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Artificial intelligence

A Chinese search and AI giant says it could help Google make a comeback

The CEO of Sogou says his company could help Google navigate China’s regulations and censorship.
September 28, 2018

Wang Xiaochuan, CEO of China’s second largest Internet search company, Sogou, doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the prospect of Google reentering the Chinese market. If anything, he senses a business opportunity. Wang says Google might struggle to get government permission—unless it partners with a company such as his.

“If Google wants to come back to China, there could be several incentives for working together with other parties,” Wang says. “Sogou could be the one to work with the Chinese government, and Google could stand behind us.”

Eight years after abandoning the Chinese market, Google is working on an app that would reintroduce its search engine to Chinese internet users. In 2010, Google elected to stop censoring its search engine in China in protest over phishing attacks aimed at Gmail users. The search engine was then blocked by China’s “great firewall.” Other Google apps and services are available in China, however, including translation and file-sharing apps.

China has become an even more sensitive topic for tech companies of late. Representatives from Google, as well as Amazon and Apple, were called before the US Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday to answer questions about their operating in China. Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, confirmed that Google has been working on a Chinese search app but said the company was “not close” to launching it.

According to The Intercept, the app would comply with Chinese laws concerning restricted terms in search queries and would also provide data to a third-party Chinese company. The effort, reportedly known as Project Dragonfly, has sparked an internal backlash from Google employees concerned about compromising the company’s values.

Even if Google can overcome internal opposition to its plans, Wang says, it might find it difficult to persuade the Chinese government. He suggests that working with a company like Sogou would make this easier because it already has a relationship with the authorities and is sensitive to the government’s concerns. Wang also suggests that a partnership could offer a solution to the controversial issue of self-censorship.

“Sogou will be the one to deal with the government, to comply with the laws and regulations,” he says. “Then the other parts of Google’s services will be provided in China.”

When it comes to internet search, “one way would be for Sogou to operate the brand, and Google provide the technologies,” he adds. “If it considers working with Sogou, it would probably achieve better success.”

The offer might not convince those within Google who believe the company would be compromising its principles by bowing to the Chinese government. And Google might be unwilling to work so closely with another company. US companies are, however, often required to work with Chinese partners, and Google will undoubtedly have to accept government restrictions if it wants access to China’s huge internet user base and its vibrant tech scene.

The Sogou search engine was launched as part of Sohu, China’s most popular internet portal, in 2004. Wang was previously the CTO of Sohu. Sogou was then spun out as a separate company in 2014, and it floated on the New York Stock Exchange last year. The company is partly owned by Sohu as well as Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind the dominant mobile messaging app WeChat as well as numerous other online services and games.

Sogou is China’s second largest online and mobile search platform after Baidu, according to iResearch, an analytics firm. It also provides other products, including a popular software keyboard for entering Chinese characters on a Windows or Mac computer. In addition, the company provides a device that translates spoken Chinese into English and vice versa, as well as a popular smart watch aimed at children in China.

The company already has several successful collaborations. It provides the search feature within WeChat, for example. Sogou is already the default search engine for Google’s Chrome browser in China.

While most of Sogou’s revenue (around 90%) comes from search advertising, Wang says the company increasingly sees itself as an AI business. And he says the focus is advancing machine comprehension of language.

A short while before sitting down with MITTechnologyReview, Wang gave a talk to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where Sogou recently funded a new AI institute. The talk covered a range of projects involving cutting-edge machine learning. These included the use of a lip-reading system to assist with automated voice transcription. Sogou is one of several Chinese companies that provide software for automatically translating speeches and presentations in real time.

Wang also revealed a project where researchers used machine learning to capture and then synthesize a person’s voice. Another project makes it possible to realistically transfer a celebrity’s face onto one’s own in real time. Wang said this was part of a bigger effort to develop more natural computer interfaces capable of conversing and expressing in more human ways.

China promises to be an increasingly important hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. Besides accessing the country’s user base, Google’s leadership may be measuring the risk of being left behind if the next big ideas emerge in Beijing or Shenzhen. “In terms of general technology capabilities, Google is still very strong,” Wang says. “[But] in terms of Chinese search functions, the quality of Google has probably fallen behind.”

Google declined to comment on Wang’s suggestion, or on its China plans.

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