How Baidu Plans to Win the Artificial Intelligence Market

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.—Baidu, the Chinese Internet giant, is betting big on artificial intelligence.

Investors love it—the company’s shares kicked off 2017 trading at $168 and are now at an astounding $270. (And expected to keep climbing past $300.)

Why the sunny outlook? Because AI is widely seen as a market with massive potential—and Baidu, at its heart a research company, has the culture and mindset to succeed, co-founder and CEO Robin Li said at the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live conference in Laguna Beach.

“Every company has its own DNA,” said Li, one of the wealthiest people in China. “Baidu is a technology company.”

That mindset worked well in the desktop age, allowing Baidu to rise to dominance in search in its native country.

It has worked less well in the mobile age, Li said. “For mobile you need to enable people to create content for you,” he said, and the so-called walled garden approach by tech’s dominant platform companies—Apple, Google, etc.—halted Baidu’s access to it. The company faced challenges there, Li said.

But things are rapidly changing. “We have entered a new age, the age of AI, and technology is important again,” Li said. “You need the best language processing tech, the best image recognition tech, the best data analysis…we are good at that.”

Baidu invests 15% of revenue in research and development, Li said—about 10 billion renminbi, or about $1.5 billion U.S., “probably the highest among Chinese tech companies” and among the highest for global tech companies. “All of that is AI related, if you think search is an AI problem,” he said. “And it is.”

And that’s why Li is feeling positive about Baidu’s place in the AI era to come—and why investors do, too.

“We have strong technology,” he said. “Search is tech-centric and AI is very tech-centric.”

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