Microsoft Veteran Will Help Run Chinese Search Giant Baidu

  • AI specialist Qi Lu becomes Baidu’s COO and president
  • Lu will oversee Baidu’s efforts to develop AI technologies

Qi Lu.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Baidu Inc. has appointed former Microsoft Corp. executive Qi Lu its group president and chief operating officer, granting the software industry veteran oversight over all aspects of the Chinese search giant’s business from sales to technology development.

Lu, an architect of Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella’s strategy for artificial intelligence and bots at Microsoft, will take up his new post with immediate effect, Baidu said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. Every Baidu business unit head will report to Lu, a respected technologist who ran the Office and search groups during his tenure at Microsoft.

Lu now shoulders responsibility for steering Baidu toward its next phase of growth. China’s largest search engine and its billionaire founder, Robin Li, is seeking to refocus on enhancing search with AI and other technologies, as rivals such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. muscle in on its internet-advertising business. 

“Any time you have stronger depth in the management team, that has to be a good thing,” said Kirk Boodry, an analyst at New Street Research. “Maybe this allows Robin to take more of a chairman role and focus more on the technology, focus more on the strategy for the company going forward.”

Lu’s tenure at Microsoft overlapped with that of Steve Ballmer, whose stewardship of the company has been criticized for missing some of the biggest trends in technology, including social media and mobile. Its Bing search engine, which Lu helped develop, never managed to make much headway against Google’s. The executive departed the U.S. software company last year for health reasons.

Baidu itself is coming off a turbulent year, when a scandal involving online medical ads prompted tighter government restrictions that constricted its ad business, while an attempt to sell off video-streaming unit iQiyi to a consortium led by Li collapsed after investor protests.

Li has now flagged AI as the next key profit driver for the business. Lu, who holds more than 40 U.S. patents, joins as Baidu focuses on research into advanced technologies such as AI and autonomous cars. The company considers AI development fundamental to its future, but it could be looking at a very long-term horizon.

“To achieve our goals, especially in artificial intelligence, which is a key strategic focus for the next decade, we will need to continue attracting the best global talent,” Li said in Tuesday’s statement. “With Dr. Lu on board, we are confident that our strategy will be executed smoothly and Baidu will become a world-class technology company and global leader in AI.”

By working with speaker-maker Harman International Industries Inc., Baidu wants to create a smart device that, like Amazon’s Echo, can understand spoken commands and order food or summon cars. The Chinese search giant is also trying to exert its own influence on the rapidly deepening field. It released its “PaddlePaddle” software on GitHub, letting AI enthusiasts freely make use of the development tools. The move resembles Google’s release of TensorFlow in an attempt to set the standard on AI programming.

— With assistance by David Ramli

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