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China's Baidu bets its future on AI

CHINA'S leading search engine Baidu is investing time and money into artificial intelligence (AI), an area it considers central to its business growth, a company executive said.

Zhang Yaqin, president of Baidu, told Xinhua on the sidelines of the third World Internet Conference (WIC) that the NASDAQ-listed firm invests more than 15 percent of its revenue into research and development every year, much of it related to AI.

Baidu launched its venture capital arm, Baidu Venture, in September to back AI and other next-generation technology projects, such as augmented reality and virtual reality.

China has 700 million Internet users, 93 percent of whom use mobile phones to go online. Half of all smartphone users have downloaded Baidu Map, and many use the Baidu mobile search app. The company also provides services like food delivery and bill payment.

Zhang said the large number of mobile Internet users enables the company to experiment with Internet of Things (IoT) and AI applications.

He said the huge amount of data generated by people using e-commerce platforms, search engines, and social apps has not yet been fully utilized.

"With big data and super computing power, AI is the next step,"  said Zhang. "It is time for AI to be mainstream."

Globally, the race to develop AI has started. AlphaGo's victories against legendary Go player Lee Se-dol marked a major milestone in 2016.

Compared to its foreign counterparts, Baidu was late to the game, but that has not stopped it from making waves.

Its deep learning AI system Baidu Brain was selected by this year's WIC as one of 15 emerging technologies to watch.

The system uses three core functions -- AI algorithms, super computing power, and big data -- to simulate the human brain and is the nerve center of Baidu's autonomous car, facial and voice recognition, and robots.

Baidu debuted a fleet of 15 autonomous vehicles at the WIC and invited the public to test drive them. The technology is still in the development stage, so the cars cannot be driven on roads they have not been programmed to navigate, yet.

"AI cannot do everything, but it will certainly free people from repetitive jobs. This is why we've spent so much time and effort on it,"  said Zhang. "Our ultimate goal is to let people do creative and more interesting things."



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