from traditional manufacturing and towards automation and AI.

Singles’ Day falls on November 11, the number ones in the date (11.11) representing single people. What reportedly began as an anti-Valentine’s day celebration in which single people treated themselves with gifts has become the world’s largest e-commerce event.

This year’s Singles’ Day broke all previous records. Chinese shoppers spent $25.4bn in a 24-hour spending frenzy, representing a 40 per cent rise in sales on last year. Singles’ Day shopping in China dramatically dwarfed US consumption during Cyber Monday and Black Friday combined (a total of $3.5bn in 2016). According to Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, more than one million retailers around the world took part in the event, offering attractive discounts on products.

Singles’ Day goes beyond e-commerce, having transformed itself into a high-profile entertainment event. At an all-singing, all-dancing gala in Shanghai to celebrate Singles’ Day, Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, appeared on stage with high-profile Chinese celebrities, as well as musician Pharrell Williams and actor Nicole Kidman.

Chinese e-commerce giants have embraced emerging technologies to continue to attract shoppers. Last year, Alibaba launched Buy+, a virtual reality shopping platform which allows users to explore a virtual shopping centre. This year, Alibaba and its competitors have made efforts to break down the online-offline barrier, rendering the shopping experience more efficient and interactive.

Alibaba transformed 100,000 shops around China into ‘smart stores’ for the shopping festival to encourage visitors to look at goods in person before buying them online. Tmall – a vast Alibaba-owned shopping website – opened 60 pop-up shops in China which featured mobile payments, AR and other technologies. Alibaba also launched ‘Catch the Cat’, an augmented reality experience that encourages players to follow a cartoon cat – an Alibaba mascot – around their real life surroundings to unlock virtual products.

According to The Guardian, Singles’ Day has come under criticism in recent years due to its environmental impact and overworking of logistics workers to deliver millions of products as orders surge year after year. The South China Morning Post – which is owned by Alibaba – however, claims that AI, robots and other emerging technologies are playing a growing role in relieving human workers and fulfilling Singles’ Day orders.

Like Amazon, Tmall employs a machine learning -powered recommendation algorithm, Tmall Smart Selection. This uses data collected as visitors browse the website in order to predict which products shoppers may find interesting. Alibaba also uses an AI customer assistant on its websites: the chatbot Dian Xiaomi is reportedly capable of understanding more than 90 per cent of customer questions.

Meanwhile, the packaging and delivery of orders is now such a mammoth task that robots are required to assist human logistics workers. JD.com, one of China’s largest online retainers, has been using robot postal workers to deliver parcels on a local scale.

“Wages are going up and the technology cost is actually going down,” Bao Yan, director of strategy at JD Logistics, told Reuters. “We want to have automation throughout, from the fulfillment centre to transportation and for last-mile delivery.”

Joining international competitors such as Amazon, which has been automating its warehouses since 2014, Alibaba has recently opened its first fully automated warehouse. This warehouse, based in Huizhou, is home to 200 robots which work 24 hours a day to fulfil Alibaba orders. These robots are interconnected and capable of assigning themselves shipping tasks such that they are working at maximum efficiency. This allows customers in the region to receive same-day deliveries.

“These 200 robots can process one million shipments per day,” Li Yakun, a worker at the warehouse, told the South China Morning Post. “They are three times more efficient than manual operations and need to be charged for just one hour after every six hours of use.”

Like Google, Amazon and other internet companies, Chinese e-retailers have been exploring the potential of drones for delivery. These could allow for sellers to fulfil orders placed in rural parts of China while avoiding the less developed infrastructure that would be necessary to use during road deliveries.

SF Express, one of China’s largest delivery companies, received China’s first drone airspace license. In May, JD.com announced that it would be trialling a new, heavy-duty delivery drone capable of carrying a tonne of cargo to customers within a 300-mile radius. In October, Alibaba began using drones to deliver products over open water. The company says it will consider using the drones in the future to deliver products such as medicines and fresh food.

The adoption of emerging technologies – particularly AI – reflects a move towards an economy powered by big data and AI as described by President Xi Jinping in his keynote speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

In July, the State Council of China laid out plans to establish an AI industry worth $150bn and to make China a centre for AI innovation by 2030, with applications of AI in advanced manufacturing and retail. Xi’s acknowledgement of the plan at the high-profile event could be seen as a vote of confidence in the project.

“We need to speed up building China into a strong country with advanced manufacturing, pushing for deep integration between the real economy and advanced technologies including internet, big data and AI.”

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