Dominance in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is a priority for the Chinese government over traditional western competitors such as the United States. Surprisingly, one of the large companies lining up to benefit from this effort is India’s Disney+ Hotstar, which is rapidly recruiting new AI talent from a Beijing headquarters.
“At the moment, our team consists of over 50 members, practically all of them are graduates of Tsinghua University, Peking University, Zhejiang University, and other prominent Chinese universities,” according to a Mandarin recruitment poster handed to Peking University students. The streaming service is giving young people who are ready to crunch the massive amounts of data created by Hotstar’s millions of users, the majority of whom are from India and Southeast Asia, discounted or free entrance to Disney’s theme parks and resorts.
In 2017, the Chinese government said that by 2030, the country would strive to become a “global innovation centre” in Artificial Intelligence, with $147.80 billion in revenue targets. China’s university system was quick to respond with a greater emphasis on AI courses, adding more than a half-dozen undergraduate AI courses in 2021, for example.
While China uses AI to fuel its vast surveillance apparatus, its aims also include benefiting private enterprise, which would help it gain an advantage over geopolitical competitors by becoming a destination for enterprises seeking to use big data and machine learning.
And this is where Disney enters the picture.
While Disney+ Hotstar isn’t available in China — having a streaming service there is a privilege granted to international companies only infrequently, if ever — it has showed a genuine interest in capitalising on the country’s ambitious tech goals. Investors from all sectors have come to China, as the country has outperformed expectations in various areas, particularly in technology.
Big data analytics, or the processing and interpretation of enormous volumes of data, is a critical component of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. It’s also an industry in which services like Hotstar can make a lot of money. With a portfolio that includes sports (IPL), original movies and series, a large regional film collection, and more, information on what motivates users to spend more time on the platform might be quite important to the company.
Hotstar Beijing is hiring for 45 new positions, virtually tripling its present workforce. According to the deliverables described on Disney job listings reviewed by Entrackr, Hotstar Beijing’s operations appear to cover a significant portion of the platform’s operations, ranging from business-related roles like advertising, payments, and subscriptions to more technical roles like software engineering. Many of the positions necessitate AI knowledge.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, Hotstar India paid NGC China Ltd, the former’s Beijing-based subsidiary, Rs 62.3 crore in personnel expenses, accounting for around 3.7 percent of Hotstar’s annual expenses in that fiscal year. However, the corporation does not make a big deal about its Chinese presence, with all of its tech blog entries, for example, written by developers in India. Because India lacks a data protection law, companies like Hotstar are exempt from disclosing whether or not they provide user data to foreign companies. It’s unclear whether the processing of Hotstar user data in Beijing poses any imminent dangers.
However, the company has a history of being deterred by stringent privacy regulations: since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation took effect in 2018, Hotstar has been unavailable in the region, with a message stating that it needed more time to comply with the GDPR. (However, it did start in the United Kingdom, which has its own data privacy regulation.)
Whatever the risks, Hotstar’s under-appreciated operations in Beijing serve a confluence of interests for Disney and the Chinese government: providing a relatively inexpensive talent pool for AI and machine learning roles, sifting through the massive trove of data generated by its 100 million users, and, perhaps more importantly, creating demand for China’s state-sponsored push to become an AI superpower.