Tech giants look for ways to cash on ChatGPT boom


BARCELONA, Spain — ChatGPT and artificial intelligence have infiltrated the world’s biggest event for the telecom industry, with everyone from chipmakers to mobile carriers eager to talk about their achievements and ambitions in AI-powered tech.

More than 2,000 exhibitors gathered in Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress, which kicked off on Monday, including U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm, which showed of its “edge computing” chips, and South Korea’s SK Telecom, which aims to reinvent itself as an AI company.

“Every industry whose knowledge can be digitized in terms of voice, text, video, whatever signal will be impacted by generative AI,” said Francois Candelon, global director of the Henderson Institute, a Boston Consulting Group think tank.

Qualcomm, the world’s leading mobile chip developer, gave a live demonstration of a device that can turn simple verbal descriptions into fully realized pictures in just 15 seconds. This is an example of generative AI, similar to that which powers ChatGPT.

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

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

“AI on 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 is not going to the cloud, it will be at the edge.”

One advantage of edge computing, he said, is cost. “The need to go to the cloud for every ChatGPT query is going to suck such a big amount of power, which could put a lot of stress on data centers and cost a lot of money.”

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

Telecom operators at MWC are also discussing how AI can be applied to their industry, but few are as all-in on the technology as SK Telecom, the largest telecom company in South Korea.

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

Eric Davis, vice president of SK Telecom’s General-Purpose Language Model group, is part of that 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 in order to compete, we need to transform into an AI company.”

Davis oversees the development of the company’s Korean-based large language model, similar to the GPT-3 model that ChatGPT is based on.

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

SK Telecom already launched its own AI-powered chatbot last May. Called A. (pronounced “A dot”), it is similar to ChatGPT but in Korean. The service has attracted over 1 million subscribers domestically, the company said at an MWC event.

A. is still a free service, however, and the road to commercialization is “under consideration,” Davis said.

According to Davis, the company chose to build its own ChatGPT-like service because as a telecom operator with years of experience in serving the South Korean market, SK Telecom has the knowledge and proprietary local data that companies like OpenAI don’t.

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

While other telecom companies might agree on the importance of AI, however, it is unlikely that many will pursue their own AI transformation.

“One needs to recognize the telco is still telco, and it’s still very much a hardware-oriented business,” said Adrian Baschnonga, global telecommunications lead analyst at EY.

That doesn’t mean there is no room for AI in the telecom industry. Microsoft — which kicked off the ChatGPT boom by integrating the app into its search engine — showcased a cloud-based AI management system for telecom operators to streamline network management and improve customer service.

The presentation went down well with at least one MWC attendee. “With the bold move that Microsoft has done with open AI, we are highly encouraged about the possibilities and how we can apply this into networking and automation,” said Igal Elbaz, senior vice president at AT&T. “So we’re excited and look forward to that.”