Facing US ban, Huawei emerging as stronger tech competitor

Huawei promises not just faster Internet but support for self-driving cars and other futuristic applications. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 September 2019

Facing US ban, Huawei emerging as stronger tech competitor

  • Huawei is a pioneer in the emerging field of next-generation, or 5G, telecoms
  • Huawei spent 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) on research and development last year, more than Apple or Microsoft

SHENZHEN, China: Long before President Donald Trump threatened to cut off Huawei’s access to US technology, the Chinese telecom equipment maker was pouring money into research that reduces its need for American suppliers.

Huawei’s founder says instead of crippling the company, the export curbs are making it a tougher competitor by forcing managers to focus resources on their most important products.

Little-known to Americans, Huawei Technologies Ltd. is the No. 2 smartphone brand worldwide and the biggest maker of switching gear at the heart of phone networks. Its equipment is used by 45 of the 50 biggest global phone carriers.

Huawei is a pioneer in the emerging field of next-generation, or 5G, telecoms. It promises not just faster Internet but support for self-driving cars and other futuristic applications.

That fuels Western security concerns and makes 5G politically sensitive. The US claims the company might aid Chinese spying, though Huawei denies that and American officials have provided no evidence.

Huawei needs some American innovations, especially Google services used on Android phones, but industry experts say the company is increasingly self-sufficient after spending 485 billion yuan ($65 billion) on research and development over the past decade.

“They have a strategy to become completely independent from US technology. And in many areas they have become independent,” said Bengt Nordstrom of North Stream, a research firm in Stockholm.

Ren Zhengfei, who founded the company in 1987, acknowledged in an interview that phone sales will suffer if access to technology, including Google services for smartphones, is disrupted by the addition of Huawei to a US Commerce Department “entity list” that requires it to get government permission to buy American technology.

Phone sales could be $20 to $30 billion less than forecast over the next two years, Ren and other executives said, but the company will survive.

“When the entity list came out, they hoped Huawei would die,” Ren said. “Not only did Huawei not die, it is doing even better.”
The company was added to the entity list on May 16 but already has been granted two 90-day extensions after American suppliers of processor chips and other technology warned they stand to lose billions.

Intel Corp. and other vendors that industry analysts say were paid a total of some $12 billion last year by Huawei have asked the Trump administration for permission to continue sales.

The biggest potential American blow to Huawei would be the loss of Google services that are standard features on Android-based phones. Huawei could use Android, which is open-source, but would lose Google’s music, maps and other applications, making it harder to compete with Samsung, the No. 1 smartphone brand.

“Nobody is going to spend money to buy a premium Huawei phone if it doesn’t have maps, YouTube, Google Play,” said Samm Sacks, an expert in Chinese digital policy at the New America think tank.

Ren said he wants to keeping using Android and working with American suppliers. But as a fallback, the company unveiled its HarmonyOS operating system in August and said Android phones can be switched to the new system in days if necessary.

Huawei, with $107 billion in 2018 sales, spent 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) on research and development last year, more than Apple or Microsoft.

It has 76,000 engineers and other researchers at its sprawling, leafy headquarters campus in southern China and in Silicon Valley, Russia, India’s Bangalore and other industry centers.

Huawei is “rapidly building up strength” in R&D, Forrester analyst Charlie Dai said. In the AP interview, Ren made a sales pitch to Washington: To ease security fears, Huawei will license 5G technology to American developers.

“I am open to the possibility of a paid transfer of 5G technology and production techniques to US companies,” Ren said.

That is a long shot, given Washington’s pressure on phone carriers to shun Huawei. But it would increase the company’s presence in 5G and generate license fees and demand for its products.

Huawei is on a global charm offensive, trying to convince European and other governments there is no truth to US claims it is a security risk.

Washington has been lobbying European governments to exclude Huawei from 5G networks but Germany, France and Ireland say they have no plans to ban any supplier.

Early on, Huawei faced complaints it copied technology from industry leaders. It temporarily pulled out of the United States in 2003 after admitting it copied Cisco software in routers.

But the company is catching up with Western developers, industry experts say. Huawei says it has collected $1.4 billion since 2015 in license fees from other companies that use its technology.

