Grab to Spend $150 Million on AI to Build Regional Super App

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(Bloomberg) -- Southeast Asian ride-hailing startup Grab Holdings Inc. intends to invest $150 million in artificial intelligence and hiring more engineers over the next year, accelerating an expanding business that now includes food delivery, digital payments and digital content.

Grab, in hot competition with local rival Gojek to become Southeast Asia’s do-it-all super app, outlined for the first time a blueprint for its use and deployment of AI. It will build on the $100 million it has previously invested in the technology, said co-founder Tan Hooi Ling, and improve its fraud prevention and natural language processing (NLP) tech.

The company believes AI will help it better targets users across Southeast Asia, a region of disparate consumer and ethnic cultures. It credits localization for helping grow transactions on GrabFood, its food delivery platform, three-fold in Southeast Asia in the first six months. The startup doubled delivery volumes over the same period.

“We want to go from AI-powered to AI everywhere,” Tan said in an interview with Bloomberg TV at the Sooner Than You Think tech conference in Singapore.

She sees successful technology companies building “great platforms that are very localized to the problem they’re trying to solve,” and in Grab’s particular sphere, “localized languages in Southeast Asia are very underserved.” So Grab is working with Microsoft Corp. on delivering better NLP and making the region’s leader in ride hailing, food delivery, and digital payments even more tailored and accessible to users in the various markets.

Technology companies like Grab are preparing as blazing-fast fifth-generation networks spread, powering complex AI applications and catalyzing the emergence of futuristic technologies like self-driven cars. But Grab, according to Tan, is focused on its customers and their most immediate needs. “We won’t just build AI for the sake of AI,” she said.

Grab, which is raising more than $4.5 billion in its latest funding round from heavy hitters including SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund, is hiring thousands of people and setting up research centers from Beijing to Seattle. Grab currently has 2,000 engineers globally, including 300 people working on AI-related areas, Tan said.

At the heart of the company’s global effort is an ambition to create an all-in-one “super app” akin to Tencent’s WeChat for China. The company’s GrabPay service already allows consumers to pick up the tab for rides and order food, and it’s expanding into lending and insurance. In 2018, it debuted a financial technology platform and launched Grab Ventures to fund promising startups. The company is also said to be considering applying for a digital banking license if Singapore allows it.

Tan concluded by saying that Grab, which is valued at about $14 billion according to CB Insights, is “very much on track” to match or even slightly exceed forecasts of $2 billion in revenue for the year.

(A previous version of the story was corrected to remove reference to Tencent as a backer)

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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