China’s dominant search company, Baidu, wowed tech heads this June as chief scientist of the company, Andrew Ng talked to around 200 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and tech workers about his plans to advance deep learning. This is a new approach to using artificial intelligence based on the way the brain works. Ng has been selected to head the company’s research organization, and he plans to hire 70 artificial intelligence researchers and computer system engineers to work in a new $300 million lab.
The internet in China is a big deal. There are 632 million Chinese citizens online, and the top 20 Chinese internet companies have a combined worth of around $340 billion. Baidu is hoping to be able to expand their services, not just to the Chinese but globally as well, where the internet may still be new for a lot of people. Ng’s mission is to change the world with artificial intelligence and focus on projects that will significantly change the lives of at least 100 million people.
This is not the first time Ng has been involved in a deep learning project. He was also deeply involved in Google X’s Project, Google Brain, which was designed to test and explore the realms of deep learning. Now, he wants to build a new generation of these systems at Baidu, including a personal assistant that will make Siri look primitive. The company has even begun working on self-driving cars. But, for the moment, the company’s main focus has to stay on creating software that can learn on its own if it is to compete with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
Software that is smart enough to understand images, text and sound could transform our lives. It could be applied to enable users to successfully dictate a text in a noisy environment or e-mail apps that could learn from your interactions with others and start answering simple messages on your behalf. But first, Baidu’s Silicon Valley lab will concentrate on testing deep-learning software. Last year the team made a breakthrough in building a neural network that roughly the equivalent of the Google Brain system, but was done for a 50th of the cost, so they are confident good things are still to come.
Baidu has a massive complex for its staff at its headquarters in Beijing that features a free gym, sleeping pods and a free cafeteria, not unlike that of Facebook’s Menlo Park development. The history of Baidu tells of the company starting in 2000 and being co-founded by CEO Robin Li and biotech salesperson Eric Xu. Since then, it has received a $5 million investment from Google in 2004, who later tried to buy the company for $1.6 billion and since they went public in August 2005 shares went up 354 percent the first-day trading.
Another great product of Baidu is its translation app that can identify an object in a photo and name it in either text or speech within seconds. Their mobile search app works similarly by deciphering what is in a photo and finding images that are similar. Yu often demonstrates at conferences how this particular feature is much better through Baidu than Google by showing what happens when Google looks for a similar photo of a dog with a bow on its head. Google returns mostly pictures of scantily clad women.
November 2012 saw the company begin to use deep learning technologies for the first time in voice search. This made reading foreign menus a whole lot easier! Another creative system of theirs learns which particular qualities of an ad make people click on it more often, then carefully selects ads based on the findings, and then shows them at the most lucrative moments. The rapid shift from Internet usage to mobile devices has been apparent in China in particular where many people’s first experience of the web is through the use of a smartphone.
Baidu is hopeful that they can reach some of the 5 billion people on the planet that are not yet connected to the internet and are unaware of the computer technology that is around today. It is likely they will begin with mobile devices as is an attractive product for newbies to the field. A search engine has just been launched in Brazil tagged by Baidu as they seek to reach markets further afield than China, which is one of the company’s main issues. But, for all the benefits Baidu has to offer I’m sure it can cope with a couple of minor problems, and everyone around the globe will soon be hearing a lot more of them.
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