Cryptomining Giant’s Choice of New AI Head Signals Strategy Shift
Bitmain Technologies Ltd. has named a new head of its artificial intelligence (AI) business, filling a role that remained vacant for months following a high-profile internal power struggle that has seen one of its founders return from exile to oust the other.
Beijing-based Bitmain, the largest maker of equipment to mine digital coins, said last week that Wang Jun, the former chief of its software research department, has been promoted to be CEO of the AI department, a title that didn’t exist before.
The personnel change came after a corporate coup in October that saw Wu Jianhan, who had stepped back from his role at Bitmain, return to oust fellow co-founder Micree Ketuan Zhan as legal representative and executive director.
Wu’s comeback has become a focal point in the fate of Bitmain’s AI chip department, which Zhan had been pushing to make a cornerstone of the company’s business, along with selling cryptomining rigs. Wu reportedly disagreed with the strategy.
Wang, 33, joined Bitmain in 2016 after working as an AI specialist in various companies, including U.S. search giant Google and its Chinese peer Baidu Inc. In an interview with Caixin, he said Bitmain will continue to develop its AI business, but will inevitably “scale back.”
The AI business will, in the future, shift focus to developing products that can be sold on a large scale, which is a change from the previous development strategy, which involved selling a more fragmented line of products, Wang said.
Founded by Wu and Zhan in 2013, Bitmain has been the dominant player in the bitcoin boom of the past few years. At one point, it controlled an estimated 80% of the market for semiconductors used to mine cryptocurrencies. However, following the bitcoin bust in 2017, the company widened its business to include making AI chips.
Currently, Bitmain’s AI business’ clients include several well-known companies such as Baidu, as well as government agencies, including the government of Fuzhou, capital of East China’s Fujian province.
Still, Wang told Caixin that the AI department will lay off workers as part of the company’s “staff streamlining” plan, which will be carried out before the Lunar New Year holidays later this month. Bitmain currently employs 1,500 people, with more than 300 working for the AI department. Caixin has learned that planned layoffs are expected to affect half of the department’s staff.
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