Baidu co-founder and CEO, Robin Li recently delivered a speech at IIT Madras for its inter-collegiate fest Shaastra 2020. The complete planning, organisation and execution of the fest, at all levels, is mostly handled by the students with the faculty only acting as an advisory body. The theme for this year was ‘Parsec to Planck’ with the impetus on the miniaturisation of technology. Every year students from IIT Madras and other colleges along with start-ups collectively put up an exhibition in order to present their ideas to the public. IIT Madras joined forces with defence technology start-ups and manufactures for this year’s installation of the fest and hosted the Defence Expo.
Baidu is a Chinese technology company, similar to Google, which aims at providing internet-related services. Unlike Google, Baidu is the largest search engine in China and provides internet-related facilities to more than 70% of the population. Though scarce, Google still finds few users on its platform but the said users only get restricted access to the internet. Baidu is in operation in China, Thailand, Egypt, Japan and hopes to add India to this list.
The topic of Robin Li’s speech was ‘Innovation in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’. He explored AI’s abilities, accomplishments and its contribution to human society. He gave the example of AI-powered facial recognition system in China by way of which more than 9,000 people, previously declared missing, have been found. He talked about AI implementation in banking which now enables people to open accounts online without the need for any physical infrastructure and at one’s leisure. He put emphasis on the AI-enabled accelerated speeds at which pharmaceutical companies are developing new medicines and vaccines and improving existing ones. He also highlighted AI’s non-human characteristics in the field of banking and education, citing that people are more at ease in their dealings with an AI bot rather than an actual person. In the field of education, he said that AI-powered bot can be made available to every student as a personal assistant. He also calls attention to AI’s role in reducing traffic in India.
The most memorable idea from his speech was the reimagination of the word ‘immortality’. He explains by saying that every aspect of a person can be stored as digital records and an AI-powered computer can duplicate the records to produce an artificial copy anytime, if necessary, capturing even the persona of an individual and storing it indefinitely in its database, hence, immortality.
When questioned on the impact of Artificial Intelligence on jobs in the future, Robin Li is of the opinion that instead of a loss, AI will replace old ones. He says, “The technology we will have by the time it gets to that, will require a different skillset and will open up more job opportunities in new fields.”
India is one of the largest and the fastest-growing market for smartphones and is also second on the list of countries who use the internet most – which accounted for 12% of the total global usage last year. Smartphone companies, internet companies and every other relevant company in-between are looking to strategically establish themselves in India to reap the benefits of the emerging consumer base. Other Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and ByteDance have had their presence in the Indian sphere with Alibaba providing its cloud-computing services to local business and companies, helping them expand internationally and ByteDance, through TicTok, has over 200 million users in India. The only offering from Baidu in India, of any significance, is its Face Emoji keyboard.
Several words, in the Chinese language, have more than one meaning where the same word can be used to mean and understand different things, which gave Baidu the edge over Google’s search engine. Baidu relies on its understanding of local Chinese language, which enables it to better optimize its search engine to the needs of local users. Google, both as business and as technology, appears to have struggled on these fronts in China. In this regard, Robin Li along with Baidu is looking to work closely with Indian institutions and companies in order to stand out. The company also hopes to recruit local talent from the Indian AI sector.
In the speech, Robin Li also mentioned how phones will be redundant in the future, by giving the example of voice-operated machinery — Amazon Echo, better known as Alexa, which does not require the same physical moderation as that of handling a smartphone. Underlining the fact that video has replaced text and images as a staple mode of communication, Robin Li said that the sensory infrastructure (touch application in smartphones) will be replaced by a voice-and-visual interface.
Robin Li and Baidu look to be preparing for a move to infiltrate the Indian internet-service related market. Since India is one of the fastest-growing smartphone consumers, Baidu may have hopes of developing a search engine for the new generation of smartphone users. Baidu’s venture into India can strictly be seen as a business move in order to tap the ‘next billion-dollar’ market.