Robin Li: Baidu Never Imitated Google, China Is More Open to New Technologies than US

Robin Li, member of the national committee of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Baidu CEO, said its proposals this year are still about artificial intelligence.

On the evening of March 2, Li conducted an interview regarding his proposals. This year he prepared a total of four proposals: national policy to encourage open AI platforms, government support for laws and infrastructures to develop unmanned driving, policy facilitation in Xiongan New District to attract talents, and wider tobacco control ordinance.

According to Li, in the AI era, an open platform will be highly influential. No single company can accumulate enough data, therefore, sharing data will make a larger impact. Baidu operates on open source and open platform, and hopes that the country will encourage all companies, especially large ones, to agree on open AI platforms.

Li also noted that at least 20 states in the U.S. have introduced laws and regulations on autonomous driving. In China, only Beijing and Shanghai have carried out relevant tests. The automotive industry is huge and involves many levels. Li believes that at all levels, the government can play a role in promoting autonomous driving. “The government does not need to build cars or invent autonomous driving technology. They may simply improve the infrastructure or facilitate something else to reduce difficulty of implementing autonomous driving technology,” said Li.

Robin Li was also asked more questions about the development of artificial intelligence. He answered questions regarding the advent of artificial intelligence, the comparison of AI development between China and the U.S., and the commercialization of AI.

AI has become a practical technique.

Li believes that technology has come to a tipping point. First, new AI technology is constantly developing; second, new data is constantly gathered; and third, computational power is constantly increasing. When these three aspects reaches a certain level, AI will indeed become a practical technology.

AI has been developing fast in recent years. The last few years have seen breakthroughs in speech recognition technology, image recognition technology, user persona, and personalized recommendations.

In Li’s view, AI will simplify complexities in daily life. “Today, we face traffic congestion, air pollution, lining up to buy tickets, go through security checks and authenticate identities. In my opinion, all of these all unnecessary.” He revealed that he was in talks with the Palace Museum for using AI to solve security problems.

Advantages of developing AI in China

Li said that the U.S. remains ahead of China in artificial intelligence, but China also shows three advantages.

First, data is a unique advantage for China. More than 700 million of China’s netizens speak Chinese and share Chinese culture and laws. Data produced by Chinese netizens is harmonious and unified. Valuable results can be achieved when using these data to train machine learning and build AI models.

Secondly, the Chinese government is relatively open and forward looking in terms of policies. The Chinese government is willing to allow trials and testing, even if the laws are not sound enough. The overall attitude is to encourage innovation. “For example, last year, I put unmanned vehicles on the Fifth Ring Road. The relevant departments did punish me for it, but overall speaking, the government tolerates innovation to certain degree,” Li said.

Third, China is relatively backwards in traditional industries, and thus have better acceptance of new technology than U.S. Li said, “Machine can make good predictions. The traditional industries, whether agriculture, industry, or services, are generally more open to AI. China has its own advantages in this aspect.”

AI is almost impossible to implement in the short term. AI requires large amounts of investment, and is still difficult to generate revenue from . Li agrees that the profitability of AI is indeed a problem. From larger enterprises like Baidu, to startup companies, it is almost impossible to support their research and development with the money earned in a new area in short-term.

“Baidu uses money earned in other areas to support new business. Startup companies need to rely on financing capacity. But I believe that we can make a lot of money in long term, and we should not hurry towards it. The AI market is really not that big at the moment. The reason everyone is so passionate about AI is that AI will become a big market in the future and will have a very big impact on people’s lives and in every industry.”

Never felt that Baidu imitates Google

Baidu has been previously called Google’s copycat. At the end of last year, The Time Asia cover labeled Robin Li as ‘The Innovator’.

Li said, “I never felt that I was a copycat, ever since the first day I established Baidu.”

“In fact, I went into the search engine area earlier than Google. I invented the hyperlink analysis, one of the basic inventions that decided development trends and direction of modern searching engines, earlier than Google. Technically, I do not feel we need to imitate others. We just study and analyze users to find out what the user really needs and how we can better meet those needs.”

Baidu’s main principle, says Li, is to study the market rather than imitate rivals.

Baidu has done a lot of things that Google and other companies did not do. As people find that many ideas and things originated from China, the impression of a copycat company will be slowly reversed.

“In fact, I think that in artificial intelligence, Google kind of mimics Apple in terms of having an end-to-end solution where everything from operating system to service is proprietary. The Baidu model is open source and everyone use it. Ten years ago, Google used Android to compete with iOS. Baidu today has Apollo to rival Waymo. Baidu uses open platforms to rival closed ones. Especially in the AI era, Baidu shares the original code and data with everyone. This is welcomed by all.”

This article originally appeared in the paper and was translated by Pandaily.