Chinese search engine company Baidu announced their autonomous car software will be free for download, with the aim to collect data and attract more users to their open-source AI platform. The announcement was made on July 5 during their “Baidu AI Developers Conference” (Baidu Create 2017).
Baidu Founder Robin Li had made quite a stir when he arrived at the conference venue in a driverless car. Not only did this attract the attention of the media, it also caught the eye of the Beijing Traffic Police Department, which is now conducting an investigation. The AI technology behind this car is from the “Apollo Plan”, which will provide the automotive industry and partners of the autonomous car field an open, complete, and secure software platform.
This will help combine vehicles with hardware systems, allowing manufacturers and partners to quickly build a complete self-driving car system. The Apollo self-driving software will be available for free to any company (including its competitors) and this can be tailor-made to develop their own driverless cars.
At the conference, a Silicon Valley developer showed a video demonstrating how he spent three days transforming a traditional car into a driverless car. Aside from Apollo, Baidu also showcased “DuerOS”, an open-platform, voice-activated personal assistant, “Baidu Brain”, a core AI technology, as well as the integration of cloud computing with big data.
Baidu also announced the acquisition of Seattle AI company KITT.AI for its speech ability and natural language processing, which will also be made open to Baidu partners for free. Baidu unveiled their open AI ecosystem strategy for the first time in front of 5,000 developers and ecosystem partners at the conference.
In the Baidu AI ecosystem, the DuerOS has already been integrated with more than a hundred home appliances and established partnerships with microchip and internet service providers. It will also be able to access a large number of third party resources and content, like music, audio books, news, entertainment etc.
The Apollo platform has already partnered with more than 50 big name car and automobile parts manufacturers like Chery, FAW, Chang’An and Bosch. Baidu’s other AI tools — the Baidu Brain and Baidu Intelligent Cloud — will soon develop tools for fields in finance, education, medicine, travel, and other industries. Meanwhile, the company also released 60 core features of their AI system, with 14 new abilities announced at the conference.
Lu Qi, Baidu’s President, gave a detailed explanation of the Apollo program at the conference. Lu, who was previously a Global Executive VP at Microsoft, joined Baidu in January and is viewed as a top expert in the AI field by his Silicon Valley colleagues. Lu said Apollo will quickly offer more and more feature, with weekly updates and new versions every two months.
Apollo will gradually open up their cloud service platform, including their open software, hardware consulting, and its vehicle consulting platform. With all these modules added together, developers will be able to use Apollo’s platform to rapidly assemble their own intelligent driving vehicles.
The development plans for the Apollo platforms were also announced at the conference. In July, Baidu will complete closed track testing with driverless cars, with plans to push out autonomous driving on simple urban routes by the end of the year. The goal is to put driverless cars on highways and urban roads by 2020.
In recent years, Baidu has been lagging behind its tech giant rivals Alibaba and Tencent, with losses in revenue from its core business of search engine technology and online advertising services. Analysts point to Baidu’s pivot to AI as an opportunity to return to the top. During his speech, Robin Li said Baidu devoted 15% of its revenue towards research and development annually for the past five to six years, with more than 10 billion RMB each year in the last two years.
Today, Baidu employs more than 2, 000 researchers and possesses more than 2,000 patents related to AI. Baidu’s foray into AI have not been all going smoothly. During the first half of this year, the general manager of Baidu’s autonomous driving business and former chief scientist Wang Jin and AI rep Wu EnDa both quit their positions.