Huawei is, along with Ericsson and Nokia, a leader in developing network equipment to support 5G. The company says it has invested $4 billion in that since 2009, produces its own equipment and uses no US technology.

“It’s almost all our own components,” Ren said. Huawei also is among hundreds of companies that are creating 5G phones and other devices, making it the only competitor to straddle the two markets.

“They are very well positioned to develop 5G — at least the same level as their competitors,” Nordstrom said. 5G is meant to vastly expand telecom networks to support self-driving cars, factory robots, nuclear power plants, medical equipment and other applications.

That, plus growing use of networks to link fighter planes and other military hardware, raises the potential cost of security failures and the political sensitivity of 5G.

Huawei bills its Mate 20 X smartphone, which went on sale in China in August, as the first with 5G capability. It uses Kirin 980 and Balong 5000 chips from Huawei’s HiSilicon subsidiary instead of chips from Qualcomm or Intel.

HiSilicon also makes Kirin chips for lower-end phones and Kunpeng chips for servers.

Huawei launched its Ascend line of processor chips in October for artificial intelligence. The 310 for self-driving cars and the more powerful 910 are based on architecture from British chip designer Arm Ltd.

Arm said in July it might be forced to cut ties with Huawei because it does some research in the United States. That highlighted the challenge of finding suppliers with no US links.

Arm said in an email it is “actively communicating” with the US Commerce Department about the relationship.


Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

Updated 13 October 2019

Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

  • Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue
  • Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business

PARIS: Designers of machine translation tools still mostly rely on dictionaries to make a foreign language understandable. But now there is a new way: numbers.

Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue — even if a universal communicator a la Star Trek remains a distant dream.

Powerful automatic translation is a big priority for Internet giants. Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft as well as Russia’s Yandex, China’s Baidu and others are constantly seeking to improve their translation tools.

Facebook has artificial intelligence experts on the job at one of its research labs in Paris. Up to 200 languages are currently used on Facebook, said Antoine Bordes, European co-director of fundamental AI research for the social network.

Automatic translation is currently based on having large databases of identical texts in both languages to work from. But for many language pairs there just aren’t enough such parallel texts.

That’s why researchers have been looking for another method, like the system developed by Facebook which creates a mathematical representation for words.

Each word becomes a “vector” in a space of several hundred dimensions. Words that have close associations in the spoken language also find themselves close to each other in this vector space.

“For example, if you take the words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, semantically, they are words that describe a similar thing, so they will be extremely close together physically” in the vector space, said Guillaume Lample, one of the system’s designers.

“If you take words like Madrid, London, Paris, which are European capital cities, it’s the same idea.”

These language maps can then be linked to one another using algorithms — at first roughly, but eventually becoming more refined, until entire phrases can be matched without too many errors.

Lample said results are already promising. For the language pair of English-Romanian, Facebook’s current machine translation system is “equal or maybe a bit worse” than the word vector system, said Lample.

But for the rarer language pair of English-Urdu, where Facebook’s traditional system doesn’t have many bilingual texts to reference, the word vector system is already superior, he said.

But could the method allow translation from, say, Basque into the language of an Amazonian tribe? In theory, yes, said Lample, but in practice a large body of written texts are needed to map the language, something lacking in Amazonian tribal languages.

“If you have just tens of thousands of phrases, it won’t work. You need several hundreds of thousands,” he said.

Experts at France’s CNRS national scientific center said the approach Lample has taken for Facebook could produce useful results, even if it doesn’t result in perfect translations.

Thierry Poibeau of CNRS’s Lattice laboratory, which also does research into machine translation, called the word vector approach “a conceptual revolution.”

He said “translating without parallel data” — dictionaries or versions of the same documents in both languages — “is something of the Holy Grail” of machine translation.

“But the question is what level of performance can be expected” from the word vector method, said Poibeau. The method “can give an idea of the original text” but the capability for a good translation every time remains unproven.

Francois Yvon, a researcher at CNRS’s Computer Science Laboratory for Mechanics and Engineering Sciences, said “the linking of languages is much more difficult” when they are far removed from one another.

“The manner of denoting concepts in Chinese is completely different from French,” he added.
However even imperfect translations can be useful, said Yvon, and could prove sufficient to track hate speech, a major priority for Facebook.