Tech giants look for ways to cash on ChatGPT boom

BARCELONA, Spain – ChatGPT and artificial intelligence have made inroads into the world’s largest event for the telecommunications industry, where everyone from chip makers to mobile operators are eager to talk about their achievements and ambitions in AI-powered technologies.

More than 2,000 exhibitors gathered in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, which began on Monday, including US chipmaker Qualcomm, which showed off its “edge computing” chips, and South Korea’s SK Telecom, which aims to transform itself into an AI company.

“Any industry whose knowledge can be digitized in the form of voice, text, video, any signal will be affected by generative artificial intelligence,” said Francois Candelon, global director of the Henderson Institute, a Boston Consulting Group think tank.

Qualcomm, the world’s leading developer of mobile chips, demonstrated a live demonstration of a device that can turn simple verbal descriptions into fully realized images in just 15 seconds. This is an example of generative artificial intelligence, similar to the one that powers ChatGPT.

But the real selling point of the demonstration, according to Qualcomm, is that the computing processes were performed entirely on the device, rather than relying on cloud computing power.

The demonstration is proof that a mobile processor can handle massive AI-related computing workloads, Don McGuire, chief marketing officer of Qualcomm Technologies, told Nikkei Asia.

“AI at the edge is really important,” McGuire said, referring to the ability of devices to handle computing processes without an internet connection. He added: “66% of data produced by 2030 will not go to the cloud, it will be at the edge.”

According to him, one of the advantages of edge computing is the price. “Having to go to the cloud for every ChatGPT query will suck up so much power, which could put a lot of stress on data centers and cost a lot of money.”

If there’s enough demand, then features like the one Qualcomm demonstrated at MWC could be commercialized in Qualcomm’s next-generation application processors and used in consumer smartphones, McGuire said.

Telecom operators at MWC are also discussing how AI can be applied to their industry, but few are as versatile in the technology as SK Telecom, South Korea’s largest telecommunications company.

SK Telecom announced plans to become an AI company last November, a year after CEO Ryu Young-sang took office.

Eric Davis, Group Vice President of SK Telecom’s General-Purpose Language Model, is part of this effort.

“We’ve been in this business [telecommunications] for a while, but the world is moving at a very fast pace and AI is emerging,” he told Nikkei Asia. “So to compete, we have to transform into an AI company.

Davis is overseeing the development of the company’s Korean Big Language Model, similar to the GPT-3 model on which ChatGPT is based.

“If we don’t act now, we’re going to miss this tremendous opportunity,” Davis said.

SK Telecom already launched its own chatbot with artificial intelligence last May. It’s called A. (pronounced “A dot”) and it’s similar to ChatGPT but in Korean. The service has attracted more than 1 million subscribers domestically, the company said at the MWC event.

However, A. is still a free service and a path to commercialization is “under consideration,” Davis said.

According to Davis, the company decided to build its own service similar to ChatGPT because, as a telecom operator with years of experience serving the South Korean market, SK Telecom has knowledge and proprietary local data that companies like OpenAI do not have.

“American companies don’t know anything about Korea, they don’t know the market,” Davis said.

While other telcos might agree on the importance of AI, it is unlikely that many of them will decide to make their own AI transformation.

“The thing to remember is that a telco is still a telco and it’s still very much a hardware-oriented business,” said Adrian Baschnonga, global telecoms analyst at EY.

This is not to say that there is no place for AI in the telecom industry. Microsoft – which started the ChatGPT boom by integrating the app into its search engine – has unveiled a cloud-based AI management system for telecom operators that will simplify network management and improve customer service.

The presentation was a success for at least one MWC attendee. “With the bold step Microsoft has taken with open AI, we’re very excited about the possibilities and how we can use it in networking and automation,” said Igal Elbaz, AT&T senior vice president. “So we’re excited and looking forward to it.”

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