Inside Baidu’s Bid to Lead the AI Revolution
Presumably, Robin Li wanted attention last summer when he decided to launch Baidu’s bid for the future of self-driving cars from the front seat of a car that was driving itself. He wanted to draw attention to Apollo, the company’s new set of artificial intelligence-driven tools, which Li hopes will come to power vehicles everywhere. Having launched China’s dominant search engine, Li is a celebrity in his home country. But even Li didn’t anticipate the amount of attention he would get. Automated motoring is still very much forbidden in China, and Li was livestreaming a video that showed him breaking the law. That’s how he became the subject of his own viral video. “I didn’t realize it would catch a lot of attention because it’s not really allowed to have a self-driving car,” he says now.
He can laugh about this now, three months after the fact, as we review the experience from top floor of Baidu’s old headquarters, a seven-floor building in Beijing’s Haidian District. A newer, larger building, complete with a two-story slide in the lobby and a conference room shaped like a bear claw, is just a 15-minute drive away—neighbors, by Beijing standards. In both, employee identification badges have been replaced by facial recognition technology. Order a green tea from the vending machine, and you can pay for it by looking at a camera. These futuristic campuses offer a glimpse at the scope of the computing power the company has amassed.
I traveled to Beijing to chronicle this tenuous moment in Baidu’s history. At 18 years old, Baidu has built the country’s dominant search engine, a business substantial enough to make it one of the most important tech companies in all of China. And yet: It’s hard to be a Chinese search company in 2017, when Chinese people increasingly navigate the web through apps, not via a browser. As WeChat and Alibaba deftly transformed their companies to suit mobile, Baidu missed this shift. It has been struggling to catch up ever since. To ascend to future dominance, Baidu needs to find a new way to grow—and fast. Fortunately, the world has provided Li with just such an opportunity: “the era of artificial intelligence,” he tells me. Li is betting Baidu’s future on the promise that he can own the future of artificial intelligence, in Asia and beyond.
So far, North American companies have been earlier to invest in AI, and first to introduce both the new technologies and the resulting products. Many of AI’s most forward-thinking researchers are in Silicon Valley or Canada. The large US tech companies were first with everything from the technologies that will enable self-driving cars to smart speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo.
But Li has reasons for thinking that there are advantages for a company trying to stake claim to AI in Asia—even as an underdog. It’s still not clear how artificial intelligence will reshape our lives, but it is clear that the change is coming. And those best positioned to deliver that change—and reap the spoils it will inevitably introduce—are those that master and advance the underlying technology. That’s where Baidu is competitive. Like America’s Big Five, Baidu has substantial computing brawn, a suite of AI-powered services called Baidu Brain, and a fast-improving voice assistant platform called DuerOS. “We are one of the few companies who have the capability to develop this type of technology,” says Li.
Baidu’s biggest advantage is one of place and time. Li is introducing his strategy within a culture that has few ethical hang-ups around AI development. In the West, where people are concerned about the biases with which we program our algorithms and the speed at which they’ll disrupt traditional career paths, new technology emerges more slowly. In China, it’s the reverse: There’s public pressure for companies to move as fast as possible. In July, the Chinese government issued a development plan that aims to make it the world leader in AI by 2030. Then there’s the raw fuel that powers the algorithms: data. There are close to 731 million people online in China, well more than double the number of connected Americans. When those millions search and watch videos and make payments, they leave a digital trail of information powerful enough to make any AI researcher salivate.
All of this means that China is poised to be a hotbed of AI development in the near future. Li believes he’s setting Baidu on course to own this next revolution—one that, in turn, will vault Baidu to its rightful place in the stratosphere. Soon, Li intones, his company will deliver the AI technology that infuses everything and every system—from medicine to entertainment to cars—with intelligence. “In human history, humans invented tools, and then had to learn how to use them,” Li tells me. “In the future, devices will need to learn human.”
It’s a revolution that Li can’t afford to blunder. After all, he missed the last one.
In China, people often talk about the singular controlling power of the BAT: the three companies that control the technology industry. Along with Alibaba and Tencent, they’re talking about Baidu. Li launched the company after a tour in the United States. He’d gotten his masters in computer science from the University of New York at Buffalo, and he spent two years as a staff engineer at Infoseek. Upon his return, he and cofounder Eric Xu built Baidu into the biggest search engine in China, and took the company public in 2005....MUCH MORE