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Artificial intelligence

Got steak when you ordered salad? Sogou seeks to help tourists breach language barrier

Sogou, the No. 2 search engine operator in China, is applying artificial intelligence (AI) to instantly translate languages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 6:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 6:15am

Wang Xiaochuan, founder and chief executive officer of Sogou Inc., is crystal clear on what the Chinese search-engine operator should do, and more perhaps more importantly, what it should not.

A top priority on his to-do list is developing language-related products and services to solve the barrier that businesses and consumers face when communicating with others who don’t share a common language. On the “to avoid” list is what chief competitor Baidu Inc. is focusing on: autonomous driving.

“We are very focused,” Wang, 39, said in an interview in Beijing, where the company was introducing two translation devices. “We focus on languages – it’s our core, like visuals, voice and we turn them into text. We focus on picking on our projects and we are very precise [about that].”

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As the second-placed Chinese search engine in an increasingly winner-takes-all internet industry, Sogou has had to carve out a profitable and sizeable niche. Sogou sees demand for translation driven by the surge in outbound tourism from China, which the China Tourism Academy estimates will increase from 122 million travellers in 2016 to 200 million by 2020.

Sogou’s travel translator can translate spoken words even if there is background noise, and also make sense of text embedded in images, such as on menus and street signs, according to a company release. The device can translate 17 languages into Chinese and vice versa, including major European languages like French and Spanish to Asian tongues like Japanese, Korean and Hindi.

Although more than 90 per cent of Sogou’s revenues come from its search and advertising business, for many Chinese speakers, Sogou is better known for its text input software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to predict and recommend phrases using the standard pinyin romanisation for Chinese. It was China’s No. 1 language-input software in September 2017, according to iResearch.

The input method, which has been essential for typing Chinese characters among Sogou’s more than 300 million users for over a decade, has been enhanced in recent years using new technical development in AI such as voice recognition, according to Wang. The company is now trying to make a profit from the input method, he said.

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In search, Sogou, whose name means “search dog” in Chinese, is trying to deepen its collaboration with shareholder Tencent Holdings.

Sogou had about 18 per cent of the mobile search market share in China in September 2017, according to iResearch. Sogou Search is the default general search engine in Tencent’s Mobile QQ browser and qq.com. In October 2017, Tencent began testing integrating Sogou Search into its WeChat platform, which has close to a billion users worldwide.

“I think this should be one of the organisations that should be able to use AI intelligently,” said Ryan Soh, an independent emerging market equity analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, who covers Baidu and Sogou. “But besides the keyboard and access to WeChat public accounts, I am having trouble seeing how their use could be differentiated than Baidu’s.”

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As for the recent emphasis on all things AI, Wang said that Sogou has been an AI company at its core from the beginning, as search uses computing power to process a lot of data.

The Beijing-based firm counts Sohu Inc. and Tencent as major shareholders and is expected to report quarterly results on January 29, its first since listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sogou reported a net income of US$31 million for the three months ended September 30, compared with US$20.1 million a year earlier, according to its IPO prospectus. Its shares last traded at US$12.32 at the close of trading on Friday, below its issue price of US$13.