Tech firms are dancing with their algorithms

opinion May 28, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

2,179 Viewed

There has been a lot of excitement about China’s “Big 3” tech giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Now a new challenger has appeared on the scene: Bytedance, a Beijing-based unicorn which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create addictive content.



More than 200 million people use Bytedance’s app Toutiao, which means “Today’s Headlines”, with 120 million using it every day.

According to Bytedance, the average user every day starts the app nine times and uses it for 74 minutes. The key to its success is the use of AI to track user behaviour and algorithms to present preferred content, with the company claiming it can figure out a user’s tastes to a high level of accuracy in just 24 hours.

Bytedance already has a presence in countries in Asia and aims to have half its users from overseas within the next three years. It is being warned though to avoid the US market where attitudes are hardening towards Chinese tech firms. Congressional Republicans are trying to block any attempt by President Donald Trump to lift sanctions on ZTE and a bill currently being prepared for the Senate would give the Committee on Foreign Affairs increased scrutiny of Chinese investments, particularly tech companies.

It is interesting to note the similarities between the path being taken by Bytedance’s Toutiao and that of Alphabet/Google, which are both using AI and algorithms to provide tailored news feeds. Earlier this month, Google unveiled its updated Google News which it claims “surfaces the news you care about from trusted sources while still giving you a range of perspectives on events”. This is very similar to what Toutiao is already doing, although perhaps with more emphasis on entertainment than “trusted sources”. Both Google and Toutiao use a mix of algorithms and human editors, both are adopting a model of paying content providers based on views, and both have been buying up content providers with a global presence. Apart from the recent Buzzfeed deal, Bytedance has bought the news aggregator News Republic, the music-based video platform Flipagram, and the Chinese lipsynching app popular with American teens, Musical.ly.

Bytedance may or may not take on the American giants but it is already competing with the Chinese ones for eyeball time and advertising. It is also tangling with Chinese regulators. Last December Toutiao was forced to close down for 24 hours by the Beijing Internet Information Office for “pornographic and vulgar information” and in April it was banned from app stores in China for three weeks for “inappropriate content”. Despite such setbacks its business is surging ahead. Those interested in the move towards AI in content sharing would be well advised to keep an eye on this company.