Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Baidu Inc.'s spate of acquisitions is starting to show a trend. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are the search giant's favorite dishes these days, and the Chinese startup Raven Tech is the latest item from the menu.

Just two days after Baidu Ventures said it joined a Series B investment in 8i, a U.S. virtual/augmented reality startup, the mother company announced the purchase of Beijing-based Raven. The cost wasn't disclosed, but I'm guessing it's south of $100 million.

Raven Tech has been plugging away at voice input and natural-language processing, and integrating those technologies into practical applications. For example, you can use it to voice chat with friends about dinner plans, and Raven Tech will connect with smartphone apps to help you scout for restaurants and advise on transportation options. It also has a smarthome hub, not unlike Amazon.com's Alexa-powered Echo, matching Baidu Chairman Robin Li's belief that AI sits at the nexus of hardware and software.

Turnaround Plan
Baidu investors are starting to warm to the idea that the search-engine provider is making the right investments for future growth
Source: Bloomberg

This acquisition, and the investment in 8i, fit perfectly into Baidu's plans, which include elevating its Duer artificial intelligence technology to a more prominent position in the product roadmap. The deals also show that Baidu is aware of gaps in its lineup and is setting about filling them.

Many of these investments won't pay off, and that's OK. Sometimes you just need to throw money at the wall and see where it sticks. The outlay hasn't been too taxing for Baidu, and there's plenty of upside in keeping a finger on the pulse of technology and innovation.

What these purchases also achieve is to move Baidu's large catalog of technologies toward monetization. In January, the company showed off Little Fish, a cute robot that serves as the front end for all the AI being developed by its Duer team.

At this nascent stage of development in the AI and VR industry, what the struggling search-engine provider needs is room to try new things and, in the parlance of Silicon Valley, fail fast.

With more such acquisitions likely, Baidu may just be giving itself a chance to succeed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Paul Sillitoe at psillitoe@bloomberg.net