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Following Baidu’s fourth-quarter sales forecast falling below analyst estimations, the co-founder and CEO of the Chinese search engine, Robin Li, announced a range of new artificial intelligence initiatives at the Baidu World Technology conference in Beijing last month. Announcing an “AI Boom,” at the conference, Li unveiled a partnership with Volvo to develop self-driving electric cars in China and the world’s first AI park in Beijing’s Haidian district - the park combines autonomous buses and smart walkways. In his speech, Li has shown that Baidu intends to drive growth by betting heavily on the success of artificial intelligence. He even changed the Chinese search engine’s slogan to ‘Yes, AIDo,’ to reflect the company’s focus on artificial intelligence. 

From search engine to AI innovator

Starting as a search engine in 2000, Baidu has developed into an AI powerhouse. Despite missing out on the consumer shift to mobile as compared to Tencent and Alibaba, the company is set to become the AI  market leader in China. Baidu holds a substantial amount of data and looking only at its maps offering it puts them in prime position to drive the autonomous vehicle revolution.  In fact, Baidu recently announced a partnership with Volvo to develop and commercialise driverless cars, while Ford are exploring similar conversations.

Earlier this month the company unveiled a consumer AI tool that simultaneously translates sentences almost instantly.  The system accurately moves verbs and suffixes when translating between Chinese and English. For example, Baidu’s online tool can automatically reorder the sentence so the word “meets” is in the appropriate place in the English version.

The company is also taking a global stand on AI after becoming the first Chinese company to join the US-led Partnership on AI earlier this month. The organisation unites 70+ tech companies including Google and Amazon with the aim of influencing artificial intelligence regulations and making sure that AI is applied safely and for the social good. While Baidu’s membership of the Partnership of AI is largely symbolic - as membership does not necessitate entering into any legally binding agreements - it does represent the company’s growing interest and specialism in artificial intelligence. 

The battle for AI dominance

While Baidu has joined the Partnership on AI and announced a wave of AI projects, it isn’t alone in pursuing the emerging technology. In China, for example, tech giant Alibaba recently launched an AI-based hotel in Hangzhou city that replaces staff with service robots - meaning that guests are able to check into the hotel without talking to another human being. Similarly, Chinese e-commerce platform JD.com last month established the Smart City Research Institute at its headquarters in Nanjing, aimed at facilitating the development of “smart city” construction with the use of artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain technologies.

So what should Baidu do next?

It’s clear that the Chinese Tech Giants are taking the lead with implementing AI systems, however, the competition is fierce. Baidu will have to focus on how to best use their time and money on emerging technology in order to differentiate itself and compete effectively.  While joining the Partnership on AI enables Baidu to build their reputation globally and to rub shoulders with other global tech companies, that isn’t enough to cement itself as a market leader in AI. The Chinese search engine needs to make a long-term strategy based on its recent announcements with Volvo and Ford and make even more smart investments in AI to compete and thrive on the global stage. 

Richard Brosgill is head of APAC at Forward3D.