Baidu president calls AI the ‘single most transformative force of our time’

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Baidu President speaks at the GeekWire Summit Welcome Party at the Living Computers: Museum + Labs (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Baidu is known primarily as a search giant in China, but the company, which just opened an office in the Seattle area, is putting its full weight behind artificial intelligence and its ability to change countless industries.

“AI is the single most transformative force of our time; it is changing everything we do,” Baidu President Ya-Qin Zhang said in an interview at the opening party of the 2017 GeekWire Summit at Living Computers: Museum + Labs. The two-day event kicks off tomorrow with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, and other featured speakers include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Toni Reid, vice president of Amazon Alexa and Echo Devices.

Baidu’s AI push, along with a desire to invest deeper in the public cloud, led the company to establish a beachhead in Bellevue, Wash. Baidu is starting with a small team that includes the leaders of Kitt.ai, the Seattle-based artificial intelligence startup it acquired earlier this year. Baidu’s current space has room for as many as 40 people in the first year, depending on how quickly it’s able to recruit top engineers.

Eventually, Baidu could grow to as many as “a couple hundred” people in the region, said Zhang, who oversees the company’s U.S. operations, and led Microsoft’s China R&D initiatives before joining Baidu.

Zhang shared his vision for how AI will affect pretty much anything we can think of, including Baidu’s core business of search. Today, most search is done via keywords through smartphones and computers, but in the future, voice and image recognition will become a bigger piece of the pie with most searches performed through Internet of Things devices, Zhang said. AI will make it easier for companies to tailor information to the consumer.

“Today, we look for information,” Zhang said. “In the future, information will look for us.”

Baidu is backing up its grand visions for AI with more than 2,000 people in its artificial intelligence group, researching concepts like computer vision, speech recognition, deep learning and natural language understanding. Zhang says AI needs an open operating system, and that’s what Baidu is working to build.

Of all the potential breakthroughs associated with AI, Zhang thinks autonomous cars are the closest to reality. Last month, the company teamed up with Microsoft for the $1.5 billion “Apollo Fund” to invest in autonomous driving projects over the next three years.

Baidu’s share price has risen more than 50 percent this year amid the new focus on AI. Analysts say it’s critical for the company to find new areas for growth beyond its core search and online marketing businesses. Other initiatives from Baidu include its iQiyi video service, the largest in China, which also continues to grow.

Inside Baidu’s new office in Bellevue, Wash. (Baidu Photo)

Traded on the Nasdaq at a market value of more than $85 billion, Baidu is one in a triumvirate of Chinese tech giants that have been growing their clout globally, the group known as “BAT,” along with Alibaba and Tencent.

Interestingly enough, Alibaba’s Seattle-area office is just down the road from Baidu. And Baidu is in the same building as another Chinese tech giant, Huawei. Tencent earlier this year established an office in Seattle.

Zhang said the Seattle area is a great place to build out a top-notch AI operation. He said Amazon and Microsoft are quality anchors and true believers in the power of AI. In addition, the area has a strong roster of AI startups. Zhang said his company plans to acquire more Seattle-area companies to bolster its new office but didn’t go into detail.

Working in both the U.S. and China, Zhang has a unique insight into how technology has evolved in the two nations. For years, the U.S. was the standard, and China primarily followed American innovations. But as mobile technology has become the dominant building block, China has excelled in areas like mobile pay.

Though often positioned as rivals, Zhang sees the future of technology as one of the U.S. and China working together on major tech breakthroughs.

“Now we enter into a new era of AI, and I think China could lead in technology, R&D, together with the U.S.,” Zhang said. “I have a vision to see China and the U.S. become the twin engines of innovation in the next 10 years.”

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