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Baidu Embraces Artificial Intelligence to Build a Better Search Engine

The Chinese giant embraces AI to compete with Google
Baidu Embraces Artificial Intelligence to Build a Better Search Engine
Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

In China, Baidu isn’t just the dominant search engine, it’s a source of national pride. In other countries, the company can’t rely on its home-field advantages—most notably the absence of Google, which pulled its servers out of mainland China in 2010 after tangling with the government over censorship. Worldwide, Google controls 49 percent of Internet advertising revenue, generating sales last year that were more than 10 times Baidu’s $5.2 billion. Baidu is available around the world, but more than 99 percent of its revenue comes from China. “Baidu’s search engine isn’t as serious as Google or even Bing,” says Guo Chenggang, an analyst for brokerage ITG. Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo says that’s “absurd on its face,” citing the company’s work on versions in Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic, and Thai. “We’re dead serious about providing the best search experience possible in every market where we operate.”

Robin Li, Baidu’s co-founder and chief executive officer, has boosted spending on research and development 85 percent, to 1.74 billion yuan ($284 million), in the second quarter from the same period a year earlier. (Despite the leap, that’s about a tenth of what Google spent on R&D in its second quarter.) In May, Li turned heads by hiring Andrew Ng, a renowned computer scientist and expert in robotics and machine learning, as Baidu’s chief scientist. Ng now oversees the company’s growing research into a subfield of artificial intelligence known as deep learning, which aims to improve search results and computing tasks by training computers to work more like the human brain. “Whoever wins artificial intelligence will win the Internet in China and around the world,” says Ng. “Baidu has the best shot to make it work.”