Thursday 05 October, 2023

Analyzing Zenius’s comeback strategy after layoffs

This week’s On the Rise dives into edtech firm Zenius’ plan to implement its pre-pandemic strategy and Baidu’s efforts to compete with GPT4.

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Hi there!

In 2019, I visited Nalanda – the ruins of an ancient university in eastern India where Gautam Buddha was recorded to have given lectures. A center of higher learning from 427 to 1197, it reportedly had about 2,000 teachers and around 10,000 students from different countries.

I couldn’t fathom how even hundreds of years ago, people were studying in the same manner as we do now. Even the teaching methods that were deployed then – classes, examinations, and grading – are still in use today.

It struck me that while the human species has evolved so much over the centuries, the way we pass on knowledge has largely remained almost unchanged until recently.

When the Covid-19 hit, the world shifted online, and the education system was no exception. Many edtech firms such as Unacademy and Byju’s in India as well as Zenius and Ruangguru in Indonesia experienced exponential growth.

These companies saw so much success during the pandemic that some of them planned their entire roadmap, assuming that students would continue to stay on online.

However, schools are much more than just a place where learning takes place. The bond between teachers and students cannot be replicated online or through any other medium. Perhaps that’s why the education system has pretty much stayed the same.

In this week’s main story, my colleague Shadine explores why Zenius, the Indonesian edtech giant, is betting on offline learning – a plan that was halted by the pandemic – after laying off 30 employees earlier this year. This was its third round of job cuts since 2022 for the company, which says it had to downsize to maintain efficiency.

Now with a new CEO at the helm, Zenius hopes to revive its pre-pandemic strategy as offline learning gains traction again. One highlight from this story is how the company aims to make Primagama, which it acquired in early 2022, a central part of its future strategy.

Also, in this week’s AI Odyssey, I discuss Baidu’s claim the latest version of its Ernie Bot, which is powered by Wenxin Big Model 3.5, has surpassed ChatGPT.

— Lokesh


After layoffs, Zenius bets on offline learning in revival strategy

After a new CEO and its third round of layoffs, Zenius looks to revive its offline learning and upskilling segments, which the pandemic put on pause.


Promising AI projects we’re noticing

Baidu says Ernie can take on GPT-4. Can it?

During my school board exams, I found solace in watching Bert and Ernie’s shenanigans. Ernie’s wild ideas and Bert’s futile attempts to reason with him were a comedy break from my study routine.

But outside of Sesame Street, Baidu’s Ernie humiliated Google’s Bert in an AI competition in 2019, when the former outperformed both Microsoft and Google’s AI models in GLUE (General Language Understanding Evaluation), which was the widely accepted benchmark for AI language understanding systems.

Ernie was considered among the most powerful large language models (LLMs) until OpenAI came up with ChatGPT. As soon as the latter became popular worldwide, Ernie soon lost out.

Some of Baidu’s own employees reported that the Chinese titan was caught off guard after the launch of ChatGPT, whose superior capabilities were not widely known until its rollout.

Baidu still went ahead and unleashed Ernie, touting its so-called multimodal capabilities. During the launch, CEO Robin Li remarked that the bot was not perfect, but it was being released because of market demands. However, only a few could test Baidu’s claims then, with some reporting that the multimodal capabilities are at subpar level compared to GPT-4.

However, Baidu last week released the Ernie 3.5 (Wenxin Big Model 3.5). The company claims that Ernie Bot’s latest version is based on this LLM.

As per the company’s blog, “the bot has surpassed ChatGPT (3.5) in comprehensive ability scores and [outperformed] GPT-4 in several Chinese language capabilities.” But OpenAI had already moved to GPT-4 since March. Baidu specifically highlighting GPT-3.5 indicates the bot is being compared with the free version of ChatGPT, and Ernie might be months away from where GPT-4 currently is.

Since Baidu has access to the world’s largest Chinese languages database, it is understable that Ernie 3.5 outpaced GPT-4 in that area. In comparison, GPT-4 faced challenges in Chinese languages despite its impressive performance in English, which could perhaps be attributed to how OpenAI possesses the biggest English language database.

However, if Ernie Bot wants to truly outshine GPT-4, it needs to deliver superior results in English as well. At present, the company seems to be playing catch-up with OpenAI, whether it’s making premature multimodal claims, launching Ernie-ViLG to rival DALL-E2, or the recent announcement of plug-ins for Ernie Bot.

GPT-4 still enjoys support from the international community, while Ernie Bot is limited to the Chinese developer community. Moreover, given how China is renowned for its internet censorship, the very environment in which Chinese generative AI initiatives are growing inherently restricts their potential.

For instance, MIT Technology Review reported that Ernie-ViLG censors numerous prompts including Tiananmen Square, the country’s second-largest city square and a symbolic political center.

There is a high probability that similar measures may be imposed on Baidu’s Ernie Bot, making it inferior to GPT-4.

Furthermore, did I mention the premature multimodal announcement? Baidu’s latest blog post completely omitted any mention of images or videos, reinforcing claims that Ernie Bot is still far from achieving multimodal capabilities. — Lokesh


1️⃣Southeast Asia tech funding set for worst year since 2016: Tech funding in the region is expected to reach its lowest point since 2016, with around US$6.2 billion worth of deals projected for 2023.

2️⃣Return of the Rising Sun: MUFG fuels rebound in Japanese investments in SEA fintech: Japanese investments in Southeast Asia’s fintech sector have surged by 80% in 2022, indicating resilience amid geopolitical tensions. The positive trend is expected to continue, with Japanese investors participating in disclosed rounds totaling US$522 million this year.


Also check out Tech in Asia’s coverage of the emerging tech scene here

1️⃣ Biotech firm raises funding to expand food waste upcycling in SG Ento Industries, a company founded in June 2020, has recently secured undisclosed funding from private investors who prioritize environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives.

2️⃣Singaporean ex-Googler’s startup raises $58m for enterprise AI endeavor Generative AI model creator Reka has raised US$58 million in funding, led by DST Global and Radical Ventures. The company, founded by former researchers from Google DeepMind, Baidu, and Meta, aims to advance AI research and develop powerful generative models.

3️⃣RTP Global sets aside $1b for 4th fund The VC firm is launching its fourth fund to support startup founders. Called RTP IV, the fund is worth US$1 billion and will be deployed across Europe, the US, India, and Southeast Asia. Around US$660 million will be earmarked for early-stage investments while US$340 million will be allocated for breakout portfolio companies.

4️⃣Arkam doubles down on expertise in ‘middle India’ with new fund India-based Arkam Ventures has announced the launch of Fund II, which aims to raise US$180 million. The fund will focus on selecting 20 startups in sectors such as fintech, healthcare, software as a service, electric vehicles, and manufacturing tech.

That’s it for this edition – we hope you liked it! Do also check out previous issues of the newsletter here.

See you next week!


Lokesh Choudhary

Navigating the world of tech, one story at a time.

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