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MIT Technology Review

Baidu’s Plan for Artificial Intelligence without Andrew Ng

The Chinese search giant lost the star leader of its AI lab last week, but the technology remains an essential long-term focus.

March 30, 2017

When Andrew Ng, one of the world’s leading thinkers on artificial intelligence, announced he would be stepping down from his position as chief scientist at Chinese search giant Baidu, the company’s stock dropped nearly 3 percent in just a few hours.

It was a reflection not only of Ng’s prominence and fame, but also of the importance investors have placed on the search giant’s focus on AI. The technology has become a key element of the company’s strategy, and Ng’s departure comes at a time when Baidu is determined to double down on its AI efforts.

Baidu has quickly reaffirmed its commitment to AI, naming Wang Haifeng, an expert in natural-language processing, as Ng’s replacement.

CEO Robin Li has recently written numerous opinion pieces in Chinese newspapers about the importance of developing AI expertise. “The disruption in traditional business models, industrial chain, and value chain brought about by artificial intelligence will cause fundamental changes in the global economy,” Li wrote in People’s Daily, a government flagship newspaper, in early March.

And also in March, China’s National Development and Reform Commission approved Baidu as the leader of the new National Engineering Lab of Deep Learning Technology and Application, reflecting China’s top-level government dedication to AI development.

In the lab, Baidu will collaborate with top Chinese universities including Tsinghua, exploring a variety of different areas of AI research including visual perception, speech recognition, and human-machine interaction.

Shengjin Wang, a professor at Tsinghua University who studies computer vision and image recognition, and who also contributes to the research done at the national lab, says Baidu has been a leading player in AI, and there is reason to believe that it will be able to maintain its lead.

“Personally I think it’s a pity,” Wang says about Ng’s departure. But he stresses that Ng has built a very solid AI team with over 1,300 researchers at Baidu already, giving the company an advantage in human resources. Baidu also has a competitive edge because of the large amounts of data it has collected from its search engine business, he says. Additionally, he thinks the newly formed Intelligent Driving Group, which focuses on automated driving research, shows the company is heading in a good direction.

He predicts Baidu will be able to adjust its AI resources and strategy after Ng’s departure.

Some of that adjustment is already under way. A couple of days ago, Baidu launched its first overseas campus recruitment campaign, seeking AI talent for its Beijing headquarters in top American universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Columbia. A Baidu spokesperson says the company particularly hopes to attract Chinese students in American universities.

Wang says that China can provide an interesting challenge for young researchers with its cities’ difficult-to-navigate road conditions and many different dialects, forcing Chinese AI researchers to find innovative ways to produce useful applications.

Ng himself praised Baidu’s deep bench in AI in his departing blog post. He included Lu Qi, an AI expert from Microsoft whom Baidu brought in as chief operating officer earlier this year. 

But outside of Baidu, some see Ng’s departure as proof of a systemic problem at the company, one more example of its inability to hold on to important talent. Tong Zhang, who formerly led Baidu’s Big Data Lab, recently joined Tencent, a Baidu competitor, to oversee its AI research. Another senior manager, Jin Wang, who used to head the company’s automated driving unit, has announced that he would resign and start his own company. Last year, a key researcher at Baidu’s human-computer interaction team, Jiawei Gu, left the company as well.

While the company’s AI Group has had successes with face-recognition technology and AI-powered lending, Baidu’s other attempts at broadening its business beyond search have largely fallen short. Its share of search ad revenue has dropped in recent years, and as it faces new competitors like Toutiao, which uses AI to aggregate news stories, the company really needs its bet on artificial intelligence to pay off.