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Start-up hits unicorn status in under eight months

ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES – A Chinese start-up founded by computer scientist Lee Kai-Fu has become a unicorn in less than eight months on the strength of a new open-source artificial intelligence (AI) model that outstrips Silicon Valley’s best – on certain metrics at least.

The company, 01.AI, has reached a valuation of more than USD1 billion after a funding round that included Alibaba Group Holding’s cloud unit, Dr Lee said in an interview.

Dr Lee, who is chief executive of venture firm Sinovation Ventures, will be chief executive officer of the new start-up as well. He began assembling the team for 01.AI in March and it started operations in June.

The Beijing start-up’s open-source, foundational large language model, Yi-34B, is now available to developers around the world in Chinese and English.

Large language models, or LLMs, are computer algorithms trained on large quantities of data to read, understand and produce human-like text, images and code.

On key metrics, Yi-34B outperforms leading open-source models already on the market, including Meta Platforms’ well-regarded Llama 2. Hugging Face, which runs leaderboards for the best-performing LLMs in various categories, posted evaluations over the weekend ranking the Chinese model first for what is known as pre-trained base LLMs.

“Llama 2 has been the gold standard and a big contribution to the open source community,” Dr Lee, 61, said in an interview over Zoom. “We want to provide a superior alternative not just for China but for the global market.”

San Francisco-based OpenAI set off a frenzy of interest in AI after it unveiled its ChatGPT chatbot in 2022.

Alphabet, Microsoft and Meta have poured billions into research and development, seeking leadership in the emergent field of generative AI and beyond.

In China, tech giants and entrepreneurs have also jumped into the field, with search leader Baidu showcasing a version of its Ernie LLM it claimed was on a par with OpenAI’s technology.

Computer scientist Lee Kai-Fu. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